Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Resolutions? How About Using That Twitter or Facebook Account to Connect?

"In a linked world and a relationship economy, isolation costs too much," writes Jeff Jarvis in his book Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. Jarvis's argument is clear: In today's digital world, the cost of not being connected is too great. We live in what he also refers to as a "relationship economy" where value is derived from the quality of our relationships, and these relationships come from our sharing of ourselves with others on the web. He was speaking mostly of businesses, but I would argue that what he says also applies in general to education, and to educators specifically. We, as 21st century educators, also participate in a "sharing economy" where our value is based on the quality of relationships we make through "Web Presence" established through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, and other content sharing outlets. 

The problem is, too many school administrators and teachers still remain on the sidelines. They haven't engaged in the "relationship economy with other educators" so, even though they might have a Twitter account, it sits idle most of the time. Some may even view their timeline on occasion, but they miss one important piece of fostering digital relationships or connections: they do not interact and exchange through sharing. Without participation, no relationships are created, online or offline. As Jarvis so aptly points out,
"It's the same in the digital world as the real one: If you stay in your room all day, you'll never meet anyone and never know whom you've missed. It's Tinker Bell in reverse: Each time you don't share, a relationship loses its wings."
Being a digital leader is much more than boasting that you have a Twitter account or school Facebook page. If these are not used to share, relationships can't possibly be formed. To form solid 21st century relationships with other educators, you must share. This means you must give up the fear of being "public." To become a connected educator you must make a step outward and connect by sharing knowledge, ideas, tips, resources, or whatever you can to contribute to the global education conversation.

As Jarvis points out, we can't really be wallflowers or lurkers and engage the relationship economy of a linked world. To foster relationships, we have to "come out of our rooms" and engage others through the media. "To make connections we must be public and share." Moving to use the media to become public and share in order to form new relationships is a powerful New Year's Resolution!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

6 Must-Have Evernote iPad Apps and Chrome Extensions for Educators and School Leaders

Evenote, as I've posted many times, is such a versatile application that every educator is bound to find it useful. Besides the fact that you can access the application across devices, there are some additional extensions and tablet apps that make it even more useful and versatile for the school leader and classroom teacher. Check out each of these tablet apps and Chrome extensions to extend the usefulness of the application even further.

iOS and Tablet Apps

vJournal: vJournal is a simple, free iOS app that allows your to create dated journal entries that are then uploaded to an Evernote notebook called "My Journal." It is extremely simple to use. Each entry is automatically dated. When you are finished typing an entry, simply click the upload button. You can also insert photos in your entries as well, which means vJournal also gives you the ability to create a photo journal. From the perspective of a school leader, vJournal is an excellent app for keeping various log entries and observational data. Check out vJournal in the iTunes store here.

vJournal Interface
Penultimate: Penultimate is a free handwritten note-taking app for the iOS device. There are times when all you need is a place to jot info and, if you're like me, you don't even carry a pen or paper any more. Penultimate is a handwriting app for the iPad that syncs to your Evernote account. You can also insert photos from your Camera Roll or take a picture and insert it into your handwritten notes. Penultimate's features add even more functionality to Evernote. Check out Penultimate here on the Evernote Penultimate Web Site.

Penultimate Interface
Skitch: Skitch is a graphics app for the iOS or Android device that allows users to communicate graphically. You can take a photo and use graphical tools to mark that photo up and then send it to others. For the school leader or educator, it is excellent way to make communication more visual. Skitch is also available for download to a Windows PC. For more information about Skitch, check out the Skitch Evernote Web Page here.

Skitch Interface
Boxer: Boxer is an email app for the tablet that offers users a whole range of features.  The one feature that is of interest to Evernote users is that it allows you to send email messages to whichever Evernote notebook you select. This integrates your email into your Evernote application, adding still another function to your Evernote capabilities. Check out Boxer for email in the iTunes store here.

Boxer Interface

Chrome Extensions

Clearly: This Chrome extension has so many features for a free extension. With a single click, users can make blog posts and web articles clean and easy to read. Clearly removes all the superfluous content such as ads and sidebar content. Users can read articles easily. Using the "Text-to-Speech" feature, users can have that article read to them too. Articles can be highlighted and then uploaded to either a default Evernote notebook or one chosen by the user. For more information regarding Clearly,  check it out in the Chrome Web Store here. Clearly is also available for Firefox and available for Opera users too.

Clearly Interface
Evernote Web Clipper: This Chrome extension also gives users many, many more features that expand Evernote's functionality. Users of this extension can choose how they want the Web content to be "clipped" and saved. They can save it into the Evernote notebook of choice as an article, simplified article, full page, bookmark, or screenshot. Users can also highlight text, insert arrows,  and type text notes. Users can also share the Web article through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or email. This Chrome extension is just another powerful way to extend your use of Evernote. Check out the Evernote Web Clipper in the Chrome Store here.

Chrome Evernote Web Clipper

Evernote by itself is certainly useful, but as the tablet apps multiply and the capabilities of Web browser extensions expand, its usefulness only gets better. Evernote proves time and again that technology is only as good as the software we use, and the software is only as good as its functionality.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Becoming a 21st Century Reader: Pointers for Using E-books and E-Reader Apps

E-reading has matured to the point that the software for the PC and the apps for the tablets are extremely reliable, and offer users options to make reading electronically comparable, if not better, then reading a physical book. I am an avid reader, and I can count the number of "physical books" I purchased last year on a single hand, and those books were purchased only because e-books were not available. Reading an e-book can be a pleasurable experience if one chooses their hardware carefully, and takes advantage of multiple e-book apps their their features. What advice do I have to offer?

1. Choose hardware that allows you download multiple e-reading apps. You should preferably choose a tablet that allows you to access multiple e-book vendors to make sure you get good prices on the products and so that you can find e-copies for the books you are searching for. For example, I use an iPad and iPad mini simply because I can download multiple e-reader apps. I currently use iBooks, Kindle, Nook, and Google Play. By using multiple apps, there are times when I can't find an e-version of a book on the Kindle, but I am able to find it on iBooks or one of the other providers. My choice of hardware for e-reading is to have an iPad, iPad mini, and a Kindle reader. The iPads give me access to ebooks across apps, and the Kindle reader allows me to access my Kindle library with a back-up device in case all my tablets need charging. The majority of the books I have purchased are in my Kindle library anyway.

2. Use multiple e-reader devices to increase accessibility of your e-library. For example, if you only have a single tablet, if that tablet loses charge, you may lose access to your reading while it charges. If you have multiple devices, you can allow one to charge while using another. Sounds like a petty idea, but for someone like myself who picks up a book to read any time, having multiple devices means I can do just that.

3. Use the upload capabilities of the e-reader apps to upload PDF documents, journal articles, and web posts. This feature is available for most e-reader apps. How it works is simple. I uncover a journal article or even a web blog post that I want to read in depth later. I can upload that document to my Kindle app by using a Chrome extension easily. This allows me to peruse the web post or journal article later across any of my devices. Most of the e-reader apps such as iBooks also allows you to open and read PDF documents as well.

4. Use the highlighting, note taking, and copy-paste features of the e-reader app. All e-reader apps offer users the options of highlighting text, making notes on text, and copying and pasting quotes. For someone who relies on e-books, this is actually much easier than using a physical book. For example, in the Kindle app, with the click of a button, I can display all my highlights, notes and bookmarks. This means I can find my highlighted textual notes much more quickly. Using an e-reader app also provides a text search function that allows you to pinpoint topics very easily. When you paste a quote from the Kindle app, bibliographic information is automatically added to your pasted text.

5. Store your e-library in the cloud. This means I do not have to devote physical space to books any longer. While I have been a book fanatic for as long as I can remember, I can also remember the constant struggle of trying to find a place to store books. Now that my books are stored in the cloud, space and storage are no longer an issue.

6. Share favorite quotes on social media. This is one of my personal favorite features of e-book apps. I can select a quote and immediately share it out on Facebook and Twitter. Many of my Twitter conversations have started over a quote that I shared. This feature makes what was once mostly a solitary activity a social activity.

E-reading has matured in the four or five years I have been using it. I have also become a more sophisticated user of e-books as well. To make your e-reading experience work, you have to select the apps and the hardware to make it work for you. With time, once you have explored all the capabilities of these e-book apps, you can begin to make those features work for you.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

D.C. Teachers Suffer Faulty Evaluations at Hand of Value-Added Measures: Is NC on Same Path?

I have made it known that I am no fan of using value-added measures in teacher evaluations. There's just too much room for error, and there's too many things that can go wrong, from the test to the calculations. Value-added calculations are done in a mysterious black-box and there is too little oversight and protection measures in place to ensure that the data is error-free. As the Washington Post reports here in "Errors Found in D.C. Teacher Evaluations," more than 40 teachers received incorrect teacher evaluations of the year 2012-2013. One teacher was even fired due to miscalculations. That is totally unaccepted and should not every happen.

Many states, including my  own, have adopted the "Value-added measure fad" without piloting or studying it at all, other than listening to the sales pitches and lobbying of companies peddling this methodology. In North Carolina, there is currently no recourse for challenging the scores either. If a teacher suspects their ratings are incorrect, there is no way to independently validate it. But if your goal is to implement corporate reforms measures, any mis-calculations and faulty teacher ratings are acceptable, as long as we implement the reform measure. According to an additional post on the Washington Post Web site, "D.C. Schools Gave 44 Teachers Mistaken Job Evaluations," it was faulty calculations "of the value that D.C. teachers added to student achievement in the last school year resulted in erroneous performance evaluations for 44 teachers, including one who was fired because of a low rating."

This incident illustrates clearly that value-added measures used in teacher evaluations are too error-prone and should be discarded. When education policy gets too caught up in numbers and statistics, people, whether teachers or students don't matter as much to the number-crunchers. The Obama administration should be ashamed of mandating this mistaken education policy too states to begin with. States who have implemented these measures need to immediately discard this statistical fad because it will ultimately do more to harm education than help. North Carolina needs to drop this fad too and begin moving their educational system into the 21st century. Sadly, our state leaders are so blinded by the numbers they just can't let go.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wisdom for the School Leader: Coping with the What-If's

How many times a day does someone, perhaps one of your teachers or even a parent come to you reminding you of the "What-If's" that you and your school currently face. For example, they say, "What if it snows next week during exams and state testing?" Or, "What if parents become upset with your decision to delay report cards?" As a school leader, there is no shortage of people around you reminding you of all the possible outcomes of a given situation. The honest truth is, though, we can't deal with the "What-ifs." Sure, we can plan for the most possible contingencies, and as effective leaders, we should. To do less than that is shirking our duties.

But the reality is our schools and our lives are complicated. There is absolutely no way to prepare for the "what-ifs" with high levels of certainty. The wisest course of action is offered by Buddhist Teacher,Thubten Chodron:
"We can ask ourselves, "Can I do something about this situation?" If the answer is yes, then there's no need to worry. We can act. If the answer is no, then there's no use for worry. We can relax, see what happens, and deal with the situation the best we can."
When the "What-if's" start echoing through our minds, it is so easy to get caught up in playing through scenario after scenario. These stories are compelling and often frightening. But that's just it. They're stories. The truth is we can't possibly plan for all those potentialities. There are times when we can't plan for any possibilities. We have to accept, relax and see what happens. We have to let go of the mistaken belief we are always in control.

Being an effective leader, educator, person or even student, means recognizing that there's sometimes no preparation for every "What-if" we face. Being effective means knowing when to let things be. We sometimes need to let go, relax, and see what happens. Things are sometimes as they are. As Sharon Salzberg writes and I often remind myself, "Life is as it is despite our protests."

Friday, December 20, 2013

Is EVAAS a 'Clear Path to Global Ed Excellence' or Product of Grandiose Marketing?

According to a recent post by Audrey Amrein-Beardsley on her blog VAMBoozled! "VAMs (Value-added measures) have been used in Tennessee for more than 20 years" and that they are the brainchild of William Sanders, who was an agricultural statistician/adjunct professor at the University of Knoxville when introduced. Sanders simply thought, according to Amrein-Beardsley, "that educators struggling with student achievement in the state could simply use more advanced statistics, similar to those used when modeling genetic reproductive trends among cattle, to measure growth, hold teachers accountable for that growth, and solve educational measurement woes facing the state at that time."

Sanders went on to develop the TVAAS (Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System) that later became EVAAS (Education Value-Added Assessment System) which is now owned and marketed by SAS Institute in North Carolina. Today, SAS EVAAS is the "most widely adopted and used, and likely the most controversial VAM in the country" according to Amrein-Beardsley. According to her post "What's Happening in Tennessee?" these are some of the lesser known and controversial aspects of SAS's EVAAS:

  • "It is a proprietary model (costly and used/marketed under the exclusive legal rights of the inventors/operators.)" EVAAS is the property of a private company whose responsibility is to profits, not necessarily to what's good for kids or teachers. Four states, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, pay millions for the ability to use this Value-added model.
  • EVAAS is "akin to a 'black box' model. It is protected by SAS with a great deal of secrecy and total lack of transparency. This model has not been independently validated, and Sanders has never allowed access for others to independently validate the model.
  • "The SAS EVAAS web site developers continue to make grandiose marketing claims without much caution or any research evidence to support these claims. 
  • "VAMs have been pushed  on American public schools by the Obama Administration and Race to the Top."
  • SAS makes this marketing claim on their web site: "Effectively implemented, SAS EVAAS for K-12 allows educators to recognize progress and growth over time, and provides a clear path to achieve the US goal to lead the world in college completion by the year 2020."
There's no doubt that EVAAS or some other VAM product has been foisted on states and school districts by direct mandate by the Obama administration. It is also true that one could argue that EVAAS is a "black-box" model. It hasn't been independently studied and the inferences our state is making using this model have not been independently validated. SAS keeps the model hidden behind claims of proprietary ownership.

Finally, are the marketing claims grandiose as Amrein-Beardsley indicates? I would have to agree that the claim that "EVAAS is a clear path to achieve the US goal to lead the world in college completion by the year 2020" is pretty out there. On what research do they make that claim? What studies have they used to validate that claim? No research studies are provided. The SAS web site does employ a number of statements that do not offer any supporting research. But, then again, its about "marketing" a product, not about making a case for its validity. But the problem, is, SAS does not make those research-based claims anywhere else either.

But I set aside the concerns about the technical aspects of the model. For me, the whole problem behind EVAAS is that it elevates test scores to a level they do not deserve. North Carolina's state testing system is haphazardly assembled, and is far from being trustworthy enough to base any kind of high stakes decisions upon. I also fundamentally find something a bit inequitable in using EVAAS to determine any kind of rating for educators. I do think educators deserve to understand how those ratings are derived, down to the decimal points and computations. If the formula can't be explained so that educators can understand all aspects of it, it has no place in evaluations. 

But it seems there are issues surfacing in the birthplace of EVAAS. Interestingly, Amrein-Beardsley points out that Tennessee is having some trouble with its use. School boards across the state are increasingly opposing the use of TVAAS in high stakes decisions. Some of the reasons? According to Amrein-Beardsley:
  • TVAAS is too complex to understand.
  • Teachers' scores are highly and unacceptably inconsistent from one year to the next which makes them invalid.
  • Teachers are being held accountable for things that are out of their control, such as what happens to students outside the school building.
North Carolina has jumped on the VAM bandwagon and is holding on for dear life. To make the whole system work, our state has implemented the largest number of state tests in history. Let's just hope all this emphasis on test scores doesn't destroy our schools. I certainly hope we don't have to live with this for 20 years!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How to Stop Those Unwanted Auto Audio and Video Ads From Playing While Web Browsing

If your web experience has been like mine lately, you have probably noticed more auto audio and video ads playing as you access web pages. These auto-audio ads can really be a nuisance. Of course you can turn your Volume off, but every time you need the volume, you must turn it on again. I explored the web forums just a bit, and I think I have found a solution for Chrome Browser users.

Here's how:

1. Go to Chrome Settings Tab by clicking on the "Customize and Control Google Chrome" button to the left of your browser. Select "Settings" from the menu.

2. Once your "Settings" Tab appears, scroll to the bottom and click on the "Show Advanced Settings" link.

3. Under the "Privacy" heading, click on the "Content Settings" button.

4. Once the pop-up menu appears, scroll down to the "Plug-ins" heading. If it is set to "Run Automatically," click on "Click to Play." This means that none of the Plug-in programs that operate video and audio in your browser will work, unless you click on them. Click on the "Done" button.

While this isn't certainly idea because it stops all plug-ins from working without clicking, it has been the most effective option for me. I can now enjoy Web browsing peacefully again without some audio commericial about Coffee suddenly blaring. We are certainly bombard enough with annoying, unwanted spam, TV ads, and even movie theater ads, we certainly don't need our Web browsing to be degraded by these ads as well.

Recipe for Being Disruptive in Education by Questioning Everything

"What today's disruptive world requires are everyday Gallileos, who ask their own versions of: What if our assumptions are wrong? How would that change how we think and what we do?" Bill Jensen, Disrupt! Think Epic. Be Epic
 "We are in the midst of a massively disruptive era, where most every system or rule for how we do things has been, and will continue to be, up for grabs," writes Bill Jensen in his book Disrupt! Think Epic. Be Epic. This same era is bringing massive disruptions to they way we do public schools too. According to Jensen, in this constantly disruptive age we live in, we have three choices basically:

  • We can be extremely proactive. This means we ask the questions no one else is asking or willing to ask. These are the inventors and entrepreneurs who will be the causes of the next wave of what Jensen calls "innovative disruptions."
  • We can be mainstream proactive. People who do this actively question most every "system, structure, and rule" placed before them. They choose the ones they will ignore. According to Jensen, they work around or change their lives according to these that they ignore.
  • We can be reactive. These are the people who accept most everything handed to them. According to Jensen, they "hold on for dear life, waiting for the personal disruptions to subside."
As an institution, I can't help but wonder whether the education bureaucracy values those who are reactive rather than those who are extremely proactive when it comes to disruption or anything else. In 24 years of education, I have learned that the education bureaucracy does not like individuals who ask questions or individuals who disagree with "the program." Jensen uses the analogy of Galileo, who questioned the current geocentric system, but paid dearly for it. His questioning of current beliefs cost him his freedom. There's something in bureaucratic institutions like public education that abhors questions and that moves to stifle them.

But according to Jensen, if we really want to be ahead of the disruptions, then questioning we must do. He suggests that this questioning begins with ourselves. "In a world of constant disruption," he writes, "if you can't examine yourself on a regular basis and come to radically new conclusions about your role and what value you add and your strengths and weaknesses, it will be extremely difficult for you to examine all the status quo rules and structures that surround you." We must engage in this constant self-examination to be proactive in a disruptive world. We must maintain a "healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo" if we are going to be proactively disruptive as well. We must ask tough questions.

In today's world, with all the education "reforms" swirling about us, there is ample opportunity to ask tough questions. We can't accept every new set of standards, new technology implementation plan, or new instructional fad without question. I can't help but wonder that perhaps our education system got into its current state because of a fundamental unwillingness to ask tough questions. What we need to do as 21st century educators and school leaders is to "Question Everything" as Jensen calls it. Nothing is immune and nothing is off-limits for questions. According to Jensen, the following are more true today than ever:
  • "Solutions to today's most wicked problems and biggest opportunities will come from asking the questions no one else is asking."
  • "You can only ask the questions worthy of pursuing if you're willing to also question your own deeply held assumptions."
  • "Everything is up for grabs. Respect the people involved...Question everything else."
We can only tackle our most challenging problems in education right now by asking the questions no one else is asking. For example, the questioning of the effectiveness of the Common Core Standards, our obsession with standardized testing, and many of the other reforms on the table is not heresy. It is as it should be. These reforms need to continually be subjected to hard and continual questioning. Too often, the education bureaucracy has chased these kinds of policies, only to find out years later, they did not work as intended, because no one continually asked the tough questions.

We live in a disruptive age in education, and the bureaucracy that surrounds us as educators is working in overtime to try stifle questioning and examination. That is one thing our education system has done extremely well. But, if our public system of education is to survive, it must embrace those asking the tough questions rather than dismissing them. It must realize that no questions are off-limits. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

NC Textbook Funding Cut 80% While State Administers More Tests Than Ever

A headline on this morning's News and Observer Website read: "NC Schools Deal with Fewer Dollars for Textbooks."  According to the article, textbook funding has been cut by 80 percent or more over the past four years. This cut, coupled with cuts in instructional supply money, teaching assistant cuts, among a whole laundry list of cuts makes it very clear that North Carolina public education is not a funding priority for our state legislature or governor. 

What is even more amazing is how our state is able to afford the largest increase in the number of state tests administered in state history, yet instructional materials and textbooks have been increasingly cut each year. What's wrong with this picture? Here's some points for thought.

  • The expectation in our state is that teachers will provide ever increasing levels of high quality instruction while doing so with less and less instructional tools for the classroom.
  • In the midst of it all, our state still manages to find funding to administer over 40 (the number depends on which tests you count and whose taking them) tests to all students during the course of the year. Now I realize the argument the testing and accountability supporters will make here is that "Testing is cost effective and that it just doesn't cost that much to give tests." Perhaps that's true, but if our state politicians and state level education bureaucrats were all that serious about providing a quality education for the students of North Carolina, then you would see the same level of commitment to provide adequate funding for textbooks, technology, and instructional materials for the classrooms. Why can't they muster the same enthusiasm and commitment for providing texts and classroom materials that they have for testing?
  • It is cheaper to test, test, test than it is to fund classrooms. That's the reality. The state can easily churn out a new test or contract with College Board to give one more test, but to provide adequate texts,technology and instructional materials for the classroom is costly. But the logic behind this fails me. If you really want to impact classroom instruction, then put the money where it will do the most  good: the classroom, not additional tests and the testing bureaucracy that goes along with them. The most recent survey done by Marketplace Morning Report found that 99.5 percent of teachers paid an average of $485 to stock their classrooms the previous year.
  • No teacher should ever have to spend their own personal money so that they can carry out instruction in their classrooms. Teachers are really dedicated people who work very hard for the most part. Many, many teachers spend their own money on school supplies for their classrooms just to be able to provide their students with engaging and meaningful learning. Yet, our state seems to always find funding to add a new test or develop some kind of new data program. Perhaps it's time to fund what really counts: classroom instruction.
I am not sure politicians or the state education bureaucracy entirely get it. They focus laserlike on teacher pay, as if that's going to fix it all. Sure, all teachers want fair pay, but what they really want is a state legislature and state education bureaucracy that puts its money where its mouth is and provides funding for more than just tests. They want funding for their classrooms too. North Carolina with its massive testing agenda goes out of its way to hold teachers accountable while inadequately funding the classroom. No wonder teacher turnover is rising even more.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

9 Education Reform Fallacies Held to Be True by Current Education Reformers

"Since the formation of the United States of America, there has been debate over the roles and purposes of education." Christopher Tienken & Donald Orlich, The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myth, and Lies
Because educational policymakers were so successful in using the Sputnik incident in promoting new education policy and change, it seems we have a new "Sputnik-moment" every 10 years or so, and with Arne Duncan, we seem to have one every time the latest round of PISA scores are released. According to him, our schools have been in a crisis since he came into office. Like education-researchers David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, one can't help but wonder whether or not this is a "Manufactured Crisis" which was the title of their book back in 1996. It would almost seem that Duncan and his fellow corporate reformers are using the same Sputnik playbook to push their tired, worn-out educational reform agenda of more standards, more tests and lots of airy rhetoric. Even in 1996, Berliner and Biddle tackled head-on the myths about declining achievement in national test scores and rising illiteracy rates. They painstakingly pointed out where the media, pundits and policymakers were getting it wrong. Even then, the myths continued unabated and many of them have continued through to this day.

At the heart of all reform efforts today is a both a fundamental disagreement on the nature of schools: it purposes and reasons for existence. Also at the heart of reform efforts by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and many others are what Christopher Tienken and Donald Orlich describe, in their book The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myths, and Lies, as the "Eight Self-Evident Fallacies of the Modern Reform Movement." These eight fallacies are at the heart of current education policy from increased standardized testing, using of test scores in teacher evaluations, implementation of the Common Core Curriculum, and our incessant focus on accountability. These eight fallacies, according to Tienken and Orlich have their roots stretching all the way back to the Sputnik incident. I include their fallacies here with my commentary and I've taken the liberty of adding one of my own fallacies.

  • "Fallacy 1: Government coercion will accelerate achievement." This myth believes that the only way to get educators and students to improve is through coercion, whether through sanctions or rewards. One would think that this same fallacious thinking would have folded after the miserable failure of No Child Left Behind, but it survives and has only spurred an even more high-stakes environment where teachers and students are now subjected to greater penalties and more testing than ever. At the heart of this fallacy is the belief that teachers and students do not work hard so we have to make them work harder. What government coercion is doing to teaching in North Carolina, and I suspect elsewhere is encouraging more who would might show an interest in becoming a teacher to seek some other more hospitable profession. Who wants to teach with the gun of accountability and test scores stuck to your head?
  • "Fallacy 2: Big business values will improve public education." This fallacy puts faith in the business model as a way of saving education. It says that education will improve through competition and an intense focus on the bottom-line. It views teachers as expendable just as business and industry currently views their own employees. In the business model, workers are to do as they're told. In education, the same: teachers are not to question the latest policy, curriculum or reforms. Just do them!
  • "Fallacy 3: Intuitively derived standards can replace empirically derived solutions." The standards movement, according to Tienken and Orlich are examples of authoritarianism. The entire thinking is, "We must raise our standards! We must raise our standards! We must raise our standards!" Instead of looking for the difficult solutions to improving education, our policymakers and politicians take the easy way out and develop one more set of standards. The problems in our schools involve child poverty, lack of resources, and a dwindling number of qualified teachers among many other things. Raising the standards in those situations does absolutely nothing to resolve the real issues we face.
  • "Fallacy 4: Standards are technical specifications being confused with, but applied to human learning capabilities." The whole philosophy behind the standards movement is that students are passive vessels into which what is to be learned is poured. Standards ignore that students have an active role to play in learning. Learning is a mechanistic process, not an organic process. Under this fallacy, "schools are assembly lines of knowledge" and students are sped through on a conveyor belt and learning is done to them as they pass through. Standards ignore the human side of learning entirely and view it as a process to which students are subjected.
  • "Fallacy 5: High-stakes, state-mandated testing and assessment programs will improve student learning." In spite of our country's obsession with testing and accountability, our PISA scores have remained flat. Our College Board testing scores haven't dramatically increased. (That's if testing is the right measure of achievement, which I am not convinced that they are.) Testing has not resulted in higher graduation rates. It has resulted in fostering a massive culture of distrust with teachers as professionals. State-mandated testing and accountability systems have ultimately turned our schools into places where little else matters.
  • "Fallacy 6: All high school students will benefit from being enrolled in college preparatory programs." This fallacy just isn't true. While statistically, college degree earners might earn more, it doesn't follow that they do, or that they can even get a job. There are countless college graduates unable to find jobs, and that are working in jobs with no better pay than non-college graduates. Additionally, to believe that every student is capable of doing college level work isn't realistic and ignores reality.
  • "Fallacy 7: Students and parents are unconcerned about the psychological abuses by one-sized  fits-all standards and testing." Most of parents want what's best for their children. Subjecting all students to a one-size-fits-all standardized education where their individual learning needs are discarded at testing time is malpractice. In time when we're standardizing everything in our schools, we should be personalizing. Assessments given to students that we know aren't going to be successful is idiotic. Our parents should be more upset about all the testing we do in schools., but they are not because our policymakers work hard to disguise all the testing done behind rhetoric, jargon, and even changing the names of tests.
  • "Fallacy 8: Centralization of educational decision-making benefits our nation." Education needs in our country have always been specific to locale, and that hasn't changed. Our students need their needs met by responsive local school systems who can meet their needs without being encumbered by a mass of regulations coming from the US Department of Education and state departments of instruction. These bureaucracies may mean well, but they are always too far removed to see the effects of their latest rounds of decrees from on high have in the local school. The only thing centralization of educational decision-making benefits are those hungry for power. Big centralized bureaucratic education systems fail to meet the needs of individual students.
In the interest of all my two-cents worth, I would one additional fallacy:
  • Fallacy 9: Success in business means one is an expert on what students should know and be able to do and all matters of education. Educators should consult with leaders in business and industry about the kinds of skills students need to be successful in their industries, but we should not cede control over curricular and other educational decisions to individuals who aren't educators. At the heart of this fallacy is a mistaken American belief that because someone demonstrates success economically they are an expert on everything else. Being a CEO doesn't equip you to make decisions about education. There's also a moral question behind this fallacy. Do we want business and industry leaders pushing economic self-interest deciding on educational policy? I would answer that question by saying absolutely not! Business and industry don't consider the lives of their employees and people long term any more. They will move to where labor is the cheapest, not necessarily where the most qualified are. To see success in business as evidence of knowing what's best for kids and for education is at work at the center of many of our educational reforms and it is just plain wrong.
Arne Duncan's continuous "Sputnikkian Cries of Doom and Gloom" have become just like the fable, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." His reform agenda and that behind all this fixation on standards and testing  hold these fallacies as gospel. The purpose of education should never be just about creating productive workers. It should be about creating well-rounded citizens who are capable of making it today's world no matter what. Educators need to stop deferring to Arne Duncan and corporate leaders when it comes to educational policy. We need to end our deference to others just because they might be in a higher position in the education bureaucracy. We need to question these fallacies about education no matter where they come from and question and criticize our leaders when they demonstrate they've bought into them

Saturday, December 14, 2013

OpenEd: Free, Open Source EdTech Video and Games Resource for Teachers

OpenEd is a free service that offers users what it terms "the largest educational resource catalog with over a quarter of a million Common Core-aligned videos, games, and assessments." Users can do anyone of the following:

  • Search for video and games by keyword or directory subject.
  • Create online courses, allowing for class management, and OpenEd provides resource recommendations according to topics.
  • Browse Common Core resources and resources for other standards.
  • Create playlists of videos and other resources for easier access later.
Teachers can register for free accounts. OpenEd is free and open source and offers users a free applicating programming interface (API) so other websites can utilize OpenEd's resources. Check out OpenEd at their web site here: http://www.opened.io/.

OpenEd Website

Quick Key Mobile Now Free: Turn Your iOS Device into a Quiz and Test Scanner

Quick Key Mobile is an iOS app for teachers that basically turns the iOS device into a scanner for quizzes and tests.  Quick Key Mobile was created by Design by Educators, INC. (DBE), the Cambridge, MA. based company. This app first made a splash among teachers in March of this year when a grainy YouTube video demo of the prototype iPhone app went viral and racked over 450,000 views.The software platform, which includes an app for iOS devices as well as a web portal, will remain free for users to test during an initial introductory period.

In June, the company made headlines again when the Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of Quick KeyTM surpassed its goal of $20,000. More than 300 people – many of them teachers – contributed between $25 and $150 to help get the app into the Apple App Store with the promise of a free version, despite never seeing the app work in real-life.

The company has come through on its promise to backers by releasing a free beta version of Quick Key MobileTM on the App Store and a web portal at www.quickkeyapp.com,  inviting educators worldwide to test out the beta version of the app. “So far, people from over twenty different countries in North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia have registered on www.quickkeyapp.com,” said Walter O. Duncan IV, Co-Founder, DBE. “We underwent an extensive international beta test over the summer and expect out new users to help us work out the software kinks over the following months.” For more information on Quick Key Mobile App, check it out in the iTunes App Store here. Also, more information from the Quick Key Web Site here.

3 Non-Windows Options for Schools and Districts with Demise of XP Computers

It has been over a year since Microsoft released Windows 8, and I will confess I haven't "upgraded" nor do I own a device using the operating system. My rationale is simple: "Windows 7 wasn't broke and didn't need fixing." At least, I would say that was true for the interface. I have grown accustomed to the start button. I haven't seen a "blue-screen-of-death" or whatever happens with Windows 7 malfunctions in many months. It has been perfectly stable, which is an ENORMOUS selling feature for me. I do not have a touchscreen computer, not do I have plans to purchase one. After all, I have an iPad that gives me all the experience I need with touchscreen applications. There simply has been and continues to be no reason to upgrade to Windows 8.

The whole problem with the Windows 8 upgrade question for me is that it is simply a question of "Does pursuing the latest in my best interests as a user?" The answer to that is a rather obvious "No." One would have thought Microsoft would have learned its lesson about major operating system interface changes back with Windows Me. Take Windows XP for example. There are still many, many computers sitting in our schools and even in our homes using this version of Windows. I, myself, had a Windows XP desktop sitting in my home this week, until it died, not from an operating system failure, but a hardware issue. I simply replaced it with a Windows 7 machine that I had elsewhere. Windows XP has survived because it was stable and it worked well.

I can't help but wonder if Microsoft has lost touch with reality in the operating system market specifically and the technology industry as a whole. At one time, it did drive much of what happened in the software and hardware industry. Programmers and computer designers would roll out new products as Microsoft introduced their latest operating system. That is still somewhat the case, but with Apple's resurrection and the Chromebook market, not to mention an Android and iOS market too, there are more and more options for people rather than a Microsoft Windows machine. Microsoft needs to learn that they are no longer entirely in the driver's seat in the world of software and hardware. They can't roll out new operating systems and expect the world to rush to get the upgrade or purchase a new machine with the new OS on it.

When XP dies later in the spring of this year, schools will be scrambling to do something with a ton of computers who operate very well with XP but lack the hardware capabilities to upgrade to Windows 7 much less Windows 8. Perhaps this is an excellent opportunity for them to rethink their heavy reliance on machines that rely on the use of a single operating system. Many of these computers are still perfectly usable machines, but they will be less usable because Microsoft has chosen to no longer support XP. I understand perfectly that is a business decision, and I respect Microsoft's right to make it, but I also think schools and districts would do well to take advantage of the demise of the XP machines to make some more strategic decisions. Some of those decisions might include the following:

  • Purchase Apple computers. I don't get any promotional fees for saying that. I don't even own an Apple computer, but my observation of how Apple rolls out computers and operating systems makes me think if having a full-fledged laptop or desktop is a must, then perhaps MacBooks and iMacs are the way to go. Why? I've known many a Mac user who tell me they've used the same computer for 7 or 8 years and have had little difficulty. They've even been able to upgrade operating systems multiple times without glitches. Apple's pricing structure may mean spending more upfront, but the reliability and longevity might be worth it. Then again, you might  be concerned because you could buy three PCs for the price of one Mac, so replacing more often might be acceptable. Still, there's no question that the Mac is back and certainly again a contender for replacing all these aging computers.
  • Purchase Chromebooks. Doing this once again breaks the umbilical cord from Microsoft. Chromebooks use Google's Chromium operating system and users rely heavily on Google Chrome apps, but worrying about the next operating system upgrade isn't a worry at all. Since all is Web-based, there's no need to worry about upgrades of anything. The price of Chromebooks are alluring as well. The only drawback I can see is that without a wifi connection, you basically have a high-tech paper-weight. Chromebooks can also be an option for moving away from Microsoft products and dependency thereof.
  • Moving to iOS or Android tablets. There is honestly little left that you can't do on a tablet that you can do on a laptop or desktop. There are even more things you can do with tablet,  like shooting video, photos, among many other things. Schools and school districts might also think about tablets when replacing all these dying XP computers. Tablets are really quite versatile. There have been great improvements in management of these devices in school settings. There have also been improvements in both iOS and Android operating systems, and perhaps one big advantage, users of tablets are not charged when the next upgrade comes long like they are with Windows PCs.Tablets are a viable replacement for all those computers that will be left with an unsupported operating system in 2014. One might wonder why I failed to mention Microsoft Surface tablets as an option. Besides not having a single experience with these devices, I have to admit I am a bit apprehensive about continuing to rely so heavily on one software company. Who's to say that Microsoft won't charge customers for their Surface tablet operating system upgrades. They have charged PC users for years.
One year later, I am no closer to purchasing a Windows 8 computer for my home, nor would I recommend buying such for schools. With the demise of Windows XP, school districts and schools have an excellent opportunity to re-evaluate and choose many other options that are out there.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Simple Path to Practicing Compassionate Leadership

"Compassion, in Tibetan Terms, is a spontaneous feeling of connection to with all living things. What you feel; what I feel, you feel. There's no difference between us." Youngey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living
Tibetan monk and teacher Youngey Mingyur Rinpoche uses a phrase in his book, The Joy of Living, that I can't forget. He basically points to acts of compassion as fostering an environment of "the survival of the kindest." While the phrase he speaks isn't about fostering a place where one person competes with another about who can be the kindest, it does capture the true nature of compassion, and this is the compassion we must find within ourselves as school leaders.

When times are particularly trying, and it seems much of everyone around us seems to want a part of us, it can be difficult to be compassionate. But in Buddhist terms, finding that compassion in difficult circumstances is really quite simple. It does take intention, but all we need do is pause and just see the other person. As Youngey Mingyur points out:
"The more we allow ourselves to be guided by compassion---to pause for a moment to try to see where another person is coming from---the less likely we are to engage in conflict."
We tell ourselves, "No, it can't be that simple!" But yet, compassion does truly begin with a pause, a reflection, and then a felt connection with the other person. It is that simple.

Today, when that parent, colleague or employee seems to want to pick a fight, you don't have to engage them in battle. You can avoid conflict by simply feeling compassion for them. Pause the moment you feel the tightness of anger take hold. Reflect for a moment on your truly wanting to be compassionate and understanding, and on the fact that the person in front of you only really wants what you want which is happiness. They have something that is a concern, and they think you can address that concern.That will make them happy. Then, you can clearly see that they are "Just like you." You too want to be happy.

"Compassion is the spontaneous wisdom of the heart," teaches Youngey Mingyur. He points out that compassion is always with us. It has always been inside us and will always be. All we need do today, is pause long enough to reflect and see others as just like us and be compassionate leaders.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Boxer Email App for iOS: Connects to Dropbox, Box, Facebook and Even Evernote!

Boxer is an email app that might be of interest to those looking for an email application for their iOS device. This email app approaches email in a slightly different manner than others. It supports email accounts with a variety of services such as: Gmail, Outlook, Exchange, Yahoo, Hotmail, iCloud, AOL and IMAP accounts. It does not support POP3 accounts, however.

Boxer Email Interface
Even better, Boxer allows you to connect your email to your Box, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts too. With this feature, you can add a photo from you Dropbox photos, or you can save a message right into Evernote. As a heavy Evernote user, this expands the functionality of that application even further. Some of the other interesting features of Boxer include:

  • Quick Reply: This feature allows you to choose from a list of "Quick Reply" messages to respond to a message. Some of those replies are: "I've added this to my to-do list," "I'm on it and I'll follow up shortly," or "Can you give me a little more detail?" The Quick Reply feature makes it easier to manage and respond to many routine email messages you receive.
  • Easy-to-Use Action Grid: When dealing with an email, you simply bring up an Action Grid (See below) from which you decide the fate of the message you're reading.
Boxer's Email Action Grid
  • Push Notifications: Receive notifications when you receive an email message.
  • Support of Multiple Email Accounts: You can set up Boxer to access email across multiple email accounts.
  • Use Gmail Labels: If you're like me and use Gmail labels, Boxer allows you to do this as well. Boxer also sets up a "To-Do Label/Folder in your Gmail lineup as well, so you have access to those emails you assign to your Boxer To-Do list in your Gmail account.
From my perspective as a school-level administrator who uses multiple email accounts, Boxer is now my email client app of choice for the iPad. For more information on Boxer, check out their web site here: http://www.getboxer.com/ .

Saturday, December 7, 2013

3-Year Damage Assessment: What Has Race to the Top Done to Us?

I think I have been fairly clear. I am no fan of Race to the Top. I have never been due to its over-reliance on standardization of education, over to the top emphasis on testing, and its hyper-focus on competition. Just like its older cousin, No Child Left Behind, at the end of the day, Race to the Top will most likely go down in the history of education reform as just another failed and misguided educational reform. As someone who has worked in trenches with teachers since its inception, I have seen no improvement in education, but I have seen a great deal of deterioration in working conditions of the schools.

The biggest problem for those of us working in the schools brought on by Race to the Top has only brought is the enormous amount of new regulation, new restrictions, and new mandates that take more of our valuable time that could otherwise be used teaching and working with our students. For example, in North Carolina we now spend even more time prepping students for tests and administering tests, because in our state we subject our students to more standardized tests than has ever been done in state history. The education practitioners in the schools are also having to spend an enormous amount of time learning new software and data collection programs, purchased with Race to the Top funding, and these programs still are not fully functional and are too often causing data errors and more work staff in the schools. Because of constant glitches, staff have to take even more time trying to make this technology work. The constant failures of all this technology only adds to the burden our teachers  face in the classroom. This added technological burden comes at a time when teachers have more students in their classrooms than ever, and less instructional materials and text materials than ever, all because of a governor and state legislature unwilling to fund education in North Carolina. I scratch my head in wonder, because the philosophy behind charter schools, for which Race to the Top advocates, is to allow schools to operate with less red tape and less restriction because that is somehow better, yet our own government and state department of instruction turns around and heaps more regulation, more state mandates, and more red tape on how we operate. If that regulation is so bad, then why keep pushing more and more of it? Go figure! Ultimately, what Race to the Top has done to those of us in the schools is heap a ton of new rules, a gaggle of new mandates, a host of floundering new software and data systems, and an extra large dose of standardization and testing on our heads. 

In a time when we should be emphasizing the personalization of education in North Carolina, we're still trying to turn our schools into efficient factories to churn out students with high test scores. Somehow our leadership has come to believe that high test scores is the only equivalent to being college and career ready, when in fact, such thinking may only mean students are good test-takers. Instead to pursuing the false promises of standardization, we should be turning our schools into places where innovation, creativity, and collaboration thrive. Such schools are the opposite of standardized, one-size fits all schools we currently have.

What is the answer? The answer is, perhaps its time to let go of this fetish that if we somehow test students more and hold teachers accountable to those test scores no matter what, our students will learn more. We keep ramping up the testing, changing standards, but we cut instructional materials and professional development funding. We keep thinking that if we make the test stakes high enough, somehow teachers will miraculously rise to the occasion. What's happening instead is teachers are saying, "I quit," leaving the profession and/or moving to other states in increasing numbers. As a school leader, it becomes harder and harder to promote teaching as a career opportunity.

What our state leadership does not fully understand is that this massive increase of teacher turnover in North Carolina isn't just about pay; it's the working conditions too. With all this standardization, testing, and mandates coming down from Raleigh due to Race to the Top, it is getting less and less fulfilling to be a teacher and educator in North Carolina. Teachers are being treated more and more like factory workers whose job is to work on a assembly line and churn out students with high test scores. If they don't, then they're branded less effective or worse. Teacher professional judgment has been slowly replaced with test scores and systems of test data. In a word, being a teacher in North Carolina has become less about being a professional, and more about being an assembly-line worker, and if production isn't met, then you're out! The working conditions caused by Race to the Top and our state's efforts to meet its mandates has made being an educator in North Carolina much, much less palatable.

What then is the way out? In years past, these kinds of reform measures usually run their course and those pushing it move on to other things, then they slowly die out. This time, my fear is that our public education system will not survive. Race to the Top's push to standardize, its push to elevate testing to an even higher level of importance than No Child Left Behind, and its incessant focus on using competition to try to better education is leaving our schools tangled in a mess of new testing. It is leaving our teachers demoralized and dejected. It is turning our students off to schools and education. It is turning our schools into places of discord and competition instead of collaboration. It is making it much more difficult to personalize and meet the needs of students because we are too busy trying to meet the needs of latest federal or state mandate. I can only hope that our public education system survives it all.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Use of The PISA International Score Rankings as Current Leaderboard in Ed Is Just Wrong!

The country rankings indicated on the PISA international test scores should not be used like the current lineup in a NASCAR race to determine who's currently in the lead in the educational "Race to the Top" because these rankings by themselves tell us absolutely nothing. So when our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan begins his tales of woe and gloom and doom, be sure he's just using these to promote his own agenda. Sadly, this has been the practice a many of politician in recent times. Much of what Duncan has used to support his reform agenda has been a combination of half truths and what I would call benders because they either simply the real data or they ignore or dismiss other data just because it doesn't fit his propaganda. Sadly, we as educators still are letting Duncan and the media say these things without response.

In a blog post entitled "Reading the PISA Tea Leaves: Who Is Responsible for Finland's Decline and the Asian Magic," education scholar Yong Zhao points to an important point about all those Asian countries stacked at the top of the ratings. He states,
"The recipe for East Asian success is actually not that magical. It includes all the elements that have been identified as the symptoms of the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) by the great Finnish education scholar Pasi  Sahlberg: Competition, Standardization, Frequent Testing and Privatization. In East Asia high performing systems, these ingredients are more effectively combined and carried out to extreme to result in societies devoted to ensure youngsters become excellent test takers."
Zhao points out further than while many of the East Asian countries are at the top of these international test rankings, they are "not at all happy with the outcomes of their education systems." They are producing some great test-takers, but they are not producing students capable of creative, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking. So even if the rankings mean something, the question becomes, "Do we want a nation of good test-takers? Or, do we want students capable of innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial thinking?" Zhao points out that these systems designed to facilitate a "Race to the Top" of national rankings are not going to provide the kinds of students capable of tackling the many problems we face.

Today, I stumbled across the video below that provides a fairly good perspective on these PISA scores. Admittedly, the video is produced by the American Federation of Teachers which may give one pause to consider its content, it still does get many things right about the misappropriated use of these international scores that is so commonly done by current education policy leaders.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

North Carolina: First in Flight, Now First in Testing? If It Moves We Test It!

One sad fact about public education in North Carolina is that the Holiday season comes on the eve of our state's massive semester testing push, at least in high schools. In North Carolina this year, we're testing students with state tests more than has ever been done in history. It is pretty clear that the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's new philosophy of education is: "If it moves, and breathes, then test it."

While we in North Carolina are state-testing students more than ever, there are also all those state mandates that come with all those tests, that districts scramble to try to fulfill. These are those types of mandates that policymakers and accountability at state and federal levels come up with, but never really see the effects. They never see the pain and struggles people go through to implement these near impossible mandates. Take for example the simple idea that every test administration must have a proctor. Though our state education leadership has created this new creature of accountability and testing called a "Roving Proctor" to ease the almost impossible task of finding proctors, they still don't understand that schools only have so many sources of breathing human beings to put into classrooms. There's not exactly a line of community volunteers out there who are willing to spend three or four hours of their lives staring at kids as they fill in bubble sheets or stare at computer screens. Perhaps the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction think "Proctors grow on trees!" Sadly, they don't, so many districts are having to shut down almost everything to move bodies around to cover all of the proctoring. That alone is a sign of how absurd all this state testing has become. Perhaps everyone in Raleigh, from our state superintendent down to the janitors in the education building in Raleigh should fan out to schools across the state and serve as proctors.

No matter, how you stack it, many of us in high schools see Christmas vacation as the eve of semester testing, and season of testing is like a black cloud moving into position over our schools. In addition, no matter what rhetoric comes from Raleigh, we are subjecting students to more state tests than we ever have in history. Somehow our state leaders believe that changing the name of some of these tests from Measures of Student Learning to Common Exams to what they now call North Carolina Final Exams somehow means they aren't state tests. They are, and testing  has grown into a monster that drives almost everything we do at the local school level. No wonder there are places in other states where parents are saying enough is enough!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Just What Do These International PISA Scores Mean? Nothing!

"There is no association between test scores and national success, and, contrary to one of the major beliefs driving US education policy for nearly a half a century, international test scores are nothing to be concerned about." Keith Baker, "Are International Tests Worth Anything?" Phi Delta Kappan October 2007
Do the PISA international test scores really mean anything? No, according to Keith Baker, who once worked as a researcher for the US Department of Education. Diane Ravitch quoted Baker in her post at the Washington Post, "Four Lessons on the New PISA Scores." Ravitch, who certainly knows more about the history of international test scores than Secretary Duncan, points out, if anything, these PISA scores show that "the billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability" have not done anything to raise our international test score standings. Duncan's mythical connection between international test scores and economic success is a tired one, and as Baker points out in his article, "Are International Tests Worth Anything?" it is wrong.

Besides, it appears that this data isn't all it is cracked up to be. David Stout at Time magazine points out in "China Is Cheating the World Student Rankings,"  that the Chinese, unlike the United States and other countries did not release all their scores. They only released the scores for ShangHai. As Stout points out, Hong Kong does not count for the Chinese, because they send in their own data because of their level of independence from China. Naturally, policymakers and media pundits interpret the scores as representing all of China when they only represent a portion. Makes one wonder what other games other countries are playing to manipulate the scores.

This illustrates a BIG problem with this international score carnival. There's no way to be sure that we're comparing apples to apples as they say, so these comparisons are meaningless. These rankings are worthless because they tell us absolutely nothing about the state and conditions of our schools. They only serve as a political talking point for a Department of Education still pushing a failed standards-testing-accountability policy that's failing because it does not address the real issues in our schools. And, if you disagree with them, then you're defending the status quo. I hate to break the news to them, but methinks they're actually perpetuating the status quo. It's really sad that Arne Duncan and his Department of Education would use these scores for propaganda purposes to continue to push his failing education agenda, but he's living up to his true calling: he's a politician, not an educator.

Obsession with International Test Scores and Arne Duncan 'Crying Wolf''

Yesterday, the media continued the tradition of sounding the alarm: "Our schools are doomed according to the latest PISA, or Program for International Assessment, scores." NPR chimes in with this one, "PISA Test Results for US Students Are Sobering," and Huffington Post has this headline, "US Test Scores Remain Stagnant While Other Countries See Rapid Rise." NBC news echoed Huffington Post with this one, "US Teens Lag in Global Education Rankings as Asian Countries Rise to the Top,"  One has to question when this incessant obsession with international test scores is going to stop. Why all this fuss about being first in test scores? Do they really think that somehow, magically, our nation will be transformed and educated when we suddenly move up the rankings?

Then there's Education Secretary Arne Duncan who is "Crying-Wolf" once more, when he says, "We're seeing a Picture of Educational Stagnation" as he pointed out at Townhall.com. About the only thing stagnant is his incessant droning about these test scores every time they come out.  Duncan hasn't learned the old wisdom that says "If you cry wolf too many times, people stop listening to you." Perhaps its time we do just that. He, no doubt, will use these scores as an opportunity to push his educational agenda of National Standards, National Testing, and tying teacher evaluations to test scores. His playbook of propaganda has become all too transparent over the past several years.

The truth is out there though. As Diane Ravitch pointed out in her new book Reign of Error, and as she points out in this Washington Post op-ed, "The myth persists that once our nation led the world on international tests, but we have fallen from that exalted position in recent years. Wrong, wrong, wrong." Ravitch points out that "THE UNITED STATES HAS NEVER BEEN FIRST IN THE WORLD, NOR EVEN NEAR THE TOP, ON INTERNATIONAL TESTS."

So why this continued obsession with being first? We have never been first since international assessments were first given in the 1960s or 1970s. Does that mean we haven't ever been economically competitive since? I think the history of business and industry shows that the economy did well during various times even when our international test scores were in the tank. The fact is, OUR ECONOMIC VIABILITY IS NOT TIED TO TEST SCORES and I would add, being first on international assessments isn't going to change our economic fortunes.

Perhaps it's time we, as educators, stopped accepting this mythology perpetuated by Arne Duncan and his Department of Education. It's time for us to demand that the media quit participating in this absurd obsession with test scores and comparing our students' performance with other countries, when we know that other countries game the system and test only more selective students.

Arne Duncan has not yet learned that apples do not compare to oranges, except perhaps in the narrow world he lives in. Educators at all levels need to start countering and questioning this Duncanesque perversion of the truth, and quit buying-in to the false mythologies his department of education is perpetuating. Sure, our schools sometimes struggle. We who are in the schools fight to reach students every single day. We teach our hearts out, and we have Duncan's Doom and Gloom constantly bellowing from Washington.

As far as I am concerned, he has "Cried Wolf" for the last time. He has nothing else left to say worthwhile. So I am no longer listening to him. I can't remove him from the Department of Education, but I can choose to stop listening to his blather. The sooner the Obama administration moves on and Duncan moves out, we can hopefully stop chasing myths and get down to the real business of improving education.

The truth is we are not going to test our way to economic prosperity, so it's time to realize that.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Chalk Talk: Low-Tech Solution to Engage Students in Substantive Discussions

How can we engage students in high, quality substantive discussions on profound topics? One potential way to do this might be to adopt a tradition like our school has practiced since its founding: it's our "the Chalk Talk" tradition.  It is called that because our original "Chalk Talks" were done on a true blackboard and chalk located in our main hallway. Now, we use a large white board that extends several feet along the wall in our main hallway.

The philosophy behind our "Chalk Talk" is simple: We want to to give our students opportunities to engage in profound questions and ideas. Using our Chalk Talk board, our students take the lead by writing the question on the board, and as students walk through the building during the day or after school, they respond to the posted question and to each other's responses. After several days, the end result is a graffiti of student responses, many of them demonstrating much deeper and more profound thinking than what they show in other settings.

One recent question really got students to thinking on the nature of religion in society and in their own lives. That question was, "Does society need religion?" While educators often avoid these kinds of questions like the plague due to the controversial nature of possible answers, if we're going to really get students to thinking in-depth and critically, then we can't wall off the topics and questions just because they make us uncomfortable. In fact, I submit that much of the polarization in our society exists because we don't know any longer how to engage in civil discourse on the controversial and simply be tolerant. This "Chalk Talk" gives us an opportunity to teach students that they can disagree civilly and respect other's beliefs. We can agree to disagree.

Perhaps the "Chalk Talk Principle of Substance and Civility" is best illustrated by an incident where a student recently asked me, "Does it ever make you nervous about the questions we post here?" I thought for a moment, and then answered, "Not really. I might find myself having to answer some parent or community concern questions, but as long as I can defend the civility and substantiveness of the activity, I have no problem with it." We teach students how to respect differences and diversity by not enforcing conformity, but by our willingness to allow students to engage the what is often uncomfortable and that might cause an administrator to be nervous.

Here's the process for our Chalk Talk:

1. A student writes a substantial question on the Chalk-talk board. There are no guidelines or rules posted on what the topic should be about. The communicated expectation is that it must be substantive and require thought and debate as well as response.

2. Once the question is posted, any of our students, and staff (they often like to engage in the discussions too, not control them) post responses. Students simply use the white board markers left at the board for this purpose to write their responses to the question or to other responses. The only rule we have is that we must be respectful, considerate, and tolerant in our postings. Being civil and tolerant in word and deed is the rule.

3. A question may stay up for a week or two, or just a few days. Nonetheless, students are in charge of the entire process for the most part. Occasionally, a staff member will post a question too just to join into the discussion. Students are free to write responses as they pass by the board throughout the day.

There are some who would ask, "Why don't you post some kind of discussion board online instead? It would be much easier for students to access and post." My answer to that is simple. Having a physical board in the hallway means more. Often, it's common for student responses on this board to spill into what we call extended hallway chalk talk discussions. I for one found myself engaged in one the other day with staff members and students. The discussion was extremely profound, and I suggest that I learned as much as the students. The physical board serves as a kind physical place, not unlike a city square or like a Roman forum, where the exchange is with ideas not goods or services. An electronic space could not provide this experience. Besides, high-tech does not always mean better.

If we as school leaders want students really engaged in substantive talk and discussions, we have to realize we can't control the conversation. We can provide the environment. We can encourage respect and tolerance and model civility, but we can't wall off everything that makes us uncomfortable and tell students they can't talk about that. Chalk Talks are a means to foster a true sense of learning community.

Chalk Talk Board in Action

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Merit Pay Once Again Proven to Be A Wash Out According to New Research Study

For those still holding out hope for that merit pay will be the salvation of public education, here's yet another study that points out that such practices are a waste of time. Roland Fryer from Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, has a study entitled "Teacher Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from New York City Public Schools" that is to be published in The Journal of Labor Economics.This study once again affirms that many of us who have spent our lives in education know full well:
Merit pay schemes are a waste of effort and time.
In this study, Fryer points to these findings about merit pay:

  • No evidence that teacher incentives had a positive effect on student achievement. In fact, in this study, STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT MAY HAVE DECLINED.
  •  Incentives did not change student nor teacher behavior.
One can't but help how many of these studies will have to be done before our politicians and state policymakers will finally understand what Daniel Pink has been saying all along:
"Rewards can perform a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: they can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by diminishing intrinsic motivation , they can send performance, creativity, and even upstanding behavior toppling like dominoes." Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
I would send a copy of Drive to our state legislators and even our governor, but I'm not sure they read books.