Sunday, November 21, 2010

Unexploited resource time on LeaderTalk

I posted this on LeaderTalk

The Unexploited Resource: Time

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Have you ever wondered why there are so many schedules out there for high schools? I would suggest it is due to efforts by educational leaders to make the most out of the second most precious resource in education. If you are thinking money is the first, think again. Despite what a great many within our own profession would profess, our most precious resource is our people.

Human capital in any organization is often overlooked and even more often not increased through proper investments. This being said, most successful leaders have already figured this out and get the most out of their best by breaking the tradition of allowing your best teachers to teach the most teachable students. There are those leaders out there that realize, you need your best teachers with those hardest to teach.

Time on the other hand, still holds plenty to be exploited if we can just break from the mass production model which has long outlived its usefulness. Gone are the days when there was value to being able to mentally store great quantities of information about a narrow topic and being able to recall it quickly leading to organizational efficiency. Technology now makes these skills unmarketable. Instead we now look at information as the artist looks at clay. As Daniel Pink states in his book "A Whole New Mind," this is the era of creativity.

Creativity is a funny thing in that it requires the integration of skill and information. Not information in nice neat organizational bundles, but rather in webs of inter-connectivity. We know that learning is a social process, but in the industrial model of school, we isolate individuals so we can sort and select them for specific tasks. Unfortunately many of these tasks are no longer done by people and those that are still done by people are not done by people here in this country.

We place value on concepts and skills by their inclusion in the curriculum. However, we do not always allocate time based on importance nor even in varied bundles conducive to acquisition of that particular skill or concept. We measure proficiency in aggregated scores which communicate little and in credits based on seat time. In attempts to better utilize time, we change the length of the allocations, but do little in terms of allocating more time for subjects which require it or even more desirable, different amounts of time for each child beyond elementary school. We have set up curriculum and even schedules based on the average student's rate of learning. We require the same amount of time for most subjects varying a few by length of term rather than length of meeting period. There have been some attempts to move students through the curriculum at a pace conducive to their success, but more energy has been spent on figuring out various ways to break the day up into equal pieces in different ways. Popular methods of organizing time for high schools today include what some call a "traditional" eight or seven period day, where the day is divided into 40-50 minute periods. Each subject in this model gets the same amount of time during the day, but some subjects may get less time by lasting fewer terms. There are a number of variations to this in terms of term length. There are quarters, semesters, trimesters and a number of others I am sure I am leaving out. The other most popular schedules in high schools today are variations of the block schedule. In this model a student is engaged in fewer classes for longer periods of time, but again the day is equally divided into periods or blocks of time.

We had a scheduling model in the 70's that allowed for subjects to vary meeting frequency, meeting length and even left it up to the student as to where they would spend a significant part of their day to get the extra help they needed in the area they needed it. It was called the Flexible Modular Schedule. The day was still broken into periods, but they were very small and courses did not all use the same number of them nor did they all meet every day. The complexity of building such a schedule is why most schools left this model. Today's technology would allow for this type of schedule to be reintroduced. However, we now have a student population that has been told where to go and what to do and has little likelihood of success in managing their time without a great deal of training. Emphasis on a grade, test score or diploma rather than mastery of skills and concepts would deter schools from risking letting students learn the skill of self-management and making decisions about their own time.

We talk about tradition a lot in education. With the infusion of technology, we need to start taking a look at innovation rather than tradition as computer software programs allow for meeting many of the students learning needs in terms of subject matter. It is skills that are still best learned in the context of a classroom filled with other students. One could possibly argue that time management is one of the most vital skills in our adult world today. We desperately need to begin to look at innovative ways to manage one of our most important yet unexploited resources, time. Students need to be part of the process of determining how much time they need to truly master a concept and skill. this will not be the same for all students. My proposal would be to spend less time in structured settings and allow more flexibility for each student to access the help they need when they need it.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Students' Insights

I had the great opportunity to speak with some Fort Dodge students in Mr. Marshall Hoovler's classroom on Friday. They were engaged in a discussion which, until my arrival, was being wonderfully facilitated by Mr. Hoovler. He has a great way of asking probing questions and then the rare ability to shut up and let his students hash it out. He will expertly step back when the conversation lulls and stir things up again.
This post is not about his abilities to facilitate student discussions, nor even about discussions in general, but more importantly about that specific discussion. Their discussion was concerning Plato's allegory of the cave. Yes, this is commonly a work in high school literature. So, obviously, this is not really blog worthy and the conversation being about school is not surprising either, but the fact that the teachers where those chained in the cave was.
Typically I have seen students get into great conversations about their own learning and/or lack thereof. This was discussed, but as I was sitting there listening, the conversation took a sudden change. The students asked me to join their conversation and began talking about how teachers are also really in their own cave and refuse to free themselves or even believe those who have escaped when they come to tell them about the world out there. Students were questioning me about how a schedule change we are considering was going. They wanted to know what teachers were thinking and what I thought would happen. They asked questions about why I thought we needed a change and why if I saw those things, why were there teachers who were being so negative about a possible change.
I tried to explain that it is due to their feelings that the new schedules might not help these problems, but they weren't buying it. They turned the discussion to fear of change. They asked several good questions about how the current system was developed. I gave them a brief (five minutes) educational history about Carnegie Units, Chapter 12 of the Iowa Code, and Board Policy changes which led us to our current system. They asked how changes would be made if we decided there was a need to change. I explained the process that I intended to use to gather input from stakeholders but also shared that I was having some difficulty getting teachers to actually engage in the process. They went back to Plato's Cave. I was a moron and not really ready to use this opportunity to discuss more on their perception of teachers' cave, but rather turned the discussion to a discussion about their cave. Why they were more concerned more about grades than they are about learning. I told them that, in my opinion, the first step to truly change schools and break the bonds to tradition and thus free us from the cave is the elimination of grades. They asked all of the right questions, what would replace grades, how would we rank students, would colleges accept the new reporting scheme, how would we pick a graduation speaker, etc... The final question generated some pretty passionate discussion about how class ranking was a flawed system in and of itself. They commented about the fact that the types of classes a student takes can have a big impact on their overall GPA. I capitalized on this conversation to point out that this was also a problem with grades. I asked the students my favorite question, "What do grades really tell us?" which generally gets a range of responses. These responses almost always include comments about "kissing up". I wasn't disappointed with this group as they brought it up and opened the door further about the "fairness" of grading.
I asked the students why, with a system that everyone can see is so flawed, do they think we resist change so vehemently? They had their own answers, but pressed me for mine. I bluntly stated, "Fear and the economy we have developed around grades". I wrote Grades and Skills on the board. I asked them which have value. There were no immediate responses. Then some cited grades due to scholarships. I asked them how much they thought grades really played into most scholarships and how many of our students got those types of scholarships. I used my son as an example. He was the recipient of a very large academic scholarship from a university, but received very little of the scholarship money offered by the community in which he lived.
I cited several very large scholarship winners in our previous graduating class in Fort Dodge and asked if those big winners were the same students speaking at graduation. They quickly realized that grades are not the only factor, nor even the most important factor for many local scholarships. I asked them again as to how many students receive the type of scholarship my son had received and after some mumbling, I told them. Not very many. Other factors carry a great deal of weight with scholarship selection committees.
I also pointed out that scholarships were indeed financial, but asked students how those scholarships impacted a student beyond their expenditure. I asked them, "Do the students who get the big scholarships by avoiding courses really do as well as those who take the more rigorous courses and pay their own way?" I tried to stress that the focus on grades restrains us from placing our focus on what is really important and that is the learning these grades are supposed to represent. They were quick to acknowledge that the grades did not necessarily represent skills and that a student who "played the school game" well often got better grades than the students who were difficult, but actually knew or could do more.
Again, the questions were asked as to why teachers don't just change it if they know it is broken. Mr. Hoovler asked me what would it take for us to change and if all schools had to change at once. I told the class that in my opinion change no longer happens gradually, and explained the idea of innovative disruption. I was shocked with the speed in which the class accepted and even provided examples of how they have witnessed disruptive innovation in society.
The students brought the conversation right back to our staff, our school, and Plato's cave. Several comments were made about the fact that some of their teachers had been in the "cave" too long and conversation about changes in the way they were tested ensued. The comments were quick to discuss the fact that knowing stuff on tests was probably not a marketable skill since most of them could look it up. I shared with them that I agree with their view and cited the need to change what was being asked of students in their classes as being the focus of most of our professional development. I also took the opportunity to ask if the current schedule structure was the best structure for how they were currently being taught? How about the way in which I had just described being taught. Again some great questions were being asked.
This whole exchange was an incredible learning experience for me. I have often used students in decisions I have made as an administrator, but superficially at best.
I am not so sure we shouldn't be following the business model and spending more time asking customers what they want. I am not so sure that during out "early releases" we have with staff, that we shouldn't be keeping the students those afternoons as well and sharing the same things we are sharing with staff with them.
I know this for certain, I will be attempting to do just that with at least some of our students from now on. I am quite sure that the exchange we had in the class period described was not only refreshing to me, but very informative as well. I am also quite certain that we need to allow students to engage in this type of discussion far more often than we do.
Kuddos to Mr. Hoovler and his students for providing me with one of the best experiences I have had in school since moving to Fort Dodge.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Should this even have to be said

It is amazing to me that as a profession, we have lost such a great deal of respect over the years. I don't know, maybe we never had it to begin with. My mother used to insist that when we did laundry we hung our underwear on the inside lines unseen by all but those who were doing the laundry. We were careful to have outer garments obscuring their view from anyone who might wonder by. We did this as some things should remain private she would tell us. Somethings you just don't talk about outside the family. Now I am not advocating for a major cover up of any kind, nor for any sort of deception of the public we serve, but I am extremely disappointed that it has become common practice for educators to bash educators. I am not talking about the multi-million dollar industry of what I would consider pseudo educators who are making their living off of bashing those in the trenches.
Now if you have read some of my contributions to sites like Dangerously Irrelevant, I too have been drawn into this type of behavior at times, but I think there is a fine line which I to have crossed between criticizing practices and flat out people bashing.
There is not an industry out there that doesn't have its fair share of characters. This includes not only those who are less than capable and those who are a down right disgrace to their organization. Then there are also those who are like most people, having their good and bad days. Those who are one day an inspiration to the students they work with and on other days say things that have ramifications equally as destructive.
I am extremely disappointed that as a profession, we often put each other down far more often than we say good things about one an other. This has become a cultural norm not only in the educational profession but in others as well. Just take a look at political campaigns. The spend very little time talking about what they will do to better our system, but rather spend millions of dollars decimating their opponent. I am not sure that I know anything about what the candidates stand for and are wanting to do, but I can tell you oodles of things about each and every mistake they have made and skeleton in their closet.
What we as educators need to understand that we are not in competition with each other but rather all on the same team. We need to spend more time communicating the strengths of our colleagues and leaders, rather than sharing every mistake they might make.
I ask the other teachers in our building to make 10 parent phone calls a week. I stress that these phone calls are to communicate both the struggles and the accomplishments of the students. In other words, don't just call parents to tell them about how big a pain in the ass their kid was today without being willing to call them on another day to tell them about how great their child did on a test, quiz or maybe even a kind word they extended a fellow student.
I am trying very hard to make this a positive post. One that will inspire positive communication and collective efficacy within our educational organizations and not just another teacher bashing rant.
These positive things happen in all schools, they just need to happen more often. The unethical behavior of running another teacher down to a parent or a student need to cease. We need to remember that those who live in glass houses best not cast stones. I assure you that we work in glass houses in education. People are eager to look in and when they see something they don't like cast a big stone rather than offer encouragement.

I spoke with a student in my office today who was complaining about a teacher. They were quick to point out all of the teacher's flaws, but had to be reminded of all of the wonderful things this teacher had done for her. I had to explain to her that she is not the only one who is stressed out by school. She had to be educated about the fact that teachers are people too and that they make mistakes, get upset and say things they don't really mean just like students do. No we hope that they do these things less often that the normal person would as we want all teachers to be encouraging, compassionate and self-sacrificing at all times. We want them to live their job and leave all their personal stresses at home. We want them to be flawless in what they do, how they treat people, how they grade work, etc.
I believe that sometimes we all forget that we are all just people. That we do have lives outside of the school day and should. That we may not get everything done in a day and should not be expected to stay up all night to ensure everything is perfectly planned for the next day.
It is easy to get sucked into the practice of bashing others, it is often easier to hang our undies on the inside and outside lines, but as a profession we do ourselves no favors in bashing our peers as in the end, we are all lumped together as teachers in the mind of those we serve.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Graduation Traditions

Since becoming a secondary principal each year at this time, I am always so stressed by the quick turn around time necessary to get all of the academic honors figured and to ensure all seniors have fulfilled their graduation requirements. Each year we dismiss the seniors prior to all of the rest of the students and genearlly need to have grades turned in the day after seniors are dismissed to allow time to print programs for the awards ceremony and graduation. Why?
I have questioned this practice since I began teaching high school students and it has gotten less and less palatable to me each year. By ending the senior's year early, we are forced to run reports using the student management system twice. We are grading seniors in a class with different criteria we are using for all of the rest of the students who have to remain the rest of the year. Worst of all, in years like this one, not only do we loose the planned five days of instruction, but also loose all of the days we moved to the end of the school year due to inclement weather (snow days).
I would really like to start a new tradition. Let's give the seniors a full year, allow teachers adequate time to score end of the year assessments and provide office support staff adequate time to carefully calculate grades and put programs together for awards celebrations and the commencement ceremony which could be held a week or so after the end of the school year.
Afterall, most of our seniors, even here in the midwest, are not needed in the fields or for other duties on the farm.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Educational Oursourcing

Education is like many businesses today in that too many working in the profession have succumb to the social disease of entitlement which is spreading like the plague across this great country. Too many are focusing on what they can get instead of what they can give. This time of year is tough for everyone as the weather continues to inconvenience us, budget talks and negotiations leave us feeling less valued or even worse drive us into the dark world of comparing our job to that of another who works beside us. We feel a strong need to collectively bargain for salary and benefits but then are left feeling wronged or unhappy about getting the same rewards as our coworker who works half as hard, comes late and leaves early or possibly gives students a first day talk that sends them racing to the counselor to drop the class or change teachers leaving them with half the class size as the teacher across the hall from them. We want to be treated like professionals but then at the bargaining table we demand contracts that are far more resembling of blue collar hourly workers. I believe that collective bargaining has its positive aspects, but hostile negotiations does little to improve the working conditions for employees. There are a number of districts which have moved to interest based bargaining which seems to allow boards, administrators and teachers to all keep their focus on their common goals and not fall into hostile tactics which leave both sides feeling disrespected and under appreciated.

I do not want to continue to ramble about collective bargaining as it can work if we all consider what is best for the organization rather than just what is best for me. This, however, is not the current reality. There are those in our profession that want to constantly compare themselves to those working other fields requiring the same amount of education. We do this when it is convenient and where there are obvious differences which favor other careers. We forget that those working outside the field of education when hearing these types of complaints begin to critically examine our system as well.
We held a career fair at Fort Dodge Senior High just this past Thursday morning. We were fortunate to have over 100 professionals from our community come in to speak with our students. They were asked and did share things about their job like educational path to get where they are, salary and benefits. Some of our less intelligent but bolder teachers began to engage these people about teacher pay, benefits and their perceived lack of time to get all the things done that they have to do. In a winter like we are having right now, this was not a good thing to have brought up. Several employers were quick to question why if we were so short on time did our teachers not come into school at their regular time when late starts were necessary. After all we do get paid for those hours and those they were questioning are expected to be at their jobs on time when there is inclement weather. Then there was another comment made about teachers leaving early on Fridays. I quickly intervened and changed the subject thanking the business folks for their efforts on our students' behalf.
I can't imagine that this type of exchange is limited to the specific place and time but rather happens routinely across the nation.
Like most organizations we have employees who demand all of what the company can give to them but are not giving the company all they have each day. We have teachers who everyone knows are doing a substandard job and yet when confronted with that fact are defended by their co-workers/union representatives. Some believe this means once a teacher is past their probationary period they are untouchable. I would disagree with that train of thought and on several occasions had to change my approach from one of coaching for improvement to documenting for dismissal. I feel strongly that until we address those who are now terminally infected with the entitlement bug, our profession will see many of the same changes we are now seeing in manufacturing. More and more, technology is leading us to where secondary schools will undergo some very radical changes. Primary and middle schools play more than just an instructional roll in our society as they also provide a safe supervised place for young children. I refuse to say baby sit as I think that would be insulting what elementary teachers do, but elementary schools not only teach students but also supervise them and aid them in developing socially as well. For both of these to occur, the students need to be together in one location with a trained professional. Secondary schools, however, are really not needed for the same supervisory roll. Teens are often trusted to fend for themselves in very unstructured settings in the summer and do not require constant supervision from an adult to remain safe. As such teens can be taught using means which may not require direct contact with the teacher or fellow students. With current technologies instruction can occur via a computer either as the delivery tool via artificially intelligent software or using it as a communication device allowing a teacher to facilitate the instruction via teleconferencing, blogs, Moodle etc...
My point is this... If instruction can be done today using current technologies and not require that there be an instructor in direct contact with the student ,what will tomorrow's technology bring. This along with the fact that we struggle with a current system that can often be impersonal or ineffective due to members of the profession who feel entitled rather than invested, leaves me a very bleak outlook. What would prevent secondary education to follow the current trend in manufacturing of outsourcing to other countries where attitudes are different.
I live in Iowa and thus I am very familiar with the manufacturing industry. Iowa has been a leader in manufacturing products for the world market largely due to our traditional values and reputation of a strong work ethic. I have been an administrator now for seven years and involved myself in economic development efforts in each of the past four communities I have lived in. This includes my final years in the classroom as well. What I hear more and more often over the past seven years is complaints from industry about their employees attitudes and work ethics. One manufacturing plant manager I recently had a conversation with was extremely dismayed at the corporate decision to relocate production to Mexico. When questioned he did cite cost as a factor but indicated that it was not the wage difference that was the draw, but rather the fact that attendance rates and turnover in their plant here in the midwest were a huge problem. The company is moving not because they can pay lower wages as there will be little savings in that area as a whole, but rather they have manufacturing delays due to poor attendance of the workforce. I thought this was just an excuse, but during the career fair mentioned earlier, this is what I heard time and time again from the employers who attended. If this is the case in Iowa, where we continue to have a strong reputation as being hard workers, what is happening across the rest of the nation. What concerns me about this is I struggle with the same issues at the high school here where I currently serve as principal. I am in a constant battle with some employees, including teachers, who do not come to work on time or every time their nose runs in the morning they call in sick. This type of behavior is what is being modeled to our students. Regardless of what comes out of our mouths, we know that teens learn as much if not more from our behaviors. If this has and continues to lead industry to seek other labor sources why would people hesitate to utilize technology and do the same for education?
I can tell you what I see as an exploitable advantage over outsourcing education through technology and that is the personal attention a student will get in the classroom with an excellent teacher. I believe that the current system will change and some outsourcing may occur, but if we get back to why we all entered education in the first place and focus on what we can do for students, it will be very difficult to replace us with instruction from overseas or via technology.
Regardless of our skepticism, we will be in competition with educators from around the world for opportunity to educate students. If we can't improve our current systems, I would expect we will assume a more administrative roll using technology to serve a larger group of students who we may never meet face to face or possibly coordinating educational opportunities from an office at home communicating with instructors from around the world, parents and students who we never meet in person. I went into education because I love dealing with people. I am not sure I would thrive in that type of environment.
We must change our focus from, "what can I get from the profession" to "what can I give to my students, their parents and my community".

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Where is the line????

In my first job as an administrator I was faced with a number of disciplinary issues which were cut and dry expulsion type violations. It was very clear at that school that drugs and weapons were not tolerated. I established off campus learning environments for the students who were expelled and provided them face to face instruction in some topics but primarily these students were served using computer curriculum delivery options. We also had several instances of violent behavior and extremely abusive language towards staff. I think that because these were addressed through expulsion students understood that there was a level of behavior that was expected. It did not solve my problems immediately, but it did reduce each of the five years I held that position. In all I recommended 30 students for expulsion and the board there supported each recommendation. I served all but 1 student with an academic program and while I was there, only 4 of the students withdrew from school or were incarcerated and did not graduate with their peers. Ten of the students did graduate (I was invited to and attended six of their graduation receptions) and the rest had returned to school and were doing better when I left. I rarely raised my voice to a student or a group of students but they understood that I had my expectations and that I did not make empty threats.

In the fall of 2008 I took a job at a larger high school and like any move, struggled with re-establishing my expectations for both students and for staff. The culture in the new building was very similar to that of the previous high school when I started there. The first time I was confronted with a drug possession situation, I followed my previous practice of recommending the student for expulsion with an academic program to be offered at an alternate site. This is where the problem began. It had been the practice of the current school to remove a student possessing drugs on campus from the building and enrolling them at our alternative school. I also serve as the principal for this building. I met with our director of student services and our superintendent to confer with them on the issue. It as decided to follow past practice and enroll the student at the alternative school. This was later followed by a student fainting a punch at a teacher's face in anger. I encouraged the staff member to file assault charges with the police department and she did. We met and a voluntary withdrawl option was offered along with some online coursework. Of course this was eagerly accepted by the child and his father. I was not happy with this decision as it allowed the student to enroll in another school in the area when his father moved into their district. If the student had been expelled it would have given their board a choice as to whether or not to enroll him.
I by no means want to kick kids out of school on a routine basis, but I do believe that when a child chooses to behave in a manner that seriously impacts the overall learning environment they have also chosen to be educated elsewhere.
We are constantly accosted by the media and our constituents for how we run our schools and our students behave. We have test scores posted and are judged by often what is statistically insignificant change caused mainly by comparing one group of students to another. Our graduation rates are also used to judge our school's performance despite the fact that many students do little for themselves to earn the credits necessary to graduate. We are compared to schools in other countries based on average NAEP scores which in our country include students with learning disabilities who are not even given an opportunity to attend schools in the countries we are always being compared to. The terrible thing about all of this is that it has eroded confidence in public schools which provide outstanding services to a great many students. I believe we can make a difference in the lives of our children. I believe all students can learn, but in many cases our beliefs and compassion for students has eroded the line of what is and is not acceptable at school. A safe and orderly environment is key to student learning. I understand that we need to make extreme efforts to keep kids in school, but where is the line that marks when a student's behavior now infringes on another student's opportunity and attempts to learn? Do not teachers and students have a right to attend a school where drugs and weapons are present. Shouldn't the students who have followed the rules get the attention they need which in our current system is often focused on the students who don't make good choices?
Where is the line that marks when a student and parent have had their share of our attention?
In medical facilities there is a profit margin built into the system which allows for facilities to purchase more equipment or staff additional employees when there are excessive needs yet they will still draw the line at some point in terms of how much they can do to save a patient.
I want all kids to learn, but right now I am concerned about loosing some due to trying to save some others.