Friday, July 2, 2010

The End

After over two and a half years of blogging on this site, I'm hanging up my laptop. This is going to be my last post, at least for the forseeable future.

When I first started blogging, I didn't have any real goal in mind. Mainly, I thought it would be fun and I wanted to get my voice and my ideas out there. After 30 months, I feel like I've done that. And it has been fun. But there comes a point where I don't really think that I have anything new to say. Rather, I'm just finding new ways to say the same old things. Not that that's necessarily bad. But it's just not what I want to be doing.

So what am I trying to say with all this? Well, after giving it some thought, I think I can lay it out as a couple of big ideas.

1. It's never either/or
Despite all the claims that there's one way to do reform or that someone has found the right way to do anything and everyone who does it differently is wrong, it's a big mistake to start looking at the world as either/or. It's not curriculum vs. accountability or small class sizes vs. merit pay. When we start looking at things that way we're really limiting what we can accomplish. Most of the dichotomies are false and we need to keep that in mind. The problems we face in education are too big to be reduced to a single solution.

2. We need to look beyond schools
Ultimately, the problems in education require solutions that are bigger than can be implemented just in schools. To be sure, the schools themselves can use the work, but they're not alone. If we don't ensure that kids have safe neighborhoods, safe homes, good nutrition, proper health care, and more, how are we going to expect them to be able to learn to their full capacity? I'm not saying that kids can't learn unless their home lives are perfect. Obviously, that's not true. I am saying that if we want to make it easier for ourselves and truly invest in allowing all kids to achieve their potential, you aren't going to be able to do that in six hours a day, 180 days a year.

3. Focus on the schools and neighborhoods that need help
For al the talk about how broken the U.S. education system is, we actually do pretty well on the whole. Most kids get a pretty good education and we still lead the world economy in many of the areas that would be impossible if our whole system was a failure. However, there are schools and neighborhoods who are being failed spectacularly by the system. Those are the schools and neighborhoods that need our attention. Rather than spend all of our time trying to find ways to fix a giant system that, honestly, doesn't need fixing, let's look at where the problem is and fix it there. That might require that we change the whole system, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it. We need to target our solutions to where the problems really are.

4. Words matter
One thing that never fails to infuriate me is the incredible amount of hype and spin that takes place in education and the nearly uncritical reporting of that hype and spin. In the end, words matter because they shape perception and perception shapes how we approach issues. Too many of the words about education are sloppy or outright inaccurate. That leads to a skewed perception and all sorts of craziness. If we want to correct the educational problems in our country, we need to have a serious discussion about them and I don't know if that's possible in the current state of things. I don't know, but I haven't given up hoping.

It's with very mixed feelings that I bring this blog to a close. It has always been a lot of fun to write. I hope that you've also enjoyed reading it.

Thanks for reading and maybe we'll meet again somewhere down the trail.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Great Day for Education

You have to figure that June 28, 2010 is not going to go down as one of the all time great days in the history of American education. That's the day, after all, that the DOE and UFT celebrated the end of another school year by sniping at each other about whose fault it is that there's going to be a wacky start to the next school year with one day on, four days off, and then back to school.

Let's set aside - at least for the purposes of this post - whose fault it actually is. The DOE says that they want to make the change, but that the UFT won't let them. The UFT says that DOE has the power to do it without UFT approval, so they can't be blamed. So we've got plenty of finger pointing going on. Check that off the old to do list. All you really need to know at this point is that they're blaming each other for not being able to solve a problem.

Actually, all you really need to know is that the problem is not solved. That's right. The combined forces of the DOE and UFT can't even agree on how to solve something that they both say is a problem. That's insane!

I can't help but look at this situation and wonder where the grown ups are. Where's the person who's going to come in, look past the silliness, and get things done.

Let's be clear. In the grand scheme of things, this really isn't that big a deal. It's annoying and weird, but it's manageable. The fact that the DOE and UFT can't even get their act together to solve the little stuff doesn't fill me with confidence that they'll be able to solve the big stuff.

I blame both sides for this. This is just a silly squabble to try to score cheap points and in the end, it doesn't help anyone.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Beyond School

I've been seeing stories about cyberbullying popping up in the media quite a bit lately. I guess it's one of those stories that's pretty easy to cover and is guaranteed to arouse some feeling. I mean, who's in favor of bullying? I imagine editors across the country thinking, "We'll send a reporter to the school, talk to some bullied teens, and the story will just write itself. Piece of cake!" The New York Times is the latest entry with a pretty long story today.

Here's my take. I don't know whether or not schools have the authority to impose restrictions on what happens outside of schools. I also know that when school districts - like in New York - try to ban things like sexting, it raises the obvious question of how it's going to be enforced. Given that there are often issues with addressing misbehavior in school, how are we going to enforce rules on things that happen outside of school?

What comes to my mind, though, is that this latest push is symptomatic of society's larger expectation that schools are going to be able to fix everything that needs fixing in today's kids. Reading behind grade level? We need better teachers and more accountability and that will make all kids learn. Cyberbullying taking place at home? The school system will spring into action.

In either instance, I think the school-only approach is unrealistic. In either case, teachers and school administrators are constrained by time, access, and availability. Certainly schools can be the focal point for addressing issues having to do with kids. In fact, schools should be the focal point. But they cannot be the only point. Kids need more than schools.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Seems Like a Good Idea

It's hard to tell whether this is big news or not. On the one hand, the city seems to be moving away (at least slightly) from their position that bad schools must be closed at once. On the other hand, the whole thing seems awfully limited in scope, so we should exercise a little caution before hailing it as the wave of the future.

For those of you who don't like following links, the New York Times is reporting that the city and UFT have come to an agreement on following a transformation model for 11 of the lowest-performing schools in the city. As the name suggests, it's about turning schools around rather than closing them. The schools will hire master teachers who will train other staff at the school to try to develop the teachers there, student data will be used as a factor in rating teacher effectiveness, and ineffective teachers will face an expedited hiring process.

Now, with the caveat that all my information on this comes from a pretty short article in the newspaper, I'm going to go out on a limb to say that this makes sense to me. I've long been a proponent of working to better develop the teachers we have rather than fire everyone and tap into the imaginary pool of master teachers who just can't find a job as replacements. So I'm a big fan of that. I also broadly agree with the idea of stricter methods for evaluating teachers. Using student data as one of several factors for evaluating teachers makes sense to me too.

I'm impressed that the city and the union seem to have found a middle way forward here. Too often both sides dig into their bunkers and lob grenades back and forth. That's unhelpful to everyone. Let's hope the spirit of collaboration continues.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Appearance of Action

Upset with the lack of racial and economic diversity in its gifted and talented programs - and perhaps a little flustered under questioning by City Council members - the DOE is apparently going to be looking at the possibility of changing how they determine G&T eligibility. They'll be looking for a test that's a little harder to prep for so that families from wealthier communities can't "game" the test by hiring tutors, etc.

I have to say, this is not a great moment in critical problem solving by the DOE.

First of all, the idea that they're going to stumble upon some un-gameable test is just ludicrous. Change the test and you'll change how people prepare for it. That's all. Those families that want to prep their kids are going to prep their kids and it's really just a matter of what they're prepping for.

More fundamentally though, the DOE actually seems to be missing what the real issue is. Do they really think that the reason more kids from the Upper East Side are determined G&T eligible than kids from the South Bronx is that the Upper East Siders are "expending thousands" of dollars on test prep? Really? That's the only difference they might be able to think of?

My biggest pet peeve in any sort of policy discussion is when people try to look like they're doing something rather than actually doing something. The DOE is far from alone in this practice. But they are certainly guilty of it. Changing the test from one to another gives the appearance of action and seeking to redress apparent racial and economic inequality, but really it's just changing how that inequality is measured. It doesn't matter what ruler you use, until you actually do change something, the results aren't really going to change.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Need for Fathers

Regular readers of this blog should know by now that I favor a pretty broad approach to tackling educational problems. Rather than just focus on what goes on in the school building, I think you need to look at what happens in the lives of children when they're in school and when they're out of it. That's why my eyes perked up a bit when I read in the New York Times about a program in the Bronx to teach men how to be better fathers.

The article was disappointingly short on details, so I'm afraid that I can't comment much on it other than to say that, in theory, it sounds like a pretty good thing.

I'm not one to say that the only way to raise a child is in a familiy where both parents are married and still together. But it does help. At the very least, children do need multiple people who care about them in their lives - both women and men. The statistics are grim in poor, urban communities about this kind of arrangement. Too many women are raising too many children on their own. That's a problem.

The program highlighted in the Times seemed to have worked with 16 men. That's not a lot, but it is a start. If the program works at getting men involved in the lives of their children, let's hope that it grows.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Do We Still Need TFA?

A sure-fire sign that things are getting tough is when you start seeing people blame groups for something that isn't really their fault. So when you read a story out of Las Vegas about teachers there being wary of Teach for America and thinking that they might not be needed and may even be keeping teacher salaries artificially low, it's a sign that things are not great in Las Vegas. (Full disclosure: I am a TFA alum myself, but not in Las Vegas, though I have been there.)

First, let's rebut the whole TFA is keeping salaries low theme. According to the article, TFA has placed 308 teachers in Las Vegas over the last six years. That's about 51 a year. For 51 teachers - who are part of the union, by the way - to have any impact at all on the average teacher salary would mean that you have the tiniest district in the world or people are talking nonsense. My bet is nonsense given that they employ well over 16,000 teachers.

That's pretty low-hanging fruit, but it's worth pointing out since it shows the realm of ridiculousness that we're talking about.

The other, and more serious, issue raised by the article centers around what the role of TFA should be in during this time of layoffs and cutbacks. As teaching jobs become harder and harder to come by, is there still a role for TFA to play in terms of bringing in new teachers to the system?

I think that the answer is yes, but with changes. TFA needs to take a more focused approach at this point and probably needs to cut back on how many teachers it recruits. But even with layoffs and cutbacks, there are going to be some positions that are harder to fill than others and that's the role that TFA thrives in. Is Teach for America the answer to all of education's problems? Absolutely not. Does it still have a role to play in education today. Absolutely.