Friday, April 28, 2017

Indistar, NC Public School's Means to Control Schools from a Distance

"The problem with conformity in education is that people are not standardized to begin with." Sir Ken Robinson, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education
Let's face it, our public education system is still all about conformity and standardization. We talk a lot of rot about "innovation" and "thinking outside of the box," but in reality, many educators still adhere to the faith that there are a list of single "research-based" indicators that exist somewhere out there that can guide our schools to the promised land. Companies manufacturing educational products know this, and make all kinds of promises that their products will lead us to the "Land of Eternal Achievement." A perfect case in point is a new product that the state of North Carolina has adopted to ensure conformity and standardization of school improvement planning. This product is called Indistar.

When you check out Indistar's web site, it is immediately clear they've got their "marketing shoes on." (Check out their web site here:  http://www.indistar.org/). Immediately the promises of educational prosperity hit you square in the face with "Your Leadership Team's Best Friend." It promises that schools can "get better together." Basically, it is school improvement software that promises to help school improvement teams to academic prosperity through helping them implement its "research-based indicators."

As a principal and educator who has experienced this product for one year, I am afraid it most likely will lead, not to academic prosperity, but ensure that your school conforms to what the makers of Indistar see as an "effective school." This software isn't about empowering schools to find creative solutions to the problems they face; it is about forcing schools to apply a list of "research-based indicators" so that they conform to a single image (Indistar's) of what an effective school should look like.

It was Fenwick English (2003), educational leader and scholar, who once said, "To reduce such claims (of effective schools) or "school improvement models" based on decontextualized behaviors [emphasis mine] on a 'research base' which itself has been standardized in 'right truth-seeking methods,' is to resort to hgegemonic practices which can only be supported via political enforcement [again, italics mine]. In other words, the whole idea that one can create a list of 'decontextualized behaviors' that will somehow solve all the ills and problems of the schools, can only be supported if it is made mandatory, as North Carolina has done. Its claim of all being 'research-based indicators' is its claim to legitimation, but what is left out of the equation is that all of these 'decontextualized behaviors' happened in very contextual situations that may or may not be applicable to other schools. Educators would do well to be 'skeptical' of any organization, company or even other educators who throw around the term 'research-based' as support for their product. And, just keep in mind that just because they provide a 20 page bibliography, or larger, and links to research articles, that again does not necessarily translated into an effective product for every school or district. The number of bibliographical entries or research articles does not automatically mean a 'valid technology.' Anyone with an APA manual and Google Scholar can make a bibliography.

Besides its rather ponderous claims of helping schools to "get better together," the reality is that Indistar is just another one of those miracles of marketing. That explains why North Carolina has rushed to force schools across the state to adopt it. The gist of Indistar is rather simple. School improvement teams assess their school against a ponderous list of so-called "research-based" indicators to see if their school measures up to them. If they feel they have met the indicator, they must engage in the massive undertaking of collecting evidence to show they have met the indicator. They submit this evidence online, then a voice from the cloud above reviews their evidence to judge whether that evidence meets the indicator. If the judgement is that they have, they then move to the next indicator. They do this until they have made their way through a hundred or so indicators. Voila, once they have met all the indicators they should have reached the "promised land of academic achievement aplenty." If they find themselves wanting with an indicator, then that indicator becomes a school improvement goal. The school works to make that indicator happen, provides evidence, then they submit that evidence to the cloud judgement seat, and if judged in affirmative, they can move on to the next indicator. That is "school improvement" according to Indistar. What better way for district and even state education administrators to actually "control" the schools under their charge! This is truly a great tool to "manage from a distance!"

The whole problem behind Indistar and products like it, is the faith that there are "prescriptions" out there that will fix any school problem that exists. We've been trying this approach to improving schools for more than the last 30 years, and I dare say we are not any closer to making education as a whole better. In fact, in many ways we've only made it worse. We aren't going to improve education by using software like Indistar to impose what is believed to be a set of "research-based" prescriptions on our schools, because the problems in our schools are very often unique problems that require creativity and innovation, not simple application of what some researchers in the ivory towers of quantitative research have found to be true.

Products like Indistar are not innovative; they are simply high-tech regurgitations of all the prescriptive, management from a distance strategies we've been engaged in for the past 30 years or so.

I have not doubt that the makers of Indistar mean well. I am also aware that, like so many innovative products, it makes claims based on "success stories" and with its slick web site where it markets a Utopian future for those who dare to use its product. Sadly, as a user of this product for a year now, I would say it is more about making sure schools conform to someone else's idea of school improvement rather than giving schools the freedom to be really creative in solving their problems.

The problem with Indistar and products like it is that schools are not standardized to begin with, so applying a list of so-called research-based prescriptions are not likely to bring the same results in every case, and that is a major problem with this product. The problems we deal with in our schools are very often local contextual issues. We really don't need more software to help us resolve these issues; we need the freedom to approach the unique problems we face in a creative manner.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Saying “I’m Doing What’s Best for Students” Isn’t the Best Rationale

One of the most common utterings you will hear from school leaders is, “I’m going to do what’s best for kids” when justifying or providing reasons for actions taken. But, is saying that justification enough?

By using the justification that actions are “what’s best for students,” the addressor, or one uttering that phrase, is staking claim to the higher moral ground. Educators, for the most part and by nature, became so because of their concern for the learning and well-being of the young. So, when one claims what one is doing is “best for students,” the immediate reaction by other educators is simply acceptance and obedience. Most times, not one asks for further explanation and proof either. But what if that action really isn’t the best for students?

As a school leader, I am so self-aware when I use that phrase and when others use it too. Sometimes it is tossed around so much, it almost loses its real power to justify anything. But when we use that phrase as school leaders, do we really know that what we’re doing or asking others to do is “best” for kids? It might very well be in our minds that it is, but the history of education is riddled with schemes and ideas that were “what’s best for kids too."

Should we not be a little hesitant to use this phrase? After all, we don’t get a grade of “A” in leadership when we were well-intentioned. I don’t get the consolation prize of knowing that, “Well, I did really mean well when I decided to trash the school’s arts program in favor of more reading instruction” because I thought it best for students to be able to read rather than play the violin or paint a landscape. Never mind that there just might have been a Mozart, or a Shakespeare in the midst of bloom in my school that was stamped out by my actions.

Perhaps we should discard the phrase “doing what’s best for students” from our leadership practice. I suspect it’s another thing of many that educational leaders have borrowed from the field of business and industry leadership. In business, there exists a true bottom-line. You need to make a profit, and to do that, you delineate the bottomline to make that happen. And, as leader, you simply make your decisions align with that.

But I don’t really think there’s a ‘bottomline’ in education. Things are not just that simple. Perhaps there’s a bottomline for every single student who walks in the hallways of our schools, and because of this, there’s absolutely, no way, we can say with 100% confidence, that what we do is in the best interest of all our students. We are fallible human beings in spite of what our college educational leadership programs tried to tell us.

One major lesson I’ve learned from educational leadership? Abolutely certainty will surely get you into trouble. I honestly think I know less about being an educational leader now than when I started. What this really means in practical terms is that I am a fallible human who can’t always say definitively that my decisions are “What’s Best for Kids!”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

How to Be an Educator When Thinking Has Become Dangerous

"Thinking has become dangerous in the United States and the symptoms are everywhere." Henry Giroux, Dangerous Thinking: In the Age of the New Authoritarianism
 For all the talk and blather about teaching students to think critically and creatively, we need to face the reality that much of our political and educational establishment is actually more interested in conformity, and teaching others to think in certain privileged ways. For example, with all the talk that comes with education as the engine of the economy, also comes the worship of greed, free-market fundamentalism, and simple form of idolatry that places the "businessman" as the salvation of all that is good and wonderful. Schools are seen as the producers of workers for industry. Art and music is irrelevant and unnecessary. Education is not about thinking critically; it is about making sure our students accept and conform to a culture that pursues economic interests, and selfish individual interests at the expense of everything else, with the belief, that in the end, all will be well in such a society.

The current predicament we face in this 21st century isn't just about jobs for our students; it is whether or not the world we are leaving them will even be inhabitable. Instead of educating students how to work the machines in the factory down the road, we need to be teaching them to be problem-solvers, creative thinkers, and dare I say, teaching them to be willing to be non-conformists?

Non-conformity is not always a negative. There are plenty of examples of constructive non-conformity in our history. Had the forefathers of our country chosen the path of conformity, we certainly would not have the country we have today. I realize that is a bit of tired thinking, but I think it illustrates a simple point that should be a part of our educational philosophy for 21st century thinking. You simply sometimes can't think outside the box when conformity matters most. You can't always expect different results when you insist on playing by the rules set by others. Sometimes you need to invent new rules, or simply refuse to play by the old ones, and invent an entirely new game.

As Giroux points out, "Thinking has become dangerous" and I would agree it has especially become dangerous in the United States in our current political climate. But, if we are going to push the limits and be "dangerous educational innovators," we are going to have to engage in the unsafe. We are going to have to be critical and creative thinkers, and question the official, and dare I say even resist. Ultimately, we can by example teach our students to be "dangerous thinkers" who can disturb the present by being willing to question and even think dangerously ourselves.