Archives for posts with tag: education

Colored pencils pointing in

I’ve been wrestling with what would work as an American collective narrative, what could unite us in investing and supporting public education the way we should. The Finnish people appear to agree collectively on a narrative of equity, for example.

Turning the mirror back on the United States, we’d like to believe that Americans could gather around this same call of equity. In reality though Americans prefer a narrative of meritocracy. We tell rags-to-rich stories of folks such as Bill Gates, for example. This so-called poor man who came from nothing and built an empire attended one of the most privileged boarding schools in the nation; the college he dropped out of was a small university — Harvard. Gates had access to a computer when few people even really knew what computers were. The reality of his narrative is really one of privilege, connections, and access.

So, what might be a narrative Americans could rally around? I’ve come to believe that perhaps personalization is the answer. Somewhat tied to the American focus on meritocracy is our country’s rich history of “rugged individualism,” which includes a sense that we’re all unique.  Current parents certainly want to see each of their children as “special,” so parents often support efforts to a tailored approach to education. In stark contrast to Finland’s largely homogenous society, America must educate a wide range of students, making it even more important to find ways to personalize learning pathways.

As teachers and administrators, we seem to be moving on a trajectory toward personalization: differentiation, Universal Design for Learning, emerging technologies, competency based education, and advances in education technology make personalization of learning more possible.

  • Differentiation: In many ways, the shift toward differentiation was a first step towards personalized learning.  Though differentiation clearly doesn’t always happen in every classroom, at least there’s more consensus that this is how we should be teaching, if we’re to reach students who have a wide range of readiness, backgrounds, interests and skills.
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL): UDL takes differentiation even further and is becoming increasingly more recognized as the ideal approach. In Maryland, for example, all curriculum and implementation must follow UDL principles, as mandated by recently passed state law. When we design and implement curriculum that meets the needs of students who have historically been on the margins, we’re also better meeting needs of those students who fall in the center.  Adding features such as larger print, audio, embedded vocabulary, etc., allows teachers and students to personalize the learning experience further to meet individual needs.
  • Cultural Responsiveness: As our curriculum and instructional practices become more culturally responsive, we’re adding another layer of personalization. Students connect to material when it feels relevant to them and is presented in formats that are engaging and reflect their own realities. It feels more personal.
  • Competency-Based or Standards-Based Education:  The shift from seat time to competency-based education allows us to embrace personalization more deeply. With mastery as the goal, we can personalize student pathways, recognizing that some students need more time to master material and that some students need gaps filled or are able to accelerate through material.
  • Emerging Technologies: Advances in educational technology are making personalization more possible on a larger scale.  For example, formative assessment engines are getting better at identifying student gaps and strengths, including attitudinal information.  Teachers and students can learn more about the students as learners and what works best for them. More publishers are also developing digital curricular resources that have different reading levels, including resources for ELL. When Amplify launched its new product at SXSW EDU, everyone was excited about the platform’s capabilities of allowing teachers to identify student needs quickly through digital formative assessments that recommended personalized assignments for different groups of students. Other competing products will continue to enter the market.
  • Blending Learning:  With more blended learning options available, we’re able to offer students additional course options, allowing us to personalize student courses of study. Each student can pursue an individual personalized set of courses, despite the capacity of teachers in a building.  World languages, AP courses, and other electives are excellent examples: students can pursue Chinese, for example, even if there is no Chinese language teacher at a building. Schools can offer upper-level courses, even if there are only a handful of students who need those courses. If a student is passionate about a subject not offered, schools can arrange to find a course that meets that student’s needs.

In the end, it’s most often the relationship between a teacher and student that impacts student achievement. One of the most powerful elements of a move towards personalization is that students will feel increasingly more that their teachers really understand and are meeting their needs. When students feel that someone cares about them, they begin to care more about what they’re learning.  All of these approaches and tools support teachers in personalizing learning experiences for their students.

Teachers_ScapegoatsChoosing sessions this year at ASCD 2013 has been a challenge because there are so many wonderful sessions against each other. So glad that Kevin Kumashiro’s session, “Bad Teacher!”: Why Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture,  was one of the ones I chose to attend because his  thought-provoking presentation raised issues that should be fundamental to local and national conversations about education in America.  Kumashiro’s comments focused around the big question:

When our national and local debates around education blame teachers (or other simplistic claims), what aren’t we seeing?

Kumashiro argues that the current conversations in education reform debate prevent us from really pulling apart issues of poverty, racism and elitism.  His examples rang true for me because I’ve been arguing similar points (just not so eloquently!).  Instead of trying to “fix” teachers, we should be asking questions such as the following:

The reform movement often focuses on how to be more efficient with our funding, not on how to raise funds to do what we need to do. There isn’t public recognition that it takes more money, for example, to bring our schools up to safety codes—let alone to provide the tools, training, resources and environments necessary to prepare students to participate fully in the 21st century. As long as debates focus on more efficient ways to spend money, we aren’t asking questions about why we don’t believe it’s important enough to raise funds for our students to be in safe schools.

Kumashiro suggests that the achievement gap is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the disparities in education. Using the metaphor of the national debt, Kumashiro argues that when we frame the conversation around reducing the deficit and balancing the budget, we are less focused on the greater issue of the exorbitant national debt that we’ve accrued over the last century. Similarly, when we are too laser-focused on the achievement gap, we miss the larger education gap that has evolved over the same period of time.

Kumashiro’s concern about the current process of de-professionalizing the teaching profession resonated with the audience.  Related, apparently over 90% of the teachers in New Orleans charter schools are Teach for America (TFA) teachers. Kumashiro pointed out that he has no issues with TFA teachers in general—they are often talented, dedicated and effective (my experience as well). His broader issue is that we should be asking questions about designing a system where 90% of the teachers at a school may not stay in teaching beyond their 3 years.  Thinking through the lens of a principal, I can imagine the challenges of managing a revolving faculty, even if the group is highly talented. Similarly, asking the question differently, Kumashiro asks, “Who would say that the way to improve teacher quality is to have less preparation for the teachers?,” which he sees as a current trend.

Kumashiro also cautions that we should be skeptical of any reformers who send their own children to private schools, not the schools being reformed. How many of our law and policy makers send their own children to public schools?

Kumashiro ended his session with a call to arms—he believes we need a social movement that addresses the fundamental purpose of education, to really ask who do we want to succeed in our education system?  Education often becomes the primary battleground for working through who we want our country to be.

His final words stressed that though we may not be able to “fight the political machine,” most change occurs in smaller conversations with people we know.

Let’s start asking different questions about education reform.

Teaching is not easy. Most of us do not go into teaching because we want to reach tenure and then simply show up to receive a paycheck. We certainly don’t go into teaching to make a lot of money either.

Watching Matt Damon’s interview after the Save Our Schools event in DC, I understand why teachers are championing his comments. The reporter’s assumption that Damon did his best acting on projects because he wanted to keep making more money underscores how little the reporter and others understand what motives teachers and other professionals. Many actors like Damon are motivated by wanting to improve their craft, wanting to reach for an unattainable perfect portrayal of a character.

As teachers we often refer to our profession as a craft. We are constantly striving to find effective ways to reach more of our children. Watching a master teacher is similar to watching a well-choreographed dance number: what appears effortless belies all of the planning involved and the constant micro-decisions made to adjust for each nuanced interaction.

The satisfaction I feel after a lesson has gone well is what keeps me motivated; it’s watching students have those “aha” moments. It’s not the fear of losing my job or the desire to make more money. Teachers don’t need external motivation to want their students to achieve.

People whose careers are driven by the bottom line find it difficult to understand intrinsic motivation—they see the world through their own financial lenses so they want to offer carrots and sticks as motivators. Offering a teacher a little more money isn’t going to help her when she’s teaching 5 classes of 40+ students in a poverty-stricken area. What she needs is more collaborative planning time, fewer students, and sustained professional development so she can meet the specific needs of the student population.

In Drive, Daniel Pink highlights the research that illustrates how we’re hard wired to want to be truly good at something. Part of the current debate about education is a misunderstanding of what a teacher truly does. Carrots and sticks work as motivators for mundane repetitive tasks, but not creative endeavors. A teacher’s intrinsically motivated to want to improve his or her craft which looks much more like a creative endeavor than a set of mundane and repetitive tasks. Teachers need the autonomy and tools to become more effective, not the fear of being fired.

What do teachers want?

  • To be valued
  • Time to collaborate with colleagues
  • Time for professional development
  • Public respect and recognition
  • Parent and community support
  • Adequate facilities and supplies
  • Reasonable compensation

When teachers are provided these reasonable supports, then it is truly amazing what they can do to improve student achievement and to help develop the whole child.