Let EDUCATORS Guide Education!

Aaliyah Samuel penned a piece on U.S. News and World Report today about how state governors are the right choice to guide education, and she offered a set of guidelines to do so:

As we as a nation pursue effective education for all, it is paramount we commit to these three foundational principles:

  1. Equity. Ensure every child, from birth through college and career, receives a high-quality education and has access to the tools and resources they need to succeed.
  2. Alignment. Create coherence across disparate systems and connect education to economic opportunity to ensure a seamless pipeline from birth through college and career.
  3. Data-driven. Harness high-quality data to support students and improve schools, programs and educator quality with a fact-based approach.

On the whole, I agree with Samuel.  A top-down, one size fits all approach to teaching and learning doesn’t work.  However, having state governors guide education is STILL a top-down, one size fits all approach to education, just on the state level instead of the national level.  She argues for equity and alignment, which I think are admirable goals, but her third guideline, that education be data-driven, doesn’t work in conjunction with her first guideline.  If we want education to be equitable, then we can’t rely on what has been called “high-quality data.”  Standardized test results are NOT high quality data, and yet they have been used to make significant, sweeping decisions about education.  Test results tell us that schools in low income communities are almost universally failing, and that students, teachers, and schools there need to be fixed.

If we truly want equitable education, then we need to return control of education to individual schools, boost support and compensation for teachers, increase funding to schools in high need areas, and rely on information about schools that includes not just test scores, but observations of teachers, community, student, and teacher feedback, artifacts of student learning, and real world outcomes.

The best place to get that information, and the best place for decisions about education to occur is at the school level.  Districts and states can and should provide guidelines, but when it comes to decisions about instructional methods and measuring instructional quality, educators MUST be in charge.

There IS such a thing as a free lunch. 

photo credit: bookgrl lunchtime! via photopin (license)

Betsy DeVos spoke this week at CPAC, and told the crowd that she was the first one to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Well, Betsy, I’m here to tell you that there ARE free lunches, and they are so much more than that. 

Many kids come to school to eat; that is the only time they get fed. I know this firsthand, because I’ve taught these kids. I’ve been the teacher who keeps crackers in her desk to send home with kids that aren’t going to have any other food until the next morning. Our “free lunches” at public schools fill a critical gap; feeding impoverished children. When those kids get older, thanks to their free educations, many of them will apply to and attend public institutions of higher education. Many will receive grants, and if Bernie’s plans had come to fruition, they and many others would have received free tuition. 

I hear your Republican brain screaming now, about how that really isn’t free. You’re right; free lunches and free tuition are free to the recipient, but not to those who pay the bill. But here’s where you need to reframe your thinking to align with evidence.

Paying for school lunches, grants, and tuition is not just paying a bill. It’s making an investment. It’s saying that you believe that a well educated population is good for society. It’s saying that feeding poor children who can then grow up to become productive members of society is a good investment for all of us. Even if you live in a mansion in a gated neighborhood on the rich side of town, you benefit from poor kids being fed and educated. You benefit from EVERYONE being able to receive a high quality public education.

Because when people are fed and educated, they can grow up and get jobs. They can make discoveries. They can start businesses. They can spend their hard earned money in a strong economy.

Young people are seeds. They have incredible potential for growth, but they need the right light, enough water, and good soil. We have the ability as a nation to provide those things to all young people, and to reap the rewards of that investment. 

But that would involve a few things that Republicans are not in favor of:

– Recognizing that we have a social responsibility to care for the less fortunate and to dismantle systems of oppression and inequality that have pushed people down for generations.

– Supporting the creation of a well educated populace, who the research shows will likely not vote Republican.

So you’re right. There are no free lunches. There are investments in bettering individual people for the public good. Those of us who believe in the power of public investment in young people will fight you and your selfish agenda every step of the way. Buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy four years.

Teachers instead of Tests

origin_14994024015It is no secret that I am no fan of standardized tests.  I strongly believe that they are killing public education, and I am terrified at what our educational system will look like in 20 years.  We desperately want to be the best, and so we devise test after test to hold students and teachers accountable.

Who is it that we think we need to hold accountable?  We have these mythical “bad teachers” who just aren’t doing their jobs.  Those teachers do exist, but they are a small percentage.  The vast majority of teachers out there are good teachers. Because, you see, teachers don’t become teachers for the money (or even for the summer breaks).  They become teachers because they have a passion for inspiring and educating young minds.

So, the powers that be convince themselves that it’s these “bad teachers” who need to be held accountable.  They need to be forced into teaching properly with test after test after test.  So, perhaps, there are a few teachers out there who were coasting along, and decided to step up their games when standardized testing was implemented.  What about all the rest of the teachers, though?  The vast majority who are GOOD TEACHERS?  The joy of teaching and learning is being replaced with test-prep booklets, scantron sheets, and proclamations from legislators and number crunchers who have never stood in front of a classroom but are oh so sure that they know how to measure good teaching.

And so good teachers find less and less joy in the classroom, on top of their already abysmal pay. They hear that if they don’t get certain scores on a test that they know is invalid, they might be laid off.  They might not be able to feed their families.  Is it any wonder that teachers are resorting to unethical practices to deal with these pressures?

It’s not just about the testing, either.  It’s the opportunity cost of all of this testing. It’s the things teachers can’t do because they’re teaching students to bubble properly.  It’s the 1.7 billion dollars that states spend on testing annually that could be spent on teachers.  What is the impact of these lost opportunities?

We don’t give teachers adequate support from paraprofessionals.

We don’t give teachers adequate time to plan or grade.

We don’t give teachers control over what happens in their classrooms.

We don’t give teachers opportunities for high quality professional development.

We don’t give teachers a chance to be part of a larger community of professionals.

We don’t pay teachers nearly enough.

We give teachers standards that don’t make sense, or are too numerous to address in a single year.

We give teachers textbooks that are substandard, and encourage them to teach from them.

We give teachers pacing plans that tell them which standard to teach on which day, as if we can somehow plan out in advance how a group of completely unique individuals will learn.

We give teachers piles of paperwork.

We give teachers meaningless meetings.

We give teachers 5 subjects to teach in 2.5 hours total per week.

We give teachers endless, flat tests that measure only a small percentage of what we want a high quality teaching and learning experience to be.

We give teachers scores from these tests and assume that they somehow reflect a teacher’s quality, when we know that this isn’t true.

All of these things detract from the ability of teachers to do what we really want them to do: create and deliver engaging, differentiated lessons for their students.

I tell my students all the time that when you’re trying to create a successful classroom, you can go one of two ways.  You can implement a system of rewards and punishments so that students will sit through your boring lessons attentively. Or, you can create engaging, interactive, relevant lessons so that students voluntarily participate and learn because they want more of that type of teaching and learning.  The first option is little more than putting out fires.  It will quickly suck the life out of you, and it leaves little room for creativity, interaction, and mutual learning and growth.  The second option helps both you AND your students to eagerly anticipate walking into the classroom each day.

We’re doing a large scale version of the first option in our public schools.  We dangle merit pay in front of teachers, and threaten them with pink slips if their students don’t perform well enough.  What if, instead, we took that 1.7 billion dollars, and we used it to do things like provide professional development, peer observation time, classroom materials, grading/planning time, or any of the other things that teachers need? What if we made sure that teachers were highly qualified, and then trusted them to do their jobs?

There are 98,817 public schools out there.  What could we do with that 1.7 billion if we divided it up among those schools? That’s just over $17,000 per year per school. Now, sure, $17,000 is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things.  I would wager, though, that if allowed to spend that $17,000 themselves, teachers could find any number of productive uses for it.

$17,000 is a computer lab or a class set of iPads.

$17,000 is piles of books.

$17,000 is time for teachers to engage in collaborative planning.

$17,000 is sending a team of teachers to a professional conference.

$17,000 is musical instruments.

$17,000 can be a thousand useful things.

What isn’t useful is obstructive and invalid standardized testing.

“But we NEED to know if teachers are doing their jobs,” you say.  “What if kids aren’t learning?”  Well, if  you really don’t trust trained teachers and administrators to take care of themselves, then we’re going to need a lot MORE money.

$1.7 billion dollars won’t even come close.  You’re going to need trained observers at school sites.  You’re going to need to buy administrators and teachers out of time they are currently spending elsewhere so they can engage in peer observation.  You’re going to need assessment instruments that aren’t scored by a machine, which means training and paying professionals to hand-score each assessment.  You’re going to need assessments that reflect the unique needs of each school site.  You’re going to need assessments in multiple languages, because I don’t care how many times you make them take it, a math test in English can’t gauge the math skills of someone who is still learning English.  You’re going to need to implement dynamic assessment practices, which will involve training teachers on how to scaffold learners during assessments.

Or, we could just, you know, let teachers do their jobs.


photo credit: Truthout.org via photopin cc

Teaching New Media Literacy Skills without Technology

Let me start this post by saying, “I LOVE TECHNOLOGY!” I do; I love how it makes the world smaller and larger simultaneously.  I love that I have all of human knowledge at my fingertips, available within an instant.  I love that, when someone says, “Hey, that’s that guy from that movie!  You know, the one where Keanu Reeves pretends he can act!” I can have an answer for them in 10 seconds (the answer is Gary Oldman, by the way).

However, as much as those of us with ready access might feel that smartphones, laptops, and tablets are ubiquitous, the fact is that they’re not.  Just a few short years ago, before I made the transition to my new life as a professor, I was a classroom teacher.  The last school I was at was a high need school near East Los Angeles.  Our technological resources were, in a word, sad.  Just sad.  My classroom had 3 old iMacs in the back of the room.  You know, the ones with that annoying round mouse? Yep, these:

image from 512Pixels.net

I hated those damn computers with a passion.  They occasionally worked.  We often had to take the mice apart to get them to track properly, and the only really useful thing they’d do was run the AR tests.    I brought my personal laptop from home, because the teacher laptop I could have checked out was equally as bad.  Unfortunately, there were only a couple of digital projectors for the entire school (1500 students).  Once a teacher snagged one at the beginning of the year, it was very hard for anyone else to get a hold of them.  If you got one, you didn’t tell any other teachers you had it, you packed it up when you left the room and hid it, and you hoped it would still be there when you got back.  Otherwise, you’d be using the overhead projector.  We did have access to the computer lab occasionally, but it was ONE computer lab of around 35 computers for the whole school.  I tell you all this to say, I understand.  I understand that when someone tells you, a seasoned educator, or a new, and overwhelmed teacher, that you need to teach your students technology, and new media literacies, what you’re thinking is, “Have you been in my school? Have you seen the resources I have to work with?”

I hear your frustrations, because I have been there myself, but I promise you that if you can consider what I’m about to tell you with an open mind, both you and your students will greatly benefit.  You’ll also go a long way towards closing the ever widening gap between the haves and the have nots in terms of education.

First, we need to shift the conversation away from talking about teaching technology.  It’s not about teaching technology. Sure, knowing how to use Word is helpful, but that’s not the point.

If you’re spending your time in the computer lab teaching keyboarding, you’re doing it wrong. 

Instead, you need to be teaching new media literacy. New media literacy, according to Jenkins, involves a set of 11 skills that are critical to being able to function successfully right now and in the future world:

“Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation
and discovery
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand
mental capacities
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with
others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information
across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting
multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.” (Jenkins, 2006, p.3)

The beauty of these skills is that you don’t need to have access to technology to teach them.

Let’s look at play first.  There are numerous ways, in every single subject area, to engage students in experimentation with their surroundings without having to be on a computer.  Could you maybe, in a math or physics class, have students determine the proper angle at which to throw a super ball to get maximum bounce?

How about performance?  This one lends itself easily to an English class, or a social studies class, where students can act out roles and improvise based on the character or historical figure they’re representing.

Simulation certainly seems like it would require a computer, but with some basic materials like old cereal boxes, plastic wrap, paper towel rolls, scissors, and tape, students can create aqueducts to track water movement and volume.

Appropriation seems like a tricky one.  After all, how can you remix and sample media when you don’t have a working computer, or when your district blocks access to websites like YouTube?  Simple. Media doesn’t have to mean video or audio files.  Media can be magazine images, tape recordings of students’ own voices, student artwork, etc.  Use what you do have to encourage the same kind of skill.

Multitasking is probably one of the most critical skills on this list.  Being able to monitor a phone, a computer, and the real world simultaneously, for example, is a very important skill for professionals.  However, we can still teach the skill of multitasking in the classroom.  Perhaps we can have several different related activities happening in the classroom, and let students choose where to focus attention and when.

We could encourage the skill of distributed cognition in our students by allowing students free access to tools like calculators, formula sheets, dictionaries and encyclopedias, other students, and ourselves when trying to solve a problem.

This also lends itself to developing the skill of collective intelligence.  Allowing students to work together in collaborative groups to create products and solve problems encourages this skill; no computer is necessary.

Now, judgment is a bit different.  You can certainly teach judgment without a computer.  You can bring in various print resources, and talk with students about how they know which sources are reliable.  But this is the one instance where I’m going to encourage, nay insist that you bring in technology as well.  Why?  Well, because telling fact from fiction on the Internet is a challenge, and the only way to learn it is to interact with it.  You can start by making “screen shots” of websites on chart paper, for when you can’t get everyone on a computer.  Make some different kinds of websites, with different indicators of trustworthiness, for example, and talk to students about how they know which sites are legitimate.  Once you, hopefully, have the opportunity to take them to a computer lab, or give them turns on a computer, engage them in the process of exploring various websites and online sources of information (Twitter and Facebook are excellent for this, if they’re not blocked by your district).

Transmedia navigation, however, is able to be taught without computer access.  When you teach a unit of information, instead of giving a lecture, provide all of the important information in pieces across a variety of sources.  For example, put some information in a poster-type image.  Put some in an article they need to read (including extraneous information is important here).  Have another teacher or volunteer come in, and tell students that they can interview this person to get information, but that they need to know which questions to ask, and that only certain answers will be available.

To teach the skill of networking, you can create a print- and image-based network across multiple classes.  Have a blank bulletin board in each room, or in hallways, and have students search for and synthesize information in a visual format, and then share their work with other classes by posting it on the boards.  Allow students to comment on each other’s posts (productive feedback only, of course).

Finally, we have the skill of negotiation.  This one involves getting students out of the classroom.  Take them places, either in person, or virtually, if possible, and have them be in control of managing their assimilation or adaptation to new situations.  Coach an encourage them, but let them take the lead.

Obviously, the above are only a few of the many possible ways you could approach teaching these skills without technology.  The specific approaches you choose to use aren’t important.  What’s important, instead, is that you are teaching these skills.  Your students may have very limited access to advanced technology right now, but you can prepare them to be able to interact in meaningful and productive ways once they do have access to the technology.  These skills will transfer, so that one day, when they are, hopefully, sitting down to write their first blog post (or whatever the equivalent of that is in 5 years, 10 years, etc.), they will have the skills they need to work through the technology.

Have you had experience teaching new media literacy skills in a high need school? What challenges have you faced? What successes have you experienced?