Thursday, October 27, 2011

When Governors Talk Education, It's About the Economy, Stupid

When Governors Talk Education, It's About the Economy, Stupid

Although I'd noticed the talk about how we are hurting our future economy by having poorly educated youth, I'd never thought about the implications of framing education in that way. It makes sense, though, that we should be talking about education as much more than creating a skilled workforce. Isn't that part of the current Occupy Wall street movement? That the only value society places on people, things, endeavors, has to do with their literal, dollar amount values? Including public education. I guess it's a means to an end. In a capitalist society, you have to find ways to make things profitable in order to make them happen. So, I see why politicians are talking about the future monetary benefits of a strong public education system. Yet, it does seem wrong..... Public education is NOT a business and does not have a bottom line or profits (strictly speaking). How can we shift the conversation? Personally, I can be more careful with my words from now on. Other ideas?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Unions Still Mulling Harkin ESEA Bill

Unions Still Mulling Harkin ESEA Bill

Evaluations seem to be the hot topic in my state as well as on Capitol Hill lately. Is it useful to talk about evaluations without asking what happens to teachers who receive poor evaluations? Or without asking whom will be evaluating teachers and how highly trained are they in this area? I don't really think so. I guess it speaks to the fact that I've been in education for a while now that I'm thinking, "this won't really change things in my classroom." Unless my district and school supervisors take these evaluations very seriously and put a plan in place that goes far beyond what this bill says, things will continue to proceed as they are now. I guess the idea is that data doesn't lie; that having data will preclude principals from simply checking "satisfactory" for every teacher. I'm not sure, though. If teachers and administrators don't really trust the data, then it doesn't matter.

That said, I've been given the opportunity to do some evaluations/observations for one of my colleagues. I found out yesterday, and I've really been mulling over how to make my evaluations meaningful. Potentially, I think that teachers could evaluate and help one another in ways that administrators couldn't, since they are out of the classroom. I am sure that I'll be able to give some valid feedback, but if the person being evaluated is not asked to immediately act on that feedback, it will fall to the wayside. That's at least what happens to me. I've been observed, had a debrief session, nodded my head about the ways that I could improve my practice, and then not done anything about it - because I was too busy to actually make a change. It's only when I was asked to demonstrate something that I'd done differently as a result of my observation, that I actually changed my practice. But how can I pull that off with a colleague? I guess we'll see. I'm going to try.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Can We Learn From Finland?

What Can We Learn From Finland?

I don't know anything but the basics on Finland: highest PISA scores, virtually no high stakes testing, low poverty rate, low racial diversity, selective teaching profession, etc.

According to me, what is the biggest difference between education in Finland and education in America? I think the selectivity of the teaching profession makes a big difference. I don't usually walk around insulting the intelligence of teachers - overall I think teachers are a creative, dedicated, smart group of people - but I have been in classes with or worked with a fair number of people who are exceptions. I suppose doctors or people of any profession might feel the same way - that there are people about whom you wonder, "how did they make it into this profession?" Having taken the entrance exams and college courses required to obtain a teaching lisence, I don't really wonder. Just about anyone who wants to become a teacher can. I mean, there are ads on the side of my facebook account that say "get a teaching license." Come on now.

Finland is selective and then gives its teachers opportunities to feed their ambition, their creativity, and their desire for respect. The United States does none of those things. So, not only are we not selective - but we make the profession unattractive to those driven, high-achieving people who manage to find their way into the profession on their own.

I also think the vast difference in poverty level impacts student achievement. I come from an upper-middle class family and experienced very few obstacles to making it to school on time, every day, with nothing to worry about aside from doing well in school. Not only am I faced with very different realities for my students, but I actually experience them within my own family. I am a teacher, for goodness sake, and have had to take days off of school for the types of "family emergencies" that I believe higher income students rarely experience. I have spent days at school (in my teacher role) unable to concentrate because of a "family emergency." I have been unsure about how to afford child care, how to maintain reliable transportation, etc. My situation is not dire by any means, but I have had a taste of some of the barriers that must be overcome by some of my students. And I know that my peers and I typically didn't face those type of situations while growing up in our suburban neighborhoods. For the 22% of American students who live in poverty and the countless more who live just above the poverty line - every day may provide a new obstacle to achieving their potential. Overcoming these obstacles will take more than emulating Finland's public education system.

Overall, I'm of the mindset that it's inappropriate to take something that works in 1 situation and assume that it will also work in all other situations. This is true for canned curricula, education legislation, and public school structures. That's not to say there aren't lessons to be learned, but I believe Americans will have to figure out a system of education that works for us and our unique situation. Just because Finland doesn't use high stakes testing doesn't mean we shouldn't. It's important to note that public schools can be successful without high stakes tests, but it's also important to remember that we didn't even really know the extent of America's achievement gap until we examined our high stakes test scores.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Opinion Article in the Albuquerque Journal: Everyone Must be Held Accountable

I had an emergency staff meeting this morning, to discuss the number of students who are failing 1 or more of their classes.  The discussion was mostly around the effort teachers feel like they are going to, to provide opportunities for students to do make up work or to come in and get extra help.  And the students simply aren't taking the bait.  I believe this sentiment can be found in just about every school (and in particular those schools considered low-performing) - that teachers can go out of their way to provide opportunities for success for students, but at the end of the day - a high school student is allowed to choose to fail.

I'm glad to have read the opinion article by Dolly Juarez in the Journal this morning though.  Because my belief is that teachers and schools can't allow students to be so apathetic that they fail their classes. Schools either have to force students to do the work, even though they act like they don't care.  OR, they have to find ways to motivate students to care enough to do the work on their own.  It places a huge burden on teachers and schools - it's a totally different way of thinking than just "i'll provide the opportunities and the students can take them if they want to."  Yet, if low-performing schools want to make gains - we have to find a way to share the burden.  It's the only way.  Providing opportunities isn't going to be enough to overcome the pervasive apathy that can be found in low-performing schools across the nation.

ABQ/ OPINION: School Success Truly a Partnership
By Dolly Juarez [Co-founder of Southwest Learning Centers]
ABQ Journal
October 8, 2011

Recently, Ruben Navarrette Jr. editorialized about the lack of accountability in American public schools. He pointed to the recent decision by the Obama administration to allow states waivers on several of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Navarrette claims President Obama’s decision to scrap the timetable that teachers unions never liked is part of a movement away from holding teachers accountable. The columnist derides the notion that states can on their own create reforms such as raising academic standards, creating a fair teacher-evaluation system based on how well students do on tests and forging real change in low-performing schools.

As an educator in New Mexico for over 40 years, and as a co-founder of the three top-performing public schools in all of New Mexico, charter schools named Southwest Primary Learning Center, Southwest Intermediate Learning Center and Southwest Secondary Learning Center, I have no political ax to grind, merely an observation that holds true regardless of the administration that is in power. Democrats and Republicans alike have for many years promised that “they” are the ones who will really hold teachers accountable.

New Mexico’s position in the nation on educational criteria remains distressingly low. 
  • One out of two freshmen on average will not graduate from high school, and 
  • too many Hispanic, Native American and African-American children score significantly behind their Anglo and Asian counterparts on New Mexico-mandated tests in all subject areas. 

These children become trapped in a pattern of low proficiency in reading and writing that starts in kindergarten and continues throughout the K-12 educational system. Students with disabilities are failing to meet a satisfactory proficiency level despite the federal and state government’s attempt to create accommodations and reasonable testing benchmarks. It is clear that the status quo in New Mexico is not acceptable despite the best efforts of many educational reformers. An alarming number of New Mexico’s students cannot compete for a diminishing number of jobs.

Our belief when we founded the Southwest Learning Centers was that there had to be a better way. 

Yes, we hold our teachers accountable, but we also hold our students and our parents accountable. Our educational community is based on the premise that no one group can solely claim responsibility for our successes or failures, but rather it is our shared responsibility to ensure that every child is mastering content on a daily basis.

At the Southwest Learning Centers we believe that communication is the key. Successful intervention is much harder if a student has slipped behind and the parents are notified six or seven weeks after the fact. We identify problems and address them early with “the parents as educational partners” and strategically work through the issues, whether they are academic, social or behavioral.

Parents must collaborate with teachers to find meaningful solutions. In a typical classroom, you will find a diversity of learning styles and skill sets represented in the classroom. Instead of forcing everybody to meet at an arbitrary point, it is our belief that education can be tailor-made to meet the needs of each student.

By meeting the students where they are at and creating opportunities for them to succeed, our students have been able to achieve among the highest test scores in New Mexico. And 100 percent of our students with disabilities are achieving proficiency.

At Southwest Learning Centers, despite the fact that one out of three of our students is eligible for free lunch, we do not have an achievement gap. In fact, our Native American, Hispanic and African Americans students consistently perform as well or better than their Anglo and Asian counterparts.

Over the years I have heard a lot of rhetoric about accountability, but I ask policymakers to consider the notion that parents and students and administrators as well as teachers must be held accountable if we are to make measurable gains.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011