Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Grading Parents: How a Florida Law Highlights Exactly What is Wrong With Education

I can hear the comments from teachers now:

"This is the greatest law ever!"
"YEAH!  It's about time we make parents responsible!"

A Florida representative recently proposed a bill that would require kindergarten through third grade teachers to grade their students' parents.  This is a teachers' dream.  

Why?  Our experiences tell us our students' success is directly  correlated to their home life, which is correlated with parental involvement.  As involvement goes up, achievement goes up.  Increasing parental involvement makes a better student, generally speaking.

So why is this a bad idea?  

It's another example of the system's failures being blamed on something besides the system itself.  Teachers administrators, school boards, curriculum, textbooks, lack of technology, and a myriad of other cogs in the machine of education have been blamed for the failures of public education.  

We've taken dramatic steps to change these elements, usually by "making them more accountable".  Has it worked?  Not according to this article.  

It doesn't take a sociology PhD to understand what is happening.  Our government is "raising the bar" by increasing graduation requirements and adding punitive consequences to high-stakes standardized tests.  This sounds like a great idea... on paper.

In reality, no amount of money, programs, teacher expertise, or curriculum is going to significantly change student ability.  We measure student success by a shockingly narrow range of ability and very specific skills.  A good percentage of our society simply does not excel at those specific measures of "ability."  

Since schools are being judged on things like graduation rates, they begin to cut corners to artificially increase graduation rates.  What's the alternative?  The laws don't give schools an alternative.

What's worse than the kids graduating with a watered-down degree?  The kids that fall through the cracks.  The laws require schools to continually increase test scores and graduation rates.  Most of this can be done by lowering standards, thus inflating grades.  Still, some kids can't hack even that level.  What do we do with these kids?  We get rid of them by tagging them as "behavior problems" and shipping them to alternative schools or expelling them altogether.

This Florida bill simply shifts some of the blame to parents.  Is it their fault their kid is better at drawing than long division?  And will this bill somehow change that?

The problem is obvious.  School policies are being determined by politicians that have little or no understanding of actual human behavior in general, and the inner-workings of the process of educating children in particular.  
The solution is equally obvious.  We need to stop treating kids like numbered cattle.  We need to stop assuming we can treat children like machines where inputting "X" will result in "Y" results.  We need to treat each and every child like the individual they are.  We need to create an environment where their individual talents can blossom.  We need to foster creativity, critical thinking, and the intrinsic love of learning through exploration and discovery.  We need to abandon this dumb-ass idea of "accountability", stop blaming parents, students, teachers, administrators, and other groups indiscriminately, and refocus our priorities.  

What we are doing does not work.  Doing more of it is just plain stupid.  


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Anti-Union BS: Let's Call a Spade a Spade

The current situation in Wisconsin (and elsewhere) is interesting.  An anti-union governor and legislature proposed legislation that would, among other things, severely weaken the collective bargaining rights of teachers.  

This battle between unions and the anti-union crowd is not new.  It has existed since workers first began uniting.  Any time you have two groups with competing interests, you have conflict.  In Wisconsin, it's not the battle that troubles me.  It's the rhetoric.

Both of the political parties involved have made the claim that they are taking their respective sides for the betterment of the kids.  This is bullshit.  

Both sides are simply pandering to the groups that are most likely going to help them get reelected.  Republicans want to weaken unions because organized labor typically supports their opposition.  Weaken the union, lessen your opponent's coffers.

Democrats pander to the union for the exact opposite reason.  Organized labor supports Democratic candidates.  Strengthen (or in this case protect) the power of unions and you increase your ability to get reelected.

Political parties are organizations.  As I mentioned a few months ago, the primary goal of any organization is to keep the organization alive.  The battle being played out in the Wisconsin Legislature's rotunda has nothing to do with the welfare of kids.  It's a political pissing match.  

Of course, this brings up the question of devaluing teacher pay and benefits, which is the stated goal of the Republicans.  This battle, like the organized labor battle, has been fought for years.  

The arguments are familiar- one side wants to see teacher pay and benefits cut because it is a major expense.  Schools cost taxpayer money.  An easy way to reduce this cost is to cut personnel costs.

On the other side, if teaching is devalued too much, the motivation to become or remain a teacher erodes.  Why bother with an already-difficult career that requires a high degree of entry level education and never-ending continuing education if the pay and benefits suck?  Who would be attracted to the profession? 

Walmart developed a pretty good anti-union system where employee benefits and pay are at or near the bottom of their profession.  Look how successful that organization has become.  Is this the model we want our public schools to replicate?

If we are really concerned about the students, we need to seriously consider a complete overhaul of our education system.  Any ideas?


Monday, February 21, 2011

Are Schools Institutions of Marginalization?

In reading "The Art of Nonconformity" by Chris Guillebeau, I came across a quote:

"Unreasonable," unrealistic," and "impractical" are all words used to marginalize a person or idea that fails to conform with conventionally expected standards."

Is it just me, or are our schools essentially tools perfectly designed to marginalize those that lie outside our seemingly arbitrary standards?  Are we doing our kids a disservice by rejecting those students that do not perfectly fit our "ideal student" stereotype?  

We like to claim to teach critical thinking skills, but how often do we support kids that think critically about our schools?  

Here's a hypothetical situation:

Timmy is a kid in your third hour class.  You are presenting a well-planned lesson that has resonated with students in the past.  Timmy does not see the value of the project and demands to know why he has to do it.  You give him your rationale, which is educationally valid based on our training as professional educators.  Timmy rejects our explanation and gives his own interpretation of the lesson.

Do we credit Timmy for thinking critically?  Probably not.  In all likelihood, we punish Timmy because he's being insubordinate.  We marginalize Timmy because he disagrees. 

When we ask kids to think critically, wouldn't it be more accurate to ask them to think critically as long as they do not question our roles?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Five Monkeys Can Teach Us About Education

The following is a story adapted from Chris Guillebeau's "The Art of Non-Conformity".

A monkey-hating sadist put five monkeys in a cage.  The monkeys could not escape, but were given food and water at the bottom of the cage.  The food was bland an uninspiring but it was enough to sustain life.  The monkeys were destined to spend their lives looking out of the cage; watching an exciting life pass them by.  

One day, the sadist placed a ladder in the middle of the cage.  At the top of the ladder sat a bright yellow bunch of bananas.  One monkey, eager to break free from the bland food they were forced to eat, scaled the ladder.  Just as the monkey reached for the bananas, a hose appeared out of nowhere and doused the monkey with icy cold water.  The other monkeys were also doused.  

Over the next few days, different monkeys would attempt to reach the bananas.  Each time they were met with the same icy fate.  Eventually the monkeys began violently attacking any other monkey that attempted to scale the ladder.  The monkeys stopped trying.

About a week later, the sadist removed one monkey and replaced it with another new monkey.  Almost immediately, the new monkey started scaling the ladder to reach the bananas.  The other monkeys, familiar with their impending dousing, pulled the monkey off the ladder and beat it without mercy.  The monkey did not try again. 

The next day, another monkey was replaced.  The same scenario ensued.  After five days, all the original monkeys were replaced with new monkeys.  These new monkeys had never experienced the dousing, yet they violently attacked the new monkey when they tried to scale the ladder.  

Apply this lesson to schools.  How often do we accept uninspired mediocrity because we're taught to fear reaching for the bananas?  


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

School Budget Hacks: A Few Ideas to Save Money

School budgets are shrinking.  It's an inevitable fact.  It's a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future.

I have always been interested in the idea of self-sufficiency.  How can any organization or individual survive without any outside assistance?  In a time of crisis, it is comforting to know survival doesn't necessarily have to depend on others.

For schools, this idea manifests itself in savings.  Self-sufficiency for public schools is impossible.  Trying to become as self-sufficient as possible could be a worthwhile aim, however.

Over the years, I have proposed many ideas that would result in cost savings.  To the best of my knowledge, all were dismissed for a variety of reasons.  Most of the ideas involve technology.  Why?  My Master's degree is educational technology.  A majority of our class time was spent exploring methods to implement technology while saving money.

Perhaps some school (or organization) could benefit from these ideas.

Problem: How does a school acquire computer hardware?

Traditional answer: Get bids from corporations, spend a huge chunk of money on new equipment.  Fund with some sort of technology millage (i.e.- hit up the taxpayers).

My answer:  Solicit donations.  Businesses are always replacing computer hardware.  Small businesses do this on a fairly regular basis.  Large businesses do it on a frequent basis.  These businesses usually have to pay to dispose of hardware.  Alternatively, they can donate the hardware to a non-profit (like public schools) for a tax write-off. 

Even better, universities also replace hardware and have to dispose of the old stuff.  The advantage of large businesses and universities- the equipment is usually standardized, which makes maintenance slightly easier.

I started a program in my classroom using this exact model.  Businesses donated equipment.  I enrolled in Microsoft's Fresh Start program and received copies of Windows to install on the computers.  I used Open Office as my office suite.  I taught a group of kids how to maintain the entire lab.

The entire system worked perfectly.  Every kid had access to a computer.  If something broke, we had an army of eager kids to fix it.  They were learning an excellent real-world skill.  If it wasn't fixable, we had plenty of replacements.  We used open source software for everything.  On some computers, we used Linux instead of Windows so kids could learn that, too.

All of our computers were approximately three years old, and we had the capability to upgrade every year.  Based on my limited research, I would have been able to secure hundreds of computers every year... FREE!  There was zero software cost.  Zero maintenance cost.  Zero hardware cost.  Students learned real-world skills.  I even had computer business owners volunteer to help teach the kids or do work themselves.   Common problems like vandalism disappeared because kids took personal ownership in the lab... it was theirs.

Ultimately the program came to an end because class size exploded.  i no longer had the physical space in my classroom.

This program could be set up pretty much anywhere by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of computer hardware and software.  Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new equipment that has to be maintained and eventually replaced, consider this no-cost idea.

Problem: Computers need an operating system.

Traditional Answer: Microsoft Windows.

My Answer: Linux.  Back in the day, the Linux operating system was pretty complex.  There was a sharp learning curve to be able to effectively use it.  Those days have long since passed.  There are many versions of Linux available today that are easy to use.  Some are even geared toward education.

I have quite a few techie friends, several of which manage networks.  They rave about Linux!  It's easy to use, easy to administer, and perfectly stable.  Best of all, Linux is free.  Instead of spending a boatload of money on Windows upgrades every few years, move to Linux.

Problem: Students need an office suite to do work.  Specifically, they need a word processor, presentation software, and the like.

Traditional answer:  Microsoft Office.

My Answer:  OpenOffice.  I already mentioned this above, but it is worth mentioning again.  The software is free, stable, and easy to use.  It has the ability to handle many document types, many of which MS Office cannot handle.  Like the other stuff from above... it's free.

An alternative solution is Google Docs.  This is interesting... when Google first released the online-based suite, I suggested our school use it as an altrenative to MS Office.  The idea, like the others, was shot down.  This year, they decided to start using it.  Too bad it took a few years for that one...

Problem: Students and cell phones.  Cell phones have become staples in our lives.  Almost everybody carries them, including our students.  Schools are spending increasingly greater resources to fight cell phone possession.

Traditional Answer: Set increasingly restrictive policies and consequences to punish possession of cell phones.

My Answer:  Understand basic human psychology.  First, cell phones aren't simply technological toys to today's students.  They are their primary means of communication.  As humans, we have a drive to communicate... we're social animals.  When we ban cell phones, we're not banning a toy, we're banning communication.

Second, the fact that they are banned increases the desire to use them.  Most teens, in an effort to exert their independence, engage in rebellious behavior.  Setting strict rules only heightens the desire to rebel. 

If we respond with indifference, we remove a major thrill of using the phone.  Cell phone use would drop.

To further erode the allure of cellphones, we could adopt them for classroom use.  I proposed a program a few years ago that would use student cell phones as student-response systems.  Using a free website, a teacher could pose a question to the class.  Students would text their answers to a specified number, which would tabulate their answers.  The results would then show up on an overhead screen.  It's cool.  The real benefit- by making cell-phone use a part of the classroom experience, we further decrease the rebelliousness of its use.

Additionally,almost all cell phones today can be used as still and video cameras.  With free online editing software, teachers could do video projects without any cost to the district. 

Problem:  Paying for extracurricular programs can be very expensive. This is especially true for non-athletic programs as they often do not have the support of booster groups.

Traditional Solution:  Pay for the programs with school funds or have the groups fund-raise.

My Answer:  This isn't so much a unique idea, but rather a plan for a multi-faceted approach to fund-raising.  Don't rely on school funding (spend that money in the classroom) or have students do fund raising (takes their time, gets annoying).  After all, how many candy bars and do-it-yourself pizza kits can your community buy?  instead, plan one huge event and leverage various groups to increase its fundraising capacity.  This is what I did:

This was developed more or less by accident, but turned out to be a huge event with incredible potential for growth.  I had a few people that came to me with the idea of creating a gathering of barefoot runners (it's a hobby of mine) for a large race here in Michigan.  The idea eventually evolved into an attempt to break a word record fr the most barefoot runners ever to run in a single race.

After doing research, we found the Guinness stipulations wouldn't allow us to use that race.  We needed to find another location.  We were set to use a friend's business, but a fellow teacher approached me about a 5k she was planning as a fundraiser.  Realizing the barefoot race would be an excellent opportunity to boost the attendance for her 5k, we decided to move the event to my school.

The event itself ivnoved student volunteers, several of our non-athletic extracurricular groups, community volunteers, alumni, several local businesses, and a large international corporation.  We were able to leverage all of these groups to publicize the event.  We managed to attract about 300 people to the event.  Some came from as far away as Georgia and San Diego!  For fundraising, we had our school store make t-shirts that were sold, and I gave them copies of my barefoot running book to sell.

The best part- the local news picked up the story, which resulted in several newspaper and TV news stories immediately before our district was voting on a bond proposal.  We had a positive, fun story about our district... it was great PR!

The event was held and it was a ton of fun.  Unfortunately we didn't set the record as there were several logistical mistakes I made.  Guinness had very specific accounting procedures, which I messed up.

After the event, I was flooded with interest from runners and sponsors... they wanted to know what they could do to be part of the 2011 version.  Unfortunately the district put an end to the event, but this is what could have been:
  • Several major corporations were prepared to sponsor the event, which would have included valuable publicity AND plenty of freebies to distribute to participants,
  • Several local running groups were eager to get involved,
  • Participation was expected to explode... perhaps several thousand participants.
 If we would have attracted a conservative 2,000 participants, charged no participation fee, and sold one tshirt to each for a profit of $10, we could have raised $20,000 in one evening.  It would have been an event that would unite students, community members, local businesses, and large corporations.  It did and would provide great positive PR for schools.  It's a model that could be used in a variety of settings.

These are just a few ideal someone could use in an educational setting.  As costs rise, it makes sense to cut spending in areas that can be replaced by free alternatives.  
Do you have any similar ideas?  Leave your suggestions in the comments below!


Apathy in the Face of Crisis

There's an interesting trend among teachers.  I see it locally.  I see it at the state level.  I see it at the national level.  Teacher pay and benefits are under attack from all angles.  The response:  Apathy.

At the local level, my district is at the bottom of our county in regards to pay, yet we are above average in per-pupil spending.  Essentially, other districts pay their teachers more with less resources.  Yet we're expected to "make sacrifices", which is code for taking a pay cut. 

At the state level, legislative bills have been introduced that will force all public employees to pay 20% of their heathcare costs.  Another bill would lop off 5% of our pay by side-stepping collective bargaining.  Finally, our tenure laws are going to be seriously weakened.  These three measures would likely cost every teacher thousands of dollars per year.  The bills seemingly have support in both houses of the legislature and from the governor.  Public support is on their side.  It's not a matter of "if", rather "when".  The collective response:  Apathy.
At the national level... well, I think most of us are familiar with the plight of public education at the national level.

The apathy I see is a little shocking.  Teachers (and support staff and administration) are on the bring of losing thousands of dollars from their yearly salaries and an erosion of our powers to collectively bargain, yet nobody seems to care.  It is as if they think this won't happen if they just ignore it.  

Psychologically, we have a tendency to ignore disaster preparedness.  If we know something bad is inevitable, we still won't prepare.  Why?  Preparing creates a sense of pessimism and uncertainty about the future.  Go to an earthquake-prone area.  How many people are prepared for "the big one"?  Not many.  

This may be the same phenomenon.  We have a belief that if we just put our heads down and go about our business, everything will work out.  Unfortunately, this attitude is the exact reason these things are happening in the first place.  This attitude is the exact reason these changes are inevitable.  This attitude is the exact reason these things will continue to happen.

Maybe legislation is too abstract.  Maybe people would have a more visceral response if someone actually took several thousand dollars from their checking account.  Maybe it would be helpful to point out how much those thousands of dollars could add to their children's college fund.  Maybe a pamphlet for a tropical vacation would elicit some type of response. 

Apathy.  [sigh]

Monday, February 14, 2011

Roadmap to Innovation Part Three: Toxic People

In every walk of life, you may encounter toxic people.  These are people that will stand in the way of innovation.  These are the people that assure mediocrity.  When building an innovation-fueled organization, avoid these personality types.

The Gossip

The gossip is the person that derives intrinsic motivation from the sharing of negative knowledge.  They will repeat and rumor they acquire and go to great lengths to always be "in the loop".  Their information may be useful, sensationalized, or completely fabricated. 

It should be noted- humans frequently talk about each other, this is a method we use to build mutual trust and social bonding.  However, only about 5% of these conversations are negative.  This percentage is significantly higher among gossips, which also harms social bonding.

The gossip will ultimately hurt morale because they create an under-current of distrust.  The members of the organization become guarded, which limits the free flow of ideas.  This bottle-necking of creativity hurts innovation.

A gossip is difficult to correct.  If confronted, the gossip will simply find another less-detectable medium to spread their "news".

The Complainer

The complainer verbalizes their dissatisfaction on a frequent basis.  Their frequent highlighting of the negative corrodes overall morale much like the gossip.  While some attention to the negative aspect of any idea can be valuable feedback, the complainer's griping is not intended to be productive.

The complainer may manifest themselves in several ways.  Some may appear cheerful to the casual observer.  Some are grumpy and withdrawn.  Others are marked with a whiny disposition.  In any case, they frequently have a self-righteous attitude and a tendency to blame others.  

Complainers complain because the behavior provides self-validation.  First, it shifts blame to others.  Second, they can then compare themselves to others; their "goodness' overshadows others "badness".

Some complainers can be corrected by routinely highlighting their complaints as they may not be consciously aware of their habits.  In others the habit may be so ingrained no intervention will be effective.

The Suspicious Person
I have always found this personality type interesting.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, this personality type is toxic.  Many times, the suspicion of others is a manifestation of guilt.

It works like this.  When we assess the behaviors of others, we often frame their behavior with our own perception of the world.  If we believe all people are fundamentally good, we assume others think the same way.

It is relatively easy to see this phenomenon in action.  Simply observe how a person interacts with others.  You will quickly begin to see how they perceive the world.  More importantly, you will see how they perceive others. 

Back to the suspicious personality.  This personality type has a few hallmark behaviors, including:
  • Preoccupation with trust and loyalty,
  • Often believe others' behaviors have malicious motives,
  • Have few close relationships and may appear socially-awkward,
  • Are generally quiet, but can easily become argumentative,
  • Are especially sensitive to criticism,
  • Prefer passive-aggressiveness to direct confrontation,
  • Often exhibits a superiority complex (believe they are better than others),
  • Exhibits a black-and-white sense of right and wrong,
  • Are ineffective in team or group situations,
  • Often believes there are hidden meanings in seemingly innocuous events.
Where does this behavior type come from?  In most cases, certain parenting styles seem to cause it.  Parents generally spend a great deal of time teaching the child to be hyper-vigilant about making mistakes and make the child feel as if they are different from other children.

The interesting thing about this personality type is their behaviors are often incongruous with their beliefs.  They assume others have something to hide because they have something to hide.

If these people are part of your organization, be very cautious when considering their input.  Distrust is the antithesis of innovation.  In the educational or organizational setting this toxic suspicion will impede any real creativity and innovation.


Each of these three personality types are toxic to the innovative organization.  All three will limit the organization's ability to grow and prosper.  Be aware of these personality types when building a team. 

More importantly, consider yourself.  Do you have any of these characteristics?  Personally, I have fallen into the "complainer" trap before.  For me, it is an easy pattern of behavior to adopt.  Recognizing its futility has helped me identify the times I've fallen into that particular behavior pattern.
In future posts, I will continue to explore various personality types and their affect on organizations.

How about you?  What are your experiences with these personality types?

Roadmap to Innovation Part Two: Identify the Dreamers and Doers

There are two personality types that are especially useful to an organization:  the dreamer and the doer.

The dreamer is the big-picture person that generates new, innovative ideas.  This person is valuable because they are at the cutting-edge of innovation.  They will take old ideas and synthesize them with new ideas.  They create synergy.

Unfortunately, dreamers have a serious flaw... they are not adept at implementation.  They will develop an idea, but do not have the attention span to follow through and effectively implement the idea.

This is where the doer steps in.  Doers are people that love detail.  These are the people that get things done.  They are the planners and list-makers.

The doers have a serious flaw, also.  Their attention to detail prevents them from seeing the big picture, which makes them ill-suited for developing new ideas.

Fill your organization with equal numbers of both types and your organization will flourish.  The dreamers will develop the framework for innovative ideas; the doers will take care of implementation.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Roadmap to Innovation Part One: Reward Success and Failure, Punish Inaction

This is the first of a series about innovative organizations and how these lessons can be applied to schools.  As teachers, we can learn a great deal from other successful organizations.  

Part One: reward successes and failures, punish inaction and apathy.

Organizations that embrace innovation are successful.  The synergy that is created permeates all aspects of the organization.  This post will explain a slightly counter-intuitive idea- rewarding both successes and failures.

In American society, we routinely reward successes.  It seems like a natural idea.  You do something, do it right, and reap the rewards.  Break out the apple pie.

We also have a tendency to punish failures.  Again, this would seem to prompt people to work harder to succeed.  It seems logical.  However, punishing failure has one really bad consequence- it makes us gun-shy.  If we know we will be punished for attempting a difficult task, we may prefer the security of inaction.  Doing nothing results in no consequence, which is safer than risking punishment.

This creates an obvious problem... innovation grinds to a halt.  The smart organization understands that innovation is the key to success and protects it at all costs.  Innovation always creates some degree of risk.  In order for the people in your organization to take the necessary risks, they cannot fear failure.

The solution is deceptively simple- reward people for attempting new ideas.  If they fail, reward them for trying.  If they succeed, reward them more than if they failed.  People will begin trying new stuff.  Innovation will flow from every orifice of the organization.  The resulting energy will thrust the organization to the top.  In the case of schools, this is exactly where we'd want to be.

So we punish inaction?  You bet.  People that aren't willing to try new stuff will assure organizational mediocrity.  There is no reason this attitude should be tolerated at any level of any organization, especially schools.  Start punishing inaction and you quickly identify these people.  Give them a chance to embrace the idea of experimentation-based improvement.  If they can't hack it, they need to be eliminated.  

For teachers, this same idea should be extended to the classroom.  Encourage your students to try new stuff, and don't be afraid to reward them even if they fail.

Agree?  Disagree?  Leave a comment!


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