Archive for the ‘Ed Leadership’ Category

An Open Letter to Education Reformers

Dear “Education Reformers”:

You know what? I’m convinced. I’ve decided to believe you when you say that you want what’s best for kids, and that you are concerned about the future of the children of this country as well as the future economic prosperity of the country itself. I, and every other educator and parent I’ve ever met, share your concern and your desire to improve education in this country. It is, after all, important.

But let’s talk about the methods you’ve chosen to achieve this goal, shall we?

Do you have children yourself, Mr/s. Ed reformer? Have you ever tried to convince one of your children to do something they didn’t want to do? And, in this attempt, did you threaten your child with consequences if they didn’t do what you wanted them to do? How did that work out for you?

“Eat your peas, or no dessert!”
“Clean your room, or you’re grounded!”
“Mow the lawn, or you can’t use the car this weekend!”
“Stop crying before I give you something to cry about!”

Odds are, you got the behavior you wanted, be it eating peas or a mown lawn. But did your threat of punishment make your child enjoy eating their peas? Was the lawn mowed better than it ever had been before? What was the quality of the work the child produced? Was it the last time you ever had to threaten punishment to get the same behavior? Did the quality of the mowing, or the enthusiasm of eating peas maintain the same high level? Or did you get a half-hearted, bare-minimum attempt to fulfill the request you’d made, along with a bitter, surly child who said they hated you? Or was it that you simply wanted compliance, not a real change in behavior, not real quality work?

Have you ever tried to get an adult to do something for you? A co-worker, subordinate, spouse, or stranger? What approaches have worked best for you? Threatening discipline or termination, divorce, or physical violence? Or appealing to their sense of professionalism, responsibility, or community? Asking them to change, or telling them to change? Have you seen significant drops in crime that you can attribute to the threat of severe consequences alone, or do such drops come with an accompanying increase in police presence and community improvement initiatives?

I think you’ll agree: you can’t threaten or punish people into doing what you want them to do; at least, not if you want them to continue doing it after you let up on the punishment. You get them to do what you want when you work with them, treat them with the respect they are due, and value their contributions.

So, being the smart, dedicated people you are, I ask you: why do you think taking away teachers’ unions, due process rights, salaries, and professional standing will make them teach better?

“Care more about students, or we’ll cut your salaries!”
“Teach better, or we’ll cancel the collective bargaining agreement!”
“Work harder, and longer, for less money, or we’ll replace you with long-term subs who work cheaper!”

Look, we get it; the economy is bad, and everyone has had to tighten their belts (well, at least everyone who isn’t a CEO, but we’ll ignore that point for now.) Teachers and other school employees around the country have done exactly that, accepting pay freezes and cuts, furlough days, and abbreviated school years along with reductions in support staff, cuts in classroom supplies, fewer visits from the custodian, and larger class sizes, all accompanied by the ever-present threat of the RIF notice, and have accepted them largely without complaint and while minimizing the impact on kids in their classrooms. And in exchange for these sacrifices, we’ve been told that we’re overpaid, lazy, and concerned more about our big, fat pensions than we are our students’ achievement. We’re told we can’t be trusted to do our jobs without frequent visits from “experts” who have never actually worked with kids to make sure we’re doing it right. We’re told that years of experience and advanced degrees are meaningless in comparison to the “enthusiasm” of a Teach For America teacher with 5 weeks training and an Ivy League college loan debt they’re hoping to have forgiven after 2 years. We’re told that insisting on the right to bargain collectively for salary, benefits, and working conditions makes us “defenders of the status quo” who don’t care about kids.

So, we comply, but our heart isn’t in it. We’ll administer the standardized tests that don’t really tell us what you say they do, and in the process we’ll kill our kids’ natural curiosity and joy of learning, because “you measure what your treasure,” and if it’s not on the test, we don’t care. We’ll read scripted lessons to our classes of 35+ kids, and refuse to answer questions that aren’t in the teachers’ guide because we can’t be trusted to do so. We’ll skip art, music, and PE because they aren’t tested. And we’ll burn out and leave the profession in droves, because that’s what you want, and you’ll find (probably too late) that our kids are worse off than they were before.

Well, here’s another option: include us in the process. Let’s work together to make schools better for kids. For kids, not for CEOs, not for politicians, but for kids. We want to do what’s best for kids; not what’s cheapest, or most popular amongst the Tea Party set, but what is best for kids. Treat us with respect, and we will be willing to listen. We want to make our profession better, just as you claim; work with us to make it so. Please.

Sincerely,

Jim

A conversation with an ed leader

I had an awesome experience on Twitter Saturday evening, which has convinced me further of the value of social media as a means of building relationships and developing as a professional.
Below is the interaction I had with Diane Ravitch, noted education historian, author, and former Assistant Secretary of Education under Presidents G.H. Bush and Clinton. (I’ve edited it for flow, combining my extended-length tweets into a single comment, but have not changed any of the content. A link to the original conversation is here.)
I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised that she responded and star-struck that she spent the time to interact with me. (Well, to be honest, she was engaging in several conversations at the same time.) I couldn’t help but think, if I had walked up to her at some conference or seen her in a coffee shop (unlikely as I live on the opposite coast), would she have been as willing to engage in the conversation? Would I have been as wiling to approach her? Was it this medium that made possible the interaction?
Honestly, while the conversation was exciting for me (she is an education celebrity, after all!) we really didn’t resolve anything. She did a fine politician’s job of talking around my questions, but at least she was willing to engage in the conversation. (You’ll notice, in the middle I invited former DC Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to jump in as well. While I didn’t expect she would, I have hopes that this could be the catalyst for an interaction between the two main “sides” in the education reform debates.)

  • WiscPrincipal: @DianeRavitch Too many leaders want to measure education effectiveness like they measure the Dow average.
  • Me: @WiscPrincipal @DianeRavitch Because #s are easy, whether or not they are accurate. Can compare one set of #s to another and claim results.
  • DianeRavitch: But the numbers don’t mean much. Teaching to test, gaming the system, narrowing curriculum.
  • Me: @DianeRavitch I agree. We’re operating schools in a culture that’s used to comparing everything- final scores, top salaries. People want a value they understand, can comp to others, know their tax money is buying the best “product” posble. We need another measure.
  • DianeRavitch: Who are the winners? Those with most money, highest scores? They raced to the top. What about the rest of us? Are they better?
  • Me: @DianeRavitch That’s the problem- media, general public, DOE are trying to measure schools w/ numbers that don’t measure what we REALLY do. We need to find a simple, understandable metric for evaluating schools that is accurate and keeps us accountable.
  • irasocol: @Me @DianeRavitch do you imagine this “simple metric” exists? Just asking
  • @irasocol @DianeRavitch Not sure, but I hope so. Otherwise, we’ll be assigned numbers that don’t tell the real story.
  • Me: @m_rhee Would love to hear your voice in this conversation, too. Do a Twitter search for @DianeRavitch and see what’s being said.
  • DianeRavitch: what an idea!
  • DianeRavitch: There is no simple metric for evaluating schools because they have many purposes and each human being is unique. Simple is wrong. By the nature of measurements, they compel you to do what they want, not what you should do.
  • Me: @DianeRavitch I get that. But the problem is, the public wants a measure, and will accept a poor one in absence of an accurate one. How do we meet that demand and stay true to our core purpose of doing what is best for kids?
  • DianeRavitch: I’ve tried to explain that our measures are dumbing schools down and are misleading. Bad measures worse than none at all.
  • Me: @DianeRavitch Again, I agree. But the demand isn’t going to go away anytime soon. How do we balance? A good measure the public will accept?
  • DianeRavitch: Honestly, I don’t know, I only know that measures we now use are hurting kids, undermining education, destroying creativity.
  • Me: @DianeRavitch I don’t know either, but think it should be a priority. When we complain and don’t offer solution, makes us look like whiners.
  • DianeRavitch: When policy driving teachers off a cliff, you have to say this is wrong. People pushing bad ideas have no uncertainty.
  • Me: @DianeRavitch The divisiveness in ed policy is reflective of that in nation at large. Saying “Don’t measure us b/c it’s bad!” no matter how correct doesn’t serve our purpose. Need to find a way to bridge the gap, meet in the middle.
  • DianeRavitch: Thanks for the great chat tonight! See you again another night.
  • Me: @DianeRavitch Enjoyed it, thanks!

What was exciting for me about this conversation was not what we were able to accomplish, but the fact that it took place at all. With a tool like Twitter, or Facebook, or Plurk, or whatever, the common in-the-trenches folk are able to interact with those making and influencing policy. And while someone like Ravitch or Rhee may be using Twitter to push their own agenda, at least it gives the rest of us a public forum in which to participate.

So, what do you think?