Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sometimes You Can't Feel the Same Way About E-Books as a Real Book

As I sit here surrounded by books, working and writing, I can't help but think back just a couple years ago, when I started amassing e-books. I purchased both a Kindle and a Nook reader, set up a Google Books account too. I was converted: I moved my reading into the 21st century. Now? I have become a backslider, as evidenced by this photo. Why have I fallen from the faithful? It's really not very complicated at all.

When I started my doctoral degree, I tried to purchase e-books as much as possible, often from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Books, and iBooks, mainly because some titles were not always available as an e-book from one of the publishers. There were even quite a number of books not available as e-books at all. It was toward the middle of the program that I discovered that there just wasn't a way to replace being able to hold the book in my hand, take a pencil and underline and then write notes in the margins. All of the e-books readers offer the ability to highlight and make notes, but being able to do this in pencil just seemed to help me wrestle with the texts, and those who have worked on doctoral degrees know that there is a great deal of "text-wrestling" to be done. I could thumb back through the pages I marked up to quickly retrieve a note or an idea that I had during my original reading.

Still, I am not sure I have a totally rational reason for my almost-complete move back to e-books unless it as the current state of my study shows: I can stack the books around and see simultaneously, in one glance, where I've textually been and where I am going.

A few years ago I heard the chatter that physical books were going the way of 8-tracks, cassette tapes and vinyl records, but here it is about four or five years later, and the total demise of physical books has not yet occurred. What has occurred is the blunting of my enthusiasm for e-books. Sure, I still purchase them, especially if it's a title I would like to see immediately, but many times I have elected to the physical book instead. I even find myself thumbing through the new titles on Amazon's website to see if there are books I might want to pick up at the local bookstore. It turns out the failure of e-books to eradicate physical books wasn't enough,  and it seems that vinyl records, 8-Tracks, and cassette tapes are coming back as well, though I have yet to long for those yet.

I've heard and keep hearing all these predictions about how this technology is going to revolutionize this industry, and how this device is going to make some old standard way of doings things obsolete, but it just doesn't seem to be happening with the same level of frequency anymore. In my case, I literally enjoy the comfort of being surrounded by books that I am reading. That's just not something they've figured out how to get out of Kindle app yet.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Be Wary of Products Claiming to Be ‘Research-Based’

I receive countless emails during a given week from vendors of software, textbooks, and other instructional materials. A number of these throw the term “research-based” around like a badge of validation. The truth is, I can’t help but be skeptical.
"Products claiming to be ‘research-based’ throw around that label like a badge of validation."
Recently, a vender sent me an email for some redial reading software and in that email was the claim to be “research-based.” I emailed the sales person and asked them to send me copies of the research studies that validate their product. The email I received was links to simple generic titles of studies that indirectly validate the “supposed methods” and psychological principles on which their product is based. There was not a single study that actually “validated” their specific product. That hardly, in my opinion, gives them validation as a “research-based” effective product.
"Having a product that claims to be ‘based’ on research-based principles of learning is not the same has having a product that is validated by research."
If we were operating in a more skeptical world, when we ask for “research” that a vendor claims validates their product, I honestly think we should ask for specific independent studies that examine their product.Being “based” on research-based principles does not validate that specific product.
"Being ‘based’ on research-based or scientific educational principles does not validate the product."
I realize that is a very high hurdle for edupreneurs and educational product developers to traverse, but if you’re going to say that your product is “research-based,” you have an obligation to prove that your specific product is just that. Otherwise, your language should simply say that your product is based on research-based learning principles, and then provide documentation for those principles.
"If a company claims their product is 'research-based,’ then that company is obligated to provide those validating studies."
We as educators should not be naive and be willing to ask the tough questions when salespersons call. Just because the product was developed by an educator, or is being sold by an administrator you knew a long time ago, does not mean that we accept their word either. We owe it to our stakeholders and our students to make sure our limited funds aren’t wasted on bogus educational materials or products.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The End of Ed-Tech Evangelism: Using Your Critical Faculties to Question Tech Obsession

One of the identifying characteristics of my blog, this blog, has been that it "advocates for the use of technology." Since the very first post here, I've often joined the educator chorus of singing the praises of "technology in education." Now, a few years later, I am beginning to wonder, in the spirit of Nicholas Carr, that perhaps I've been more "evangelist" than educator when it comes to "advocating for technology." I've been "spreading the gospel of technology use in the classroom and in my role as principal" for several years now, and I've come to some certain "Carrisian" (if I may invent a new word) realizations about technology myself which can be summed up thus: Technology is no panacea; it doth not an effective educator make.

Before the virtual spitballs start flying in my direction, let me explain myself a bit further. Being a "Tech Evangelist" gets it all wrong. There is "no gospel of ed technology." There's nothing to convert people to, and there's no salvation to be found in outfitting out classrooms with gadgets galore. Placing 30 laptops in a room does not necessarily transform that room into the new center of learning in Western Civilization. Why? It's simply this: the greatest feats of learning are not always found on the screens of our smartphones and tablet screens. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves, that "tech is better," sometimes a pad of paper and our favorite fountain pen is a much better way to engage our thoughts and the world.

Educators, I'm afraid, have been "spreading a utopian view of technology," as Nicholas Carr calls this technoevangelicalism, for some time now. I've engaged in that myself. I've been guilty of viewing any educational progress as "essentially technological." And, this means, I've been a part of the problem of "legitimizing" all these edupreneurs and opportunists who bombard my email inbox every day with promises of sure entrance into the "academic achievement promise land" if I will only purchase their products. Educational technology is the land of opportunity for many; including those who peddle snake oil and latest elixirs that cure every ailment in our schools. By being uncritical and faithful to the ed tech creeds, I am just as guilty as anyone of enabling that "commercial culture" that puts the profits of self and others ahead of what is sometimes best for the students in my building. No more.

If anything, ed technology needs it's own version of "Food and Drug Administration" that forces these edpreneurs and technoevangelists promoting their wares to provide solid evidence of their claims. Educators are a trusting lot. They want so much to believe that the nice gentlemen plugging his software program or tech device, or any other educational ware, really wants what they want: what's best for kids. But, while that may be true, understand that he is out to sell a product, not take care of your students.

We have the greatest "FDA" faculty in our heads as educators. We talk about critical thinking and independent thinking, then we need to exercise it when it comes to any educational product or technology. Anyone can claim their product is "research-based" and the best thing to happen to education since chalkboards. Yet, we are ultimately responsible for using this critical faculty to ask the tough questions of anyone promoting a product or even idea. We owe it to our own integrity and most of all to the kids we face each and every day.

By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they've encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests" Nicholas Carr, Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Career Caught in the Swirl of Ed Reform: What I’ve Discovered

My entire career as an educator, all 27 years, has been spent in the perpetual swirl of “reform” that enveloped education when I first set foot into the classroom. It was in the cusp of the “Era of Accountability” that I began teaching, and the clarion calls for site-based management, uniform standards, and testing were just beginning to resound. Soon to follow was the Total Quality Classroom movement, multiple intelligence theory, and right-left brain theory, critical thinking teaching, thinking maps, and whole host of other initiatives. There has been no shortage on theory during my career as an educator that’s for sure, and during my entire career, we’ve been reforming education, then reforming our reform in an unending pursuit of a “magical land” where schools succeed, except that there’s been one major problem: we’ve never arrived.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic in this reflection; in fact, I’m not really that way at all. I am nostalgic in one sense, because there has always been that anticipation of the next great idea that comes around the bend, and the promise that all our educational ills will finally be resolved. Those who’ve promoted this atmosphere of perpetual reform, have, after all, succeeded even if our schools may not really be any better off. It’s those who’ve capitalized on these reforms by promoting products, professional development, computer programs and websites, and new techniques and strategies who have earned a bundle. The promise of their being one single way to resolve the educational puzzle has led many to search high and low, and our market-based approach to these products has not disappointed, at least for those who’ve made the money.

Still, I’ve come to a cold, hard conclusion that is, in fact, very liberating. It is simply this: There is no magical theory out there or discovery that will allow us to suddenly be able educate like we’ve never done before. There is no one best way to teach, and as we already know, there is no one best way to learn. Despite all these infernal emails I get that promise to "raise my students’ ACT scores or SAT scores to exorbitant heights," in the end their promises are more marketing than reality, and in many cases, downright deceptive. Education has become a money making enterprise like everything else, with “experts” arising from all corners of the field with their version of the “final solution to all our education problems.”

My liberating conclusion that all of these are mostly empty promises frees me to view education as the difficult work it is with problems that do not, nor ever will have singular solutions.

Reform has become such a cliche now, every time I hear a politician say the word, I want to flee in panic, or hit him with a rotten tomato. It just won’t happen. Perhaps real “reform” will begin and end with ourselves rather than continuing the fruitless quest for magic. Real reform begins with the liberating thought: “There are no easy answers or solutions to discover about our educational system. There’s only hard work to be done."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why Pursue a Doctoral Degree? You Might Be Changed By It!

I think it is fairly obvious that I haven't posted anything here in some time. Some have probably thought I dropped off this earth, and there are perhaps those, because of my sometimes irritatingly political posts, who hoped that such had happened. The truth is, so much of my time is consumed with working on my dissertation that blogging has taken backseat. The constant reading, writing, and journaling takes just about every spare moment I have, and when there is a moment I am not working in my role as principal of a small high school, and working on this infernal degree, I am sometimes too tired to even look at a computer screen. In spite of all these travails though, I would gladly engage in this pursuit of a doctoral degree and would encourage others to do so too. Here's why.

This scholarly endeavor has changed me in dramatic ways. I don't look at education, my job, or even leadership in the same way any more. I now find myself entangled with the Postmodernists, Poststructuralists, and Deconstructionists. Now, I won't subject anyone to any attempt to explain those terms. If you're an English teacher, you probably encountered these schools of thought (if that is what they are) in your literary criticism classes as I did. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to them then. But what's different for me now, is that here toward the latter years of my career as an educator, the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze once again haunt both my work, my thoughts, and even my writing. They have unsettled everything I once believed to be "education science."

Once again, I won't subject you to a biography or description of the contributions of these individuals to literary or cultural studies; I simply say that these Postmodernists-Poststructuralists-Deconstructionists have  disturbed me as a practicing educator and educational leader. How can that be? Through them, I've learned that I don't really know as much as I thought I did, and many of those things I took for granted as "truth" are not the truth. Even my daily actions and thoughts about what it means to be an "effective educator" is not as simple as it once was. The intellectual challenge that these thinkers have wrought has made me more inquisitive, and even more skeptical it that was possible, of this thing we call education and all the "science" in which we wrap it.

In effect, I've actually come home, because in these thinkers, I've found the permission and means to continue to be skeptical, which I've always been when it comes to those promising "educational elixirs" and promises of quick cures. It's as if I've been given free reign to question and examine relentlessly all these things about education that we take for granted and take as a given. As the intellectual leader of my school, I have come to understand that "experts" in education are sometimes better at selling their wares than actually improving our field, but that is another blog post altogether.

All these years I've talked about leadership practices, teaching practices, and practices of engaging in using technology. Now, due to my explorations and doctoral readings and studies, I walk around each day on my job with each of these enclosed in quotation marks. In fact, every time I hear another educator or education consultant use the word "research-based," I see the quotation marks there too. Why is that? It is because these postmodernists-poststructuralists-deconstructionists have disturbed what I took for granted as the boundaries of our field of education. My dissertation experience has fostered a new habit of mind that demands that I be both inquisitive and question relentlessly.

Some would see no practical value in being this way. I disagree. This "ethos of critique" I live in now has freed me to think even more outside the box than ever. If we want to innovate and be creative, we have to suspend the rules and think in ways that are out of bounds. Besides, who was it that got to decide what is "out-of-bounds?" There's a long list of individuals whose thought was initially out-of-bounds. Now, I am not so Trump-like to say that "only I can solve the problems of education," but I enjoy thinking beyond the boundaries now more than ever.

So, what has this dissertation journey done for me so far? It is teaching me to think "out-of-bounds" and not worry whether some other educator-referee is going to call me on it. After all, who made them referee?

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Principal Plays Pokemon Go: Lessons Learned So Far

Curiosity won out, and I downloaded Pokemon Go for two reasons. First of all, the publicity and news about the app made me curious. And, secondly, as a technology advocate, I wanted to see if it has any educational value. Immediately, after downloading the app to my iPhone, opening it, and setting up my account, I found a world in which I knew absolutely nothing.

Upon entering the world of "Pokemon Go," the screen warned me "Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings." Music played, and the progress bar indicated I was almost there, wherever there is. Suddenly I was, or my chosen avatar was, in the game. Immediately, I was facing something called a "Bulbasaur." Not being fluent in Pokemonese, I had no idea what this creature was, and even worse, I had no idea what to do with it. On instinct perhaps, I grabbed the red and white ball with my finger and flung it at the creature. It flew over it, bounced and immediately opened and vacuumed the creature inside. "Gotcha" appeared on the screen, and I assumed that was a good thing. Now, a week later, after capturing more than a dozen creatures with names I've never heard of, I have advanced to "Level 6," whatever that means.

On a surface level, playing Pokemon Go pushed me well beyond my comfort-level from the start. I know very little about Pokemon. I certainly did not know anything about how to play the game. I could have perhaps found some online videos or instructions, but like so many young people do with video games, I just jumped in, with the knowledge that messing up in this world was not the end of that world or mine. In my brief discomfort because of my lack of knowledge, I was forced to learn. I used what knowledge I had from other electronic games I've played, and just played. I spoke to others who have been playing the game and learned more. While I am certainly not claiming to be an expert, I can say I have begun to learn more of the Pokemon world as represented in the Pokemon Go app, and more and more about myself.

Perhaps some would say I've been wasting time; I even have made the comment "What a time-waster!" But, I must not forget that I had many students who said the same thing about sitting in my high school English class. I would tell them, "You never really know when something you learn today might have use in the future." I should perhaps also take this same tentative approach in my judgments toward playing and learning how to play Pokemon Go. I don't really know when I might have need of what I've learned. On one level, immersion into a safe unknown and having to sink and swim has its own benefits. On another, well, who knows, I might find myself someday facing a Bulbasaur with only a handful of balls.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

When Transforming & Innovating Your School Seems Hopeless: 3 Things You Can Do

"You got to use the power that you got." Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Most of us face situations where success seems impossible or improbable. Many of these situations involve what Malcolm Gladwell calls "Goliaths." These are adversaries or adverse conditions that appear to be insurmountable. In education, we often find ourselves in these "Goliath" situations where our initial assessment is that we can't possibly succeed, because we are out-manned, out-resourced, and out-powered, but according to Gladwell all is not lost. At the heart of our problem is our misconceptions about the situation and about who really has the power.

So what can we do? According to Gladwell, we can do the following:
  • Rethink the idea of what an "advantage" is. Conventional wisdom sometimes tells us what is an advantage. For example, being a small school might seem to place that school at a disadvantage. It might not be able to offer all the extra-curricular activities, classes, and programs that a much larger school would be able to offer. Yet, the "advantage" the smaller school might have has to do with its ability to be more flexible, and hence change and improvements might be implemented much easier and more quickly than in a larger school. Nimbleness is certainly the case with smaller schools with smaller staffs. Often they can react more quickly and gracefully to changing conditions. We can as Gladwell tells us, turn our disadvantages into advantages.
  • Change the rules. Often, in the midst of situations where we face adverse conditions, and we feel that loss is eminent, we feel hopeless. We feel hopeless because, in that situation, if we play by the rules, we are certain to lose. But, who said we had to play by these rules? Why can't we change them, modify them, and approach the adversity in an entirely new manner? Like the David and Goliath story, David chose not to engage the giant in a conventional manner, because he would have surely lost. Instead, he fought unconventionally and in a way his adversary wasn't expecting and won. Changing the rules is climbing out of the box systems put us in and reinventing the game. When you're faced with a sure loss, what do you have to lose?
  • Use what you have. All of us in adversarial situations facing sure defeat, begin to engage in "What-if" thinking, such as, "What if we had more computers?" Or, "What if we had more money for teacher salaries?" The rest of those questions are outcomes we would like to see. Sometimes, though, in the face of adverse and adversarial conditions and sure loss, we have to turn to what we have, and often what we have and what we control is more than we think. For example, if you want a 1:1 computer program and can't find funding to purchase computers for every student, then "use what you have." Perhaps enough students have their own computers and you can open your network for BYOD and just purchase computers for those who can't afford them. This accomplishes the goal by "using what you got."
Sure defeat isn't always a sure thing, as Gladwell makes very clear in his book, David and Goliath. We can prevail in more situations than we think by being willing to rethink our advantages, changing the rules, and just using what we've got.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Teachers Impact Students' Lives in Immeasurable Ways

"The effects of teaching may not show up until long after students leave school and in ways the teacher never dreamed of." Elliot Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of Mind
How do you measure the true educational impact of a teacher? If you consult psychometricians, they say it is simple. You pre-test, deliver instruction, and you post-test. On this our "educational sciences" are based. But do these tests really measure the teacher's most important impact on students' lives? Is the most important task of a teacher to demonstrate that they can "improve a student's test scores?" And, equally important, no matter what our state and federal education bureaucracy tells us, "Are these state standardized test results really capturing learning that will be meaningful to those students' future lives, or are these results simply better predictors on how students will score on other standardized tests?"

Elliot Eisner's book, The Arts and the Creation of Mind depicts an image of a teacher that is much more complex and complete than that currently promoted by the "education sciences" to which modern education finds itself enslaved. The teacher is much more farsighted than the teacher who can't wait for the latest standardized test scores at the end of the year. Eisner's teacher is an "environmental designer" who "creates" situations and places where students gain "an appetite to learn."

Eisner's teacher is not a technician who uses "test data" to choose "canned scripts" and the latest adopted "scientifically validated methods and curriculum" whose purpose, is not to inspire wonder and imagination, but whose purpose is to make some education administrator or politician feel like they are effectively improving education. The teacher should not be teaching by following recipes; they should be engaging students in a "mind-altering curriculum" that forever changes them into forever learners.

What's wrong with the current grip that so-called "education sciences" have on schools is that they have created an impoverished, assembly-line form of education that students don't have to participate in; they only need to be subjected to it. Our education system still strives to run "smoothly," in a standardized manner and as efficiently as possible, and to get as many students through the credentialing process. It is short-sighted and its vision can't see beyond the "testing extravaganza at the end of the year.

But as Eisner makes clear in his book, if you really want "educational gold" in the classroom, then a "high-degree teaching artistry is needed. You need classrooms of "improvisation and unpredictability," not classrooms constructed according to rigid scientific principles. The teacher, in this innovative and creative classroom, is not a scientist who constantly studies the latest test data and looks at his repertoire of "research-based, scientifically-validated" classroom scripts for the one to apply because the data indicates it is called for. The teacher is what Eisner calls "a midwife to the child's creative nature."

As I look back at my years in elementary school, I see one teacher who I would really say was the midwife to my own creative nature. She didn't make noise about my performances on tests. She genuinely questioned and encouraged me when I showed curiosity in the solar system, astronomy, biology, tadpoles, frogs, and trees. She listened attentively when I read stories I had written aloud in class and encouraged me to write more. She encouraged me to read anything and everything I could get my hands on in our school library, even helping me get permission from the librarian to wander into and check out books from the "junior high section" instead of the elementary section where all six-graders were constrained. I read more books that year than perhaps in any other time of my life because of her. In a word, she designed an environment that helped me grow my curiosity and a massive appetite to learn that is still alive today.

My greatest concern with the Standards-Standardized-Testing-Research-Based-Accountability educational milieu we've created in our schools is the damage it is doing to students far into their futures. Does all this focus and obsession with test scores really matter in the lives of our students? The true impact we have on student lives is an impact that hasn't happened yet, and its an impact that can't be measured by standardized tests. My sixth grade teacher had no idea that the classroom environment she created would mean that I would become a teacher myself. She had no idea that I would become a principal. She also had no idea that my passion for reading, writing, and appetite to learn would stay with me the rest of my life.

Perhaps if we really want to focus on "student outcomes" we need to set our sights beyond test data and create places of imagination, creativity, and innovation where curiosity is treasured, learning is not just measured, but valued. Not everything worthwhile can be reduced to pre-tests and post-tests, and the real impact of our work with students will be measured by the lives they live far beyond the classroom.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Evernote Raises Prices & Degrades Service for Basic Users: Is It Worth It for Education Users?

Evernote is increasing its pricing for Premium users and Plus users while degrading service to those who have chosen to use the service's Basic option. I have been an Evernote user and a premium user since May of 2010, and I have often blogged about its capabilities as note taking software. I have also led staff and professional development about the product. I still use it every day, both personally and professionally. Still, I hope Evernote knows what it is doing.

In a blog post (see "Changes to Evernote's Pricing Plans") the company claims that it "doesn't take change to our pricing model lightly, and we never take you for granted."

I certainly hope so. I certainly understand that companies like Evernote need to raise revenue for improvements, but this personally places me at a price point where I begin to ask the question, "Is the yearly subscription price worth it?"  It's not like there aren't other less expensive options out there. For example, I've used and still use Microsoft's OneNote, and I could so easily switch to it and accomplish what I want with that software, or even find some other alternative, but I have loyalty to Evernote as a great product, but changes in prices and functionality weaken my loyalty as a long-time user.

At this point, I will wait and see what Evernote does with the added revenue, but I do have these words of caution for Evernote. I am not a business user, so I do not really care to see improvements that make the product better for corporate America, unless these also improve my own functionality. To assume that those business improvements to Evernote software make it a better product for my job as an educator and education scholar is a mistake. Often companies forget core users in their efforts to capture new markets. I hope this isn't what Evernote is doing.

As an educator, I chose Evernote in 2010 because it was a great note-taking platform that was inexpensive, versatile, and accessible across devices. At that time, it didn't pretend to do something else. It was reliable. It did exactly what I wanted it for. But this is important: Improvements of a product aren't always improvements to all users.

If Evernote is making these changes in pricing and packaging to go after business users, there is the danger that they are forgetting us, the education users and everyday users who have been passionately loyal, like in my case, for 6 years.

I am not at the point of cancelling my Evernote account yet, but I want that company to know that I will be watching out for those "improvements." If I am going to be paying more for Evernote, then you can bet my expectations for your product have gone up as well. Your claim that you aren't "taking me for granted" will only prove true over time.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Did SAS Provide Gifts to UNC System for Special Future Considerations of its EVAAS System?

It seems, according to an article, software giant, SAS, who already has a multi-million dollar contract with North Carolina Public Schools for its EVAAS value-added software system, provided undisclosed air travel for the UNC Board of Governors and candidate Margaret Spellings during the recent presidential search. (See WRAL's "SAS Provided Undisclosed Air Travel During UNC Presidential Search.") This raises some interesting questions.

Most of us in education are very aware that SAS would stand to gain should North Carolina adopt some of the proposals that would evaluate new teacher programs by tying the performance of these college programs to "student growth measures" on state standardized tests. In light of these "gifts" to the UNC system, SAS would "just happen to be there" with its EVAAS system should North Carolina make this adoption.

Is it not equally interesting that SAS provided air travel to Margaret Spellings, whom most of us in education see as a major advocate for standardized testing and accountability measures? We have her to thank for her support of the failure of the "test and punish" systems of accountability under No Child Left Behind. Naturally, SAS obviously wants someone as UNC president who would push the same kinds of measures at the university level, so why not provide her air travel? I submit that this means that North Carolina sees the adoption of EVAAS value-added measures in the future for all North Carolina university teacher education programs.

Ultimately, the UNC system in situations like this should not accept gifts from corporations who might stand to gain from future university decisions. The UNC system should reimburse SAS for the entire amount of these "gifts" to ensure that it is not subject to being bought by corporations. It is a matter of integrity, which our universities still have and our state politicians do not. It's also very convenient that SAS did not disclose the gifts as they were apparently supposed to do.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Are the Concepts of 'Grit' and 'Mindset' Attempts to Erase Importance of Social Justice & Equity?

While reading an essay entitled "Foucault, Power, and Organizations" by Stewart Clegg, I have begun to write and congeal thoughts about the new embrace by educationalists of the ideas of teaching students about "grit" and "mindsets." More and more books you pick up on educational methods and teaching practices seem to increasingly refere to Carol Dweck's ideas about "mindsets" and their role in success . (I have read her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.) Then there's all this discourse about "grit" as well. Though this concept goes back to Francis Galton, Duckworth, in her book, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has more recently brought this term to the forefront.
When reading Clegg, he writes: "Bio-power normalizes through discursive formations of psychiatry, medicine, social work and so on. The terms of these ways of constituting the normal become institutionalized and incorporated into everyday life. Our own reflective gaze takes over the disciplining role as we take on the accounts and vocabularies of meaning and motive that are available to us as certain other forms of account are marginalized or simply erased out of currency."
Some questions:
Is the employment of the now "psychological concepts of 'mindset' and 'grit' a means of constituting a new normal using the psychological and educational sciences to marginalize ideas of social injustice and inequity?
Is the employment of these concepts in the educational apparatus a means to erase any thoughts or ideas of inequity and social injustice from our society?

Here's some my of my working thoughts on this matter:
The discourse of "grit" and "growth mindset" could function as a discourse that seeks to install a 'reflexive gaze" into students that asks them to disregard their circumstances in life, their experiences of poverty, misfortune and lives lived in inequity, and "get with the program."
It is an explicit "scientific" manifestation of the "bootstrap mythology" that propagates the idea that "if you work hard, then you will be successful."
It is a reflexive gaze which banishes any thought of inequity in society. It is directed at the souls of students to make them docile and compliant with the educational program.
It conditions individuals to ignore inequity in society and allows those who continue to stack the economic system in their favor to retain their pre-eminence.
It attempts to dispel any resistance to a socially unjust society. Ultimately it is a application of the psychological and educational sciences to the service of disciplining those who question the injustice of society.
I think perhaps before we jump on the "mindset" and "grit" teaching methodology bandwagon, we might want to ask some of these and other critical questions about what they really are doing with our students and our society.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Is All This Talk About Grit and Growth Mindset Nonsense?

All this talk about "grit" and "growth mindset" as a means to get students to think in such a way as to "erase" the realities of the difficult circumstances in which they live seems to me as a way for politicians and educators to absolve themselves from the guilt of the inequality and inequity that exists in our society. Instead of advocating for the less fortunate and calling attention to how those with the most resources are exploiting the system and rigging it in their favor, we are being told as educators we simply need to tell students to engage in the "power of positive thinking" and they will be able to overcome their lives of misery and misfortune. It is the "bootstrap myth" now wrapped up in new clothes termed as "grit" and "growth mindset." What do we tell students 10 or 20 years later with the myths have faded and their lives haven't been magically transformed by the "power of positive thinking?"

I didn't exactly grow up in the level of poverty and misery that I often hear many of my students experience, but I did grow up with a family of five kids and two parents who worked incessantly to provide for us. We perhaps did not live in hunger as some kids experience today, and I can say I always had a coat and shoes to wear. But, I was all too well aware that I did not always have the things my classmates had: a car to drive to school bought by my parents, the most fashionable clothes, or the latest gadgets. I was often aware that money was tight, which meant that I sometimes had to work in order to pay for some of the things I wanted, like my high school class ring or those senior field trips. Those who adhere to the "bootstrap mythology" would say I perhaps was a better person because of this. Perhaps, but is there not something fundamentally amiss here? Still, why is it that some don't even have to worry about "pulling themselves up by bootstraps" and others do not. All of this reminds of one instance where my own family circumstances had a direct impact on my class performance, and no one ever knew.

My sophomore year in high school I took a world history class. A major assignment for this class was the creation of a scrapbook of newspaper articles on current events. The teacher's requirement was that each article had to cover current events in a foreign country, and the final grade for the course was, in part, based on my ability to cut and paste articles from countries around the world. The broader the international representation of articles, the better the final grade at the end of the semester. Sounds like an easy assignment, right?

It turns out I did not do well with this assignment. Why? As I mentioned earlier, my family was large and money was tight, so it turned out that they only newspaper I had access to was our hometown newspaper, which, if I was lucky, during an entire week, it might have a single article covering an international event. This meant that it was very difficult for me to collect international current event articles for this major assignment. In the end, this translated into a much lower grade for this course, not because of my knowledge of the content, but because my parents did not subscribe the correct newspapers.

Now those who aspire to the "grit" philosophy would say that I was perhaps not resourceful enough; that I gave in too easily. Surely I could have scrounged up 25 cents for a more comprehensive and internationally focused newspaper, they say. Perhaps in my "closed mindset" I just discounted any opportunities that existed for me to properly complete the assignment. After all, I only needed to let the teacher know of my predicament and she would have helped me locate resources. Well, all that may be, but what about the lack of consideration by the teacher in the first place? This teacher just assumed that her students would have access to regular newspapers that consistently captured international current events. In the end I was not graded on my ability to understand world history, but on the simple fact that my family did not subscribe to a daily newspaper that covered more events than the local watermelon festival.

I say all this to emphasize that when we talk about "grit" and "growth mindsets," we have to be very careful that we do not use that as an excuse to totally ignore where our students are coming from. Putting unrealistic hurdles in front of our students, and justifying them by saying that they will help them grow is utter nonsense. We can't ignore the impact of our students' backgrounds when it comes to their achievement. Sometimes the deck is stacked against them, and it is our job to step forward, and not use it as an excuse for poor performance, but use it as an opportunity to advocate for equity and social justice. Long ago, I quietly accepted my mediocre grade in that world history course. No one ever knew the real reasons why I did not have 50 articles in my scrapbook. I suspect many of our students today do the same. The ideas of 'Grit' and 'Growth Mindset' should never be used to ignore the poverty and lack of our students; real worlds.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Sec of Ed King Pushes for Same Failed Ed Policy Seen Under NCLB and Race to the Top

It seems new Secretary of Education, John King seeks to continue the same reliance on test scores and superficial ratings systems to determine how effective schools are doing that his predecessor Arne Duncan pushed. From his recent remarks, King wants to force states into using a "A-F Rating system" (or something similar) to rate the effectiveness of schools, which happens to be the same nonsensical idea that the North Carolina Legislature and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has imposed on public schools in North Carolina. (See "Education Secretary Takes Heat for Pushing Single Rating of Schools"). He wants states to come up with a "single summative rating for schools or districts" that captures the success or failure of schools in the most simplest way possible.

But I have a question for Secretary of Education King: What if the success or failure of a school is not reducible to a single letter or number grade? What if there are so many factors that aren't captured in test scores that attribute to the success or failure of schools? What if education is too complicated for your idea of reducing it to a single rating? 

All King needs to do is look at our North Carolina's A-F public school rating system if he wants to really see how ludicrous this idea is. North Carolina's school rating system rates schools with low poverty students much better than it does their effectiveness. (See The News and Observer article, "NC Public School Letter Grades Reflect Wealth of Students' Families"). King's continued push of the whole idea that all the things schools do to be successful can be captured in a single rating system shows how little he really understands the complexity of schooling and education. His misguided leadership and push for this "rating system" will only continue the failed policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

At some point this Quixotian search by politicians and education leaders for a way to capture school and teacher effectiveness with numbers, ratings, and opaque statistical measures has to be abandoned. With each successive Secretary of Education, President, and revision of federal law, this viral idea that there is a simplistic measure of school or educator effectiveness gets passed on, despite the fact that some states, like North Carolina, have been piddling with this idea for well over 20 years now. Schools, teaching, and education are simply too complex to be reduced to an arbitrary number, letter or "Not Met" rating. Teachers in the classroom and principals in the schools know that their places of practice are too complex and involve too many factors beyond the control of the school. Parents and teachers grow tired of all the testing. Our schools continue to be more concerned about test scores than actual students. All of this happens because of education leaders from the Secretary of Education's office, down through state departments of education, to the local level, just can't let go of their dream of finding a simple measure of education effectiveness.

A "summary rating system for schools, teachers, or educators" is nonsense, and is clearly an idea promoted by people with little understanding of teaching, learning, or schools. I am beginning to ask: Do we really need a Secretary of Education and a US Department of Education? It really does make me wonder if it is time to dismantle the US Department of Education, because it bears a big responsibility in the "test-em-if-they-breathe" failures of education policies since 2000.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Want Innovation? Start with the Teachers in Your School Instead of Experts on the Outside

"The main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garret or garage" Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Besides the fact that there is little really innovative and new about them, the real problem with the heavy-handed reform strategies and tactics imposed from above, like the imposition of the Common Core, Merit Pay, or value-added teacher evaluations, is that their development and implementation failed and continues to fail to be collaborative endeavors. As Isaacson points out, the birth of an innovation is usually a group effort between those who have the vision and the engineers. In each of these examples, the true "teaching and learning engineers" in the individual schools are left out of the innovation loop. Sure, token teachers are often asked to serve on the committees, but there are also "experts," researchers, and politicians too, who often take so much control of the process, that the real engineers are left out.

I want to propose a new idea that follows more closely what Isaacson describes. I want to move innovation from meeting rooms, conference rooms, and think tanks totally outside the school. I want to move innovation back to the level of the school where the visionaries and teaching-learning engineers are. Engage in innovation at the school level, instead of searching for magic snake oil that might or might not exist out there somewhere. Engage staff at the school level in "innovation collaboration" and hackerism.

But I suspect the "experts" won't go away quietly. After all, too often their job is simply to sell their wares, which means marketing and creating a "need" where one did not exist before. In education, there's still this underlying belief that "experts" from the outside can walk into a school or district, conduct some professional development, provide some consulting services, and then collect their hefty professional fees, and "Presto!" innovation happens. They then move on to the next school district, like some medicine man, peddling their wares once again. In the end, this type of "imposition-of-innovation-from-above" (or outside) often leaves schools with mediocre results and a little less professional development money in their pockets. Politicians, school leaders, and teachers are guilty of taking on this medicine man role too, which is very often more about their own ambitions, prestige, and financial wealth than truly helping a school engage in innovation and ultimately help children.

Why do schools continue to engage in this "medicine man" style of professional development and innovation seeking? Besides the fact that is much easier seek innovation from without than try to engage your school or district in becoming innovative, I would also stress that the marketing of these medicine men, educating consultants, professional development experts is often more effective than their products or wares, but that is another blog post entirely.

Instead, if we truly want to innovate, I suggest we approach it the hacker and geek way. Let's involve the engineers a great deal more and the medicine men a little less. Let's engage in innovation at the school level with the teaching and learning "engineers" there. They are the ones who know everything about the "context" of that school. Very seldom will any neatly packaged product or "innovation" being sold by "experts" and educational entrepreneurs will work as advertised anyway. That's why many schools have these piles of educational materials sitting in their book rooms and media centers gathering dust. These all were "bottles of the latest elixir" promised to cure all that ailed that particular school at the time it was purchased.

Experts and professional development consultants can offer "sources of ideas," but their outside status places them in a position of not being able to fully understand that school's issues no matter how much "data" we feed to them. If they do claim to sell "research-based" wares, we should demand that they provide specific, independent, and valid research studies that examined the effectiveness of their product, not some vague or generic studies. If they can't provide them, send them packing. In education, we don't have a federal or state organization approving the effectiveness of these products, methods, or programs, so we have to take that on ourselves. Let's listen a little less to their very often unsubstantiated promises and engage our own teachers in our own schools with the task of solving the problems. Let's create cultures of innovation and hackerism in our schools that can make true and lasting innovation happen.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Empowerment? Slippery Word for Leaders to Use and Practice

“Empower” is another slippery word, used with good intentions, but when we really break it down, it can have a very negative connotation." Mark A. Adams, Courageous Conflict: Leading with Integrity and Authenticity
If you watch any presentation on leadership, or lurk in any Twitter discussion regarding reform or change, chances are, your going to hear the word "empower" mentioned. It is a pet word of sorts. School administrators toss it around a great deal when talking about ideas such as continuous improvement, school change, or school improvement. But what does the word actually mean in these contexts?

As Mark Adams points out, "Empower is a slippery word" and I am quite positive school leaders use the word with good intentions, but very often, it can be used as a means to manipulate others to do something we want them to do. It those instances it takes on a slippery nature. As Adams points out, in these cases, we are nothing more than a father telling his child that he is "empowering that child to clean his room." That's a clear abuse of the word empowerment, and you can bet your staff will see through that in a minute.

In many school leadership situations, empowerment is more of a "giving permission." In these situations, the school leader is granting a staff "permission" to simply carryout his or her wishes. This type of empowerment does not lead staff to experiment, to innovate. They simply carry out the leadership program established from on high. There's no ownership; staff simply do as they are told or "given permission to do."

If you really want to empower, you have to relinquish your authority and trust others to act in your stead. You allow them to make decisions, and, because you empower them, you let go and allow them to act, not necessarily as you would have acted. They are acting because you have given them ownership of the situation, and your job now is to accept and support what they do.

Today, and for the coming school year, pay attention to how you use and employ "empowerment." Are you manipulating or truly trusting someone to act in your stead? There is really a difference.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

How Federal Education Policy That Says 'If They Breathe Test'em' Has Deformed Kindergarten

If you really want to look for evidence of how federal initiatives like "Race to the Top" and "No Child Left Behind" have impacted schools, you only need to read the findings of this study: "Study Snapshot: Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?" In that study, it is very clear that our schools have increasingly short-changed and abused young students with their testing fetish. In this study, researchers compared kindergarten classrooms from 1998 to 2010. Here are some of findings that should make both educators and policymakers feel ashamed.

  • While academic instruction increased, time spent teaching the arts substantially decreased.
  • Students were increasing taught using textbooks and workbooks.
  • Amount of time students were given for play has decreased.
  • During the time period 1998 to 2010, kindergarten has increasingly become like first grade in 1998.
  • Kindergarten teachers are more likely to subject students to standardized testing in 2010.
  • These kinds of practices are more pronounced at schools serving predominantly low-income students.
As our federal government has increasingly become involved in public education, we've seen our schools deform the education system in all kinds of ways in order to "produce test scores." This is more evidence of that. Policymakers and educators are complicit in this transformation. 

(For a another summary of this study, check our NPR's "More Testing, Less Play: Study Finds Higher Expectations for Kindergartners." Though I would take issue with the idea of the practices as subjecting students to "HIGHER" expectations.)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

When Strong Leadership Takes Advantage of Others and Setting Aside Our Ambitions

"We push for a strong leader to get us out of this mess, even if it means surrendering individual freedom to gain security." Margaret Wheatley,  Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time
When things are rough and uncertain, as Wheatley points out, people look for a strong leader. For many, any old "strong" leader will do. The individual talking the loudest and making the most promises, impossible or not, will do. The individual no one really likes, but because he demonstrates toughness, will do. Finally, the individual with the largest ego and a plan, even though it's clear it won't work, will do.

Whether it is our world, our communities, or our schools, when uncertainty and messiness rears its head, the search for a "strong" leader is common. And, if one appears, people are willing to sacrifice their own freedoms and creativity in order to avoid the messiness and uncertainty and obtain security. The flip side of this is the danger many school leaders face: that of becoming one of these leaders who preys on the fears and insecurities of others in pursuit of one's own ambitions. Thinking that one has all the right answers, and the plan, with emphasis on the "the," is perhaps more about egos than authentically leading others.

In times of messiness and uncertainty, leadership should embrace others as co-creators in finding solutions, not strong-arm them into accepting less freedom. This means not yelling the loudest, not offering plans that betray who we are internally, and not deceiving ourselves into believing that we're the answer to all people's problems. Ethically, offering authentic, wise, and compassionate leadership to those who are insecure is what is needed most in these times of uncertainty and insecurity. It is time to set aside our own ambitions and remember it is not always about us.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

School Leadership Is About Keeping Teachers Happy: Not Just Weeding Out the Bad

I agree wholeheartedly with Ken Robinson when he writes:
"Great teachers are the heart of great schools." Ken Robinson, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education
Too often there's this undying faith in educational leadership literature that if the right school leader is found, then the problems of the school will be resolved. There's the rhetoric that says, "If that school only had the right principal, then it could be saved." It is this search for a savior and messiah in education that is a misguided and a proverbial "wild goose chase," because in reality, if there are no great teachers, then nothing miraculous will ever happen.

I once had a conversation with the manager of a restaurant that I frequented. This restaurant was known for its long lines snaking all the way into the mall in which it was located. On some days, to eat there, it meant waiting sometimes as long as an hour or two before you could be seated. I asked this manager, "It's obvious your restaurant is a success. What is the secret?" He looked around for just a second, and quickly said, "I keep my cooks happy."

Over the years, this has always been behind my leadership practice. I do not see the teachers in my school as "expendable" and simply interchangeable parts. That managerial philosophy really has no place in education.

The truth is, great teachers aren't interchangeable. They are sometimes hard to come by. If you're lucky, you might be able to coach and build great teachers over time, but as fewer and fewer people enter teaching, this becomes more difficult as well.

Rather than seeing teachers as interchangeable parts, I see them as great "cooks" that we need to treasure and keep happy." This doesn't have anything to do with sacrificing what's good for students either. Too often today, if a school leader talks about keeping teachers happy, he is viewed with suspicion, as if in doing so, he is ignoring what's good for students. Why is this an either or proposition in the first place? Making sure your great teachers are supported and appreciated, and happy, while working with those who have not yet reached the level of greatness is school leadership.

What's important today in school leadership is realizing that school leaders with savior complexes rarely sustain great schools, because in reality, such personalities are more interested in themselves, and their own professional ambitions than they are with the success of anyone, students or teachers. These leaders see everything and everyone around them as interchangeable parts to be discarded if they somehow do not fit into their plans. Sadly, that's why their results often disappear once they moved on to their next "great" ambitious project.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Purpose of Education Is to Prepare Students for Life, It's That Simple!

"The core purpose of education is to prepare young people for life after school; helping them to build up the mental, emotional, social, and strategic resources to enjoy challenge and cope well with uncertainty and complexity." Ken Robinson, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education
Every time I hear education reform rhetoric calling for education reforms that "Prepare students for jobs of the 21st century," or reforms that "prepare them for jobs that don't exist yet," I can't help but ask: "What the heck does that look like? How can we prepare students for something we don't even know will come to pass?" These are really shortsighted and, if I may say, stupid ideas.

Education prophets and gurus have been spouting their prophecies and oracles since just before the turn of the century. I won't get into mentioning their names, but many of these have made fortunes peddling their prophecies of economic gloom and doom at education conferences and workshops worldwide, charging exorbitant speaking fees and selling books.

The truth is, "Is any of this blather rather productive? Is it really the role of schools to prepare students by training them for the jobs that currently exist, or will exist in the near future? My answer to that question is a loud and boisterous "NO."

Training students for existing jobs is setting them up for future failure because such jobs disappear according to the changing whims of corporations. Do we train students for jobs that we think are going to become important? My answer again is a resounding "Negative!" It is educational malpractice to be gambling with the lives of kids by teaching them what we think they will be doing 10 years or 20 years or 30 years from now. We aren't seers and haven't reliable crystal balls, so we can't play games with the lives of those we teach.

I agree with Ken Robinson. The core of our job as educators is to prepare them for "Life after school." It's really that simple. They don't need to be narrowly pigeonholed into existing jobs or jobs that "might" exist. They need the "mental, emotional, social and strategic resources" to live in a world that none of us really know about. Instead of rolling the dice with the lives of those we teach, we need to provide an education that allows them to face the unknown.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Welcoming Innovative Disruption: Embracing Those Who Ask the Tough Questions

"The people who ask questions that no one else is asking are the inventors and entrepreneurs and leaders who will create the next wave of innovative disruptions." Jensen, Bill. Disrupt! Think Epic. Be Epic.: 25 Successful Habits For An Extremely Disruptive World
Often, as we work within the education system, we are actually discouraged from asking tough questions. Questioning is often seen as disrespectful and not being a team-player. The teacher at the back of our staff meetings who begins to ask question after question on some new initiative the school is preparing to roll out, is seen as a "naysayer" and a "supporter of the status quo." These are sometimes apt labels for these individuals, but sometimes, the questions being asked need to be asked. They need to be listened to, and they need to be answered carefully.

Certainly, it is possible that the one asking the questions about our new initiative and project just want to sabotage our plans as school leaders. But can we really take that chance? Especially, if as Bill Jensen points out, that these are often the inventors, entrepreneurs, and leaders who create innovative disruptions that turn our schools and the educational system upside down?

As school leaders, those who ask tough questions might or might not have ulterior motives, but if we really want to be innovative, we perhaps need to listen rather than dismiss them. As Jensen points out, those who wish to be proactive "disrupters" of our organizations need to join in and "actively question every system, structure, and rule" placed before us. This is embracing the potential of "disruptive innovation in our schools."

Friday, April 8, 2016

Is Getting Students ‘College-and-Career’ Ready Just Empty Blather?

As is clear from a post by EdNC entitled “Questions at the State Board on Quality of Graduation Rates,” the is some question about just how much our schools in North Carolina are successfully getting our students, especially poorer and minority students “College and Career Ready.” Our North Carolina State Board of Education, in a meeting this week, questioned North Carolina’s highest than ever graduation rate because although the state is graduating more students than ever, there are still serious gaps in “College and Career Readiness,” as indicated in testing data, between African-American students and other racial and ethnic groups.

The data being discusssed (and included in a link in the post) makes it clear, “We’re not getting near as many students ‘college-and-career’ as are the number we’re graduating.”

Yet, I can’t help but ask a very serious question: If we’re serious about getting students “College and Career Ready” then what are we really getting them ready for? Let’s face it, college costs are higher than ever, so are we getting them ready for something many of them won’t be able to afford anyway? Are we getting them “College and Career Ready” so private banks, lenders, and our student loan programs can saddle them for life with enormous amounts of debt? Why spend all this time and energy getting students ready for something they might not be able to afford anyway?

I am certainly not arguing about the noble nature of the goal of getting every student ready for college attendance or for getting a good job once they graduate. But, and this is where I scratch my head, I can’t help but wonder if for all our effort, we’re not lying to students. While there’s so much talk about getting our students “College and Career Ready” there’s little or no talk by our policymakers, politicians, and even educational leaders at the K-12 level about making college affordable to all. There’s something that really smells bad about getting students “College-Ready” and then making them turn to loans. Isn’t that in some ways turning them into indentured servants?

If we’re going to talk about “College and Career Readiness” at all, perhaps our policymakers, politicians and state and local education leaders should be advocating to make college affordable. And, while we’re at it, let’s make sure there are jobs that offer opportunities for our students to earn a comfortable living wage and provide rewarding careers. If not, we’re dressing them up for a party that will never happen.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why I Shudder Every Time I Hear the Phrase “Research-Based” Teaching Practice

I am being totally honest when I say I shudder when I hear educators and policymakers use the phrase “research-based teaching practice.” It’s like when someone runs their fingernails across a chalkboard. Those of us who remember chalkboards also remember the degree of inner discomfort that accompanies that experience. I even used it as an attention-getter in my earliest days of teaching, but I digress here. Why do I shudder with discomfort with the phrase “research-based teaching practice?” Well, for starters, I am not totally convinced that such an entity exists, at least well-enough to earn such a scientific label. Before the rotten tomatoes start flying in my direction, let me explain myself.

I first experienced this shudder when I started a teacher education program a quarter of a century ago. One of my first curriculum classes was one of those educational courses that tried in every way possible to masquerade as a “science” course. In this course, EL Thorndike and Piaget was everywhere. I was learning the “principles of curriculum design" and “education science.” My shudder happened when I began to labor over a curriculum unit design project where I was asked to design “performance objectives” using a recipe approach developed by the “educational researchers.”

As I wrote these “objectives” I was told that they had to be measurable, which actually was a maddening requirement for a future high school English teacher. So much of the things I wanted students to do with the great literature of the world along with their creative writing, came out knarled and unrecognizable when twisted into a “performance objective” recipe. Measurability was so much more than simply answering an “objective multiple choice question.” I shuddered then, but I wrote my “performance objectives” for my unit project, turned it in, and never looked back. This practice was simply too superficial to be useful in the high school English classroom.

Fast forward today, after 16 years in the high school and middle school classroom and 10 years as a principal, I think I now realize why I have always shuddered a bit when it comes to the mention of “research-based” teaching practice. It is simply this: such a phrase simply implies that its “research-basedness,” if I may invent a word, implies that it is validated through accepted standardized test results. It reminds me of that earlier “curriculum design” course from years ago. All that is worthwhile is measurable was the main principle of curriculum design I learned then.

My experience has been that “educational practices” that are validated through traditional, measureable results from tests ignores so much of the complexity of classrooms, teaching, and student learning. In fact, often what is advertised as “research-based teaching practice” is a practice that only works some of the time. Rarely, does any teaching practice work every time, no matter how much research backs its application. That is because there is so much in our endeavors as educators beyond our control, no matter how much we like to think otherwise.

I am certainly not saying that there is no such thing as “research-based” teaching practices, but I think the shudder I feel goes back to my own discomfort experienced in the curriculum design class years ago. As became apparent to me then, a great deal of what we do as educators is not “measurable” in conventional ways, and some ways may not even possible. To try to make it measureable distorts and twists the learning into something superficial and unrecognizable. Sometimes trying to force the label “research-based” on teaching practice distorts that practice in the same way that trying to force “performance objectives” did with my high school literature unit years ago. Today, I am glad that I shudder when someone starts throwing around the phrase “research-based” in education these days. That tells me my BS alarm system is still working.

The real problems of education are not empirical ones, but rather profoundly moral, economic, and political ones."

Emery J. Hyslop-Margison;Ayaz Naseem. Scientism and Education (Kindle Location 703). Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

3 Things Wrong with Test Pep Rallies

In 2011, I made clear my concerns with "Test Pep Rallies" with my blog post "Test Pep Rallies: Good Practice or Waste of Time?" I still feel that such practices are more harmful than useful. As in my earlier post, I still believe that:

  • Test Pep Rallies potentially harm students and learning. It's one thing to encourage a student to do his or her best; it's another to place emphasis on performance levels, where self-worth might be wrongly tied to test results. In my thinking, Test Pep Rallies have too much potential for making state test results too important, especially if held for the purpose of promoting test performance. Encourage students to always do their best, not just when testing season comes along.
  • Test Pep Rallies reinforce the "Culture of Test Prep" in schools rather than worthwhile learning. Very little worthwhile learning takes place in schools where test prep is the goal for everything the school does.Its one thing to use data in decision-making; its quite another to use test results to determine everything that happens. Test Pep Rallies are about Test Prep, not about celebrating accomplishment. They're shortsighted practices for the short term that has not lasting impact on anything.
  • Test Pep Rallies are a waste of time. Why do we even want to elevate a standardized test to such a high level? Students could be celebrating real learning and accomplishments instead of focusing on a test no one will pay attention to five or ten years in the future.
In the season of testing, it is so important for administrators to keep testing in perspective. Elevating standardized testing through Test Pep Rallies places too much emphasis on something that already consumes too much of our instructional time. 

Three Reminders for Educators on the Eve of the Spring Standardized Testing Onslaught

Of course we all acknowledge state standardized tests can't possibly measure everything that matters. Our state even forbids the use of state test scores as the sole basis of making high-stakes decisions. Yet, as the season of testing falls upon us, the obsession with bubble sheets and number two pencils begins anew. But we need to be reminded that tests are only a small piece of information that matters about our students and our teachers. Before we start scheduling the "Test Prep Pep Rallies" and giving our students those motivational speeches that elevate these tests higher than they should be, we need to be truthful with our students: in the grand scheme of public education, these test scores do not measure what's most important, and the results certainly do not come close to capturing what it means to be an excellent teacher, especially when excellent teachers impact lives more than test scores.

Recently, a Florida teacher wrote this letter to her students just before the onslaught of state tests. I think perhaps it reminds us that testing should always be put in proper perspective, not elevated to some major life goal or achievement. No one is going brag 10 years down the road that they made a "Level 5" on their English End of Course Test or their Biology End of Course Test. As this teacher points out, there are many more things worthwhile to brag about.

"My Dearest Students,

This week you will take your Florida State Assessments (FSA) for reading and math. I know how hard you worked, but there is something important that you must know. The FSA does not assess all of what makes each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you the way I do, and certainly not the way your families do.

They do not know that some of you speak two languages, or that you love to sing or paint a picture. They don't know that your friends can count on you to be there for them, that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day, or that your face turns red when you feel shy. They have not heard you tell differences between a King Cobra and a rattler. They do not know that you participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that despite dealing with bad circumstances, you still come to school with a smile. They do not know that you can tell a great story or that really love spending time (baking, hunting, mudding, fishing, shopping...) with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be very trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try every day to be your very best.

The scores you will get from this test will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart. You are smart! You are enough! You are the light that brightens my day! So while you are preparing for this test and while you are in the midst of it all, remember that there is no way to "test" all the amazing and awesome things that make you, YOU!

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please keep all kids in the state of Florida in your thoughts tomorrow. Thank you."

Here's my own three reminders to educators as we find ourselves on the eve of another "Season of Standardized Testing."

1. As we move into the "Season of Testing" let's remember that we don't teach test-takers; we teach real human beings with interests, hopes, dreams and passions that can't be reduced to multiple-choice questions.

2. As long as students and teachers give us their best, we acknowledge and celebrate that. Celebrate accomplishments such as poems written and published; hours of world-changing community service served; and songs written and sung. Celebrate what the bubble sheets ignore.

3. Keep testing in its place as one piece of data. Don't elevate it needlessly. Don't hold school-wide pep rallies that elevate these things superficially. Leave in their place.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Is It Time to Question the Place of Football in High Schools?

“Tough men do not cry. Placing your hands over your head and complaining about the effects of concussions are deemed as signs of weaknesses.” Bennet Omalu, Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death

As it becomes clearer and clearer that repeated blows to the head while playing football causes CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, perhaps its time to question whether we can really guarantee that the thousands of young men who play high school football can really be safe from serious future brain injury. The truth is, parents trust that when their child puts on a football uniform that there is some degree of safety involved, but what is apparently becoming clearer, repeated blows to the head have long-lasting serious health effects.

I think it is past time for high schools to begin questioning whether the sacrifice of future health and well-being is worth the fleeting moments of glory wrought on the high school football field. Sure, the argument can be made that taking risks is a part of life, but do we really in good consciouse want to ask a 16, 17, or 18 year old to sacrifice their future well-being for a game?

I realize that high school sports have a strangle hold on public education. For many schools, the only succeess they experience is on these fields. Yet, we do need to be conscious of all that we’re asking our students to sacrifice when they choose to participate. As a high school football player who suffered a life-changing injury many years ago, I can’t but wonder how my own life would have been different had I knew 40 some years later the physical damage it would have caused.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Authentic Empowerment from School Leaders Requires Trust and Letting Go!

“Empower” is another slippery word, used with good intentions, but when we really break it down, it can have a very negative connotation." Mark Adams, Courageous Conflict: Leading with Integrity and Authenticity 
What does it really mean that we have empowered those in our schools and those who are followers? Lately, you hear this word "empowerment" a great deal in educational leadership discourse. It's almost a cliche. Yet, does it really have any meaning? Does it really mean that those in subordinate positions have any real power? Perhaps it means the head "Dude" in charge has decided to relinquish a little sliver of power to his underlings in order to give those below just a bit a hope that they have a bit of say. When empowerment is more about making the leader feel "good" about his lording over others, it is probably not effective. Empowerment is too often the "crumb" dangled before those in subordinate positions in order to motivate them to carry out the leader's agenda. 

You can't motivate people with fake declarations of empowerment. You can't deceive people in carrying out your program by getting them to believe that they really have a say in the organization.

My advice to those who are told that they have been empowered is the same that Mark Adams offers:
"Consider that you have just been empowered.   What does that mean? Concisely, it means that those who have power are now saying they are temporarily giving us the power to do something, but we really do not own it or possess it."
Rhetoric about empowering others in our leadership is empty if we really do not mean it. It can't mean that we are temporarily giving power to others to do something; it means we are really willing to let go of control and trust others to carry out the tasks we have empowered them to do. Effective leaders who really empower others let go and trust. And, if things fail, they accept that failure and own up to the blame too. That's leadership integrity.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why Are Genuine Requests by Teachers for Fair Pay and Benefits Seen as Greed?

If you want to see greed, just look to Congress and the business world. It was their fault the economy crashed in 2008, though they still try to blame educators. The problem with all this is simple: we’ve allowed politicians, corporations, and businesses paint workers as “greedy” when they are simply trying to get a raise of a few percentage points, or have insurance that actually does insure them when an illness or injury occurs, and paying executives exorbitant salaries is perfectly acceptable. It is perfectly fine for a CEO or administrator at the top to demand more pay, but when classroom teachers or other state employees demand the same consideration from our North Carolina politicians, they are painted as part of a greedy labor union.

We need to shift the discourse back to the real truth! The ones who are truly greedy are those who are really taking home all the bread and leaving crumbs for everyone else: CEOs and “executives.” Just look at the Martin Shkreli Congressional hearings today. Are we really surprised when we see sarcastic smirks and smug smiles from the likes of Martin Shkreli when he testified before Congress to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill from $13.50 to $750 while CEO of a pharmaceutical company? Shkreli defends his role by saying his job was to earn the most money for his stockholders and himself, and shows absolutely no remorse. We’ve created a culture that worships money. Everything is “All about the money.” What’s even worse, making money “legally” is perfectly fine, nevermind if that way the money is earned is unethical. Add that fact that those who make the money are the ones who decided and enacted the laws, so of course it is all going 
to be legal.

Martin Shkreli Before Congress

Amazing, North Carolina Can't Find Money to Give Teachers 10% Raise But They Can Give University Vice Chancellors One

Interestingly, it seems the UNC System Trustees gave whopping 10% raises to several vice chancellors, and gave the UNC Chapel Hill Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham a 10% or $58,388 raise, retroactive to July 1, 2015. (See “UNC Gives Raises to Top Administrators”). His annual pay is now $642,3268. Is it really surprising that our state would give that much of a raise to an athletic director? Not really. In a society that values athletics over education, and paying CEOs exorbitant salaries, it is not surprising at all. At least Bubba will not see his raise erased by increased health plan charges like most state employees and educators.

If 10% raises to university “executives” isn’t enough to ponder about this state’s priorities, it seems a rally against this plan to raise health insurance costs for state employees and educators was held at the Legislative Building in Raleigh today. (See the News and Observer article “NC Government Workers Slam Proposal to Raise Insurance Costs”). The article makes it sound like those greedy “labor organizers” and agitators are at it once again. They just don’t want to pay their fair share of health care costs it seems to suggest. They are just a bunch of greedy, mooching state employees. That kind of thinking never ceases to amaze me. An athletic director gets a $60,000 dollar per year raise and state workers who are simply trying to avoid having $120 to $180 of their $200 raise, or less if you are an experienced educator, taken back to pay for insurance. How is that greed?

Even Though Controversial Health Plan Changes on Hold, Educators Had Better Remain Vigilant!

Apparently, the board planning to vote on changes to the NC State Employees Health Plan has decided to hold off voting on those controversial changes proposed earlier in the week. According to WRAL (See “State Heath Plan Will Put Off Discussion of Controversial Changes”) and emails from lawmakers, this board will only “vote on changes in store for 2017, including rises in costs for members.” That is certainly some good news to educators and state employees, but not entirely good news. Applause certainly goes out to all of North Carolina legislators who, no doubt, put pressure on this board to "hold off” on making the controversial changes. But "holding off” certainly does not mean the issue is dead. State employees and educators need to remain vigilant, because this will definitely come back in some form.

The increased costs in 2017 in the State Health Plan is still cause for concern. For example, after 20 plus years in education, I wish I could count the times that our state has engaged in a bit of “bait-n-switch” with our pay increases and health insurance. There have been quite a few times that they have provided raises to teachers, then, when the next health insurance cost increases come around, those increases immediately go to pay for the increased health insurance costs. This kind of switcharoo is common and is just plan old political practice in North Carolina. Politicians can say, with a straight face, that they gave teachers a raise, and even pass a lie detector test. After all, appearances mean a hell of lot more than truth and reality in the political game in North Carolina, no matter political party.

As I indicated earlier, educators and state employees need to remain vigilant, especially with a legislature known to put together some late night shenanigans to get things passed before anyone notices.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

More Info on NC Legislature’s Gutting of Health Insurance for Educators and State Employees

According to a WRAL article “State Health Plan Board Could Remove Option Popular with Workers” our North Carolina Legislators and Governor Pat McCroy might even make it worse for educators and state employees when it comes to insurance. Due to our state politician’s demand to find savings, here’s just some of the ways our political leaders are trying to find ways to degrade our health insurance:

  • elimination of coverage for spouses.
  • drop the 80/20 plan which a large number of state employees have chosen.
  • add premiums and raise deductibles.
  • passing on more costs to state employees.

This is on top of a refusal by our North Carolina legislature and North Caroline Governo Pat McCroy to substantially raise teacher and educator pay in North Carolina. It is becoming fairly clear that this legislature and governor’s office does not see state employees as valuable to the state of North Carolina. The haven’t listened to educators in the past so I am not sure they will in any way change their ways.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

NC State Legislature & Governor Find Backdoor Way to Cut Educator & State Employee Benefits

The deviousness and downright deviltry of our North Carolina political leaders never, ever ceases to amaze me. North Carolina educators enjoy salaries at the bottom of the barrel, and now, it seems, our legislature and governor have found yet another way to stick it to, not only educators, but this time, to all state employees. They are tinkering and destroying what little health insurance benefits we have left. Their deviousness never ends. I suggest all North Carolina state employees contact their legislators today and the governor’s office to object to this latest slap across the face. If you want to know more about this diabolical move to destroy our health benefits, check out this video.

So What If I'm Using Microsoft Office 365! It's Still a Good Bet!

I recently purchased Microsoft Office 365. I realize there's a great deal of "anti-Microsoft" sentiment floating around, but this office suite still has proven its utility, over and above any other office suite. It has features that make it so useful for my work as an administrator and my doctoral work and writing.

  • Seamless integration across devices. The Office 365 package I purchased allows installation on 3 computers and 5 mobile devices. I can work on my reading notes in OneNote and then access them on my iPhone or iPad and not miss a beat. This cross device access is exactly what those of us who use multiple devices need.
  • Simplified user interface. Some may have actually enjoyed the days when Microsoft Office had all those buttons, but I for one, enjoy the less is best concept.
  • Integration with Mendeley Citation Manager Software. This is probably important to only a few, but I am in the midst of writing my dissertation, so having the Mendeley is a plus. Mendeley is the free citation manager program that I am currently using. (If you're interested in downloading Mendeley, check out their web site here.)

Microsoft Office 365 was worth the close to 100 dollars I spent. By using it you get Microsoft cloud space subscription as well. The value of an Office Suite these days, as with any productivity program is not always with all the things it can do and its features; it is its simplicity and access across devices.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Are NC Politicians So Reluctant to Raise Teacher? They’ve Been Listening to Frederick Taylor Too Long

"The writer has great sympathy with those who are overworked, but on the whole a greater sympathy for those who are under paid. For every individual, however, who is overworked, there are a hundred who intentionally underwork---greatly underwork---every day of their lives, and who for this reason deliberately aid in establishing those conditions which in the end, inevitably result in low wages." Frederick Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management

Could it be that at the heart of the reluctance by North Carolina political leaders to provide raises to teachers is the Taylorist belief that “most teachers are lazy, therefore, none of them deserve a raise?" In his Principles of Scientific Management, Frederick Taylor made it clear that he believed that workers are inherently lazy and will seek to do least amount of work they can. There can be no doubt that Taylor’s Principles have been and consistently are applied to education, but this stubborn reluctance on the part of our state political leaders seems to defy logic at times, unless your logic happens to be based on Taylorist principles. That logic goes: “Because most teachers are lazy, we only want to reward the few who aren’t."

Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, though written a little over a hundred years ago are still bedrock thinking in business and I would contend much of our schools and their operations. Since our legislative leaders see the application of the business and corporate model to everything as the ultimate answer, it only stands to reason is that the last thing they want to do is give those “lazy teachers a raise.” Instead of finding ways to improve North Carolina teacher pay , they continually look for ways to reward “good” teachers.

The problem becomes though how do you define “good” teachers? If you follow Taylorist principles to the maximum, you must rely on science to identify those “good teachers.” In our American Taylorist education system, the only measure of a “good teacher” often perceived to be “scientific” is a test score. A merit pay system where pay is based on test scores is usually the option explored, because, after all, the job of teachers is to produce student achievement, and test scores are an accetable proxy for student achievement. But most psychometricians and educators who know education, know this to be incorrect. Tests just are incapable of capturing all worthwhile learning, and they are impossible instruments to measure achievement in the arts and performance-based disciplines. If you make the product for which teachers are rewarded test scores, then anything that can’t be tested or is not tested automatically becomes irrelevant.
So then how do you reward “good teachers?” Some of our politicians talk about rewarding teachers who work in science and math, and other hard to fill areas with more pay. Additionally, they want to pay more to teachers who take on additional responsibilities. Certainly, it is understandable to try to find ways to fill those math and science positions, as it is also understandable to try to find ways to reward teachers who take on additional responsibilities. But by focusing only those in hard-to-fill areas, aren't they saying that only teachers in math and science are “good teachers?” “Good teachers” are not just those who teach in areas deemed “highly-valued” by the current regime. To reward only those teachers immediately subjugates English teachers, foreign language teachers, kindergarten teachers, and guidance counselors. They are not seen as valuable. Our cultural richness exists because the arts are valued, literature is valued, film is valued. Like a good Taylorist though, our political leaders and even education leaders want to subjugate every aspect of education in the pursuit of economic dominance anyway.

As far as rewarding teachers for taking on additional responsibilities, what about the hard and difficult job that these teachers already do? The idea of rewarding additional responsibilities is so wrought with the stench of Taylorist thinking, that it should be discarded immediately. It communicates to all teachers that they do not deserve a raise. It tells them they are not working hard enough. It tells them that they currently do not earn the salaries they currently receive.

In the end, our state political leaders don’t really think our educators in this state work hard. There are certainly lazy educators, just like there are lazy legislators, governors, and business men, even CEOs. Lazy leadership is relying on belief without going out and gathering the facts before making decisions, and that’s what these merit pay ideas demonstrate. Our political leaders need to perhaps spend some time in the shoes of a kindergarten teacher or of a urban school principal. They perhaps they can make the correct decisions about educator pay.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Micro-Credentialing: Potential New Professional Development System or Fad?

Last evening, while participating in an #NCED Chat, I encountered a new idea for professional development called “micro-credentialing.” To be honest, I had seen the term, but had paid little attention to it until this Twitter chat. I think perhaps my understanding of “Micro-credentialing” was a bit mistaken at first, because I thought it was simply a system of using “badges” to reward teachers for the various kinds of training they do, very similar to what the boyscouts do. From my own experience and reading, such a carrot and sticks approach to professional learning set all kinds of alarm bells to ringing. But after reading about it a bit more, it looks to me more like a new system to deliver “professional development” to teachers.

According to my understanding now, the so-called “merit-badges” are incidental to the practice of trying to find ways to “certify” the skills which teachers have obtained, and they are not carrots to be dangled in front of educators to get them to engage in personal professional development. My understanding of “micro-credentialing” is that it is simply a system of delivering educator skill training in a more personalized manner. I think any attempts to modify professional learning in a more personal manner is laudable, since so many times, the sit-and-get trainings too often do not address personal needs. Despite the promise of “Micro-credentialing,” its ability to cross over into sustainable practice, there are some larger questions that have to be answered and problems that will need to be addressed.

First of all, credentials of any kind have to “mean something” to the practicing community, or have “value." To mean something those skills credentialed have to have value in the profession. For example, simply having a merit badge that indicates you’ve mastered a teacher skill like “wait-time” or “Grit and Reseillance,” as I found in one micro-credentialing system, must have some kind of acknowledgement from the profession that it is meaningful. If a teacher has earned a “badge” then the profession must look upon it as important and something to valued. It is this hurdle that might prove most difficult to any micro-credentialing system. Somehow, those distributing the credentials have to convince the profession and all those within it, that those credentials are valuable and really do mean something, and it is going to take more than quoting research to make that happen. The teaching profession is a social entity with its own rules for determining what has value and what has not, and which discourse is accepted and which is not. Just declaring that a badge has meaning by decree because it is backed up by research isn’t necessarily going to make it meaningful or give it value. This can be especially problematic because most educational research can be contradictory about the values of some of these skills. For example, one study may support the importance of that skill, and another study may lessen its importance. So much of what is declared effective in education is often subject to contradiction at times, so simply trying to validate micro-credentials with research isn’t always necessarily going to work. In the end, for this new way of delivering professional development to have value and meaning, the profession, not state level or federal government levels are going to determine its validity.

Secondly, if “micro-credentialing” gets too cozy with for-profit business, it could take on the same mistrust that education professional often still have for “for-profit” learning in general. My online reading about the micro-credentialing area seems to be tied to possible business ventures.There are centainly concerns about this. Business ventures in micro-credentialing would only succeed if as many people as possible earn the credentials, which means, it is not in their interest to prevent individuals from obtaining the micro-credentials, even if they haven’t quite met demonstration requirements. If they make the process too rigorous, profits will be smaller, making the whole enterprise not sustainable from an economic perspective. Because of this intense need for profit, these micro-credentialing business ventures could potentially become a “Micro-credentialing mills,” where payment equals badge. If that happens, the educational professional community will hardly see these credentials as being valuable and meaningful. In my estimation, because of this, the success of “micro-credentialing” will rely on colleges and universities leading the way, with practicing professionals being part of the process of development, introduction, and implementation.

Finally, for these “micro-credentials” to have credibility, careful attention will need to be focused on the credentialing process itself. For example, if obtaining the micro-credential involves demonstration artifacts, these artifacts must be complex enough to capture the skill being credentialed, and they must be perceived not as just a “hurdle to jump” or “check-box” to check. They must be authentic. They must be representative of the skill learned. But the reverse side is that developing the artifact must certainly be attainable with all of the other demands that teachers and educators have. The problem with most current professional learning, if demonstrations are required as a part of the process, they are perceived as hoops to jump through to obtain the credit. Once the credit is obtained, the learner never applies that learning again. Giving micro-credentials can give those who obtain them the false sense that I have learned that skill entirely. Most educator skills are much more complex, so that even if one understands it in one context, they may not be able to apply in other instances.

Micro-credentialing does offer an interesting system of providing individualized professional learning for educators. Unless its implementation considers these pitfalls and many others that befall educational programming, it could also be just another gimmick and fad. In the end, it is perhaps those who earn the micro-credential who will determine the fate of this idea. Those who have the credentials must genuinely be able to demonstrate those skills consistently in the live environment of the classroom. For example because I once learned how to tie four kinds of rope knots, does not mean that I can do it indefinitely, and in the midst of a raging storm. Credentials only mean something when they impact practice daily.