Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy the Classroom


Occupy Wall Street is shining a useful spotlight on one of America’s central challenges, the inequality that leaves the richest 1 percent of Americans with a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
Most of the proposed remedies involve changes in taxes and regulations, and they would help. But the single step that would do the most to reduce inequality has nothing to do with finance at all. It’s an expansion of early childhood education.
Huh? That will seem naïve and bizarre to many who chafe at inequities and who think the first step is to throw a few bankers into prison. But although part of the problem is billionaires being taxed at lower rates than those with more modest incomes, a bigger source of structural inequity is that many young people never get the skills to compete. They’re just left behind.
“This is where inequality starts,” said Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as she showed me a chart demonstrating that even before kindergarten there are significant performance gaps between rich and poor students. Those gaps then widen further in school.
“The reason early education is important is that you build a foundation for school success,” she added. “And success breeds success.”
One common thread, whether I’m reporting on poverty in New York City or in Sierra Leone, is that a good education tends to be the most reliable escalator out of poverty. Another common thread: whether in America or Africa, disadvantaged kids often don’t get a chance to board that escalator.
Maybe it seems absurd to propose expansion of early childhood education at a time when budgets are being slashed. Yet James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has shown that investments in early childhood education pay for themselves. Indeed, he argues that they pay a return of 7 percent or more — better than many investments on Wall Street.
“Schooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or reducing gaps,” Heckman argues in an important article this year in American Educator. “It is imperative to change the way we look at education. We should invest in the foundation of school readiness from birth to age 5.”
One of the most studied initiatives in this area was the Perry Preschool program, which worked with disadvantaged black children in Michigan in the 1960s. Compared with a control group, children who went through the Perry program were 22 percent more likely to finish high school and were arrested less than half as often for felonies. They were half as likely to receive public assistance and three times as likely to own their own homes.
We don’t want to get too excited with these statistics, or those of the equally studied Abecedarian Project in North Carolina. The program was tiny, and many antipoverty initiatives work wonderfully when they’re experiments but founder when scaled up. Still, new research suggests that early childhood education can work even in the real world at scale.
Take Head Start, which serves more than 900,000 low-income children a year. There are flaws in Head Start, and researchers have found that while it improved test results, those gains were fleeting. As a result, Head Start seemed to confer no lasting benefits, and it has been widely criticized as a failure.
Not so fast.
One of the Harvard scholars I interviewed, David Deming, compared the outcomes of children who were in Head Start with their siblings who did not participate. Professor Deming found that critics were right that the Head Start advantage in test scores faded quickly. But, in other areas, perhaps more important ones, he found that Head Start had a significant long-term impact: the former Head Start participants are significantly less likely than siblings to repeat grades, to be diagnosed with a learning disability, or to suffer the kind of poor health associated with poverty. Head Start alumni were more likely than their siblings to graduate from high school and attend college.
Professor Deming found that in these life outcomes, Head Start had about 80 percent of the impact of the Perry program — a stunning achievement.
Something similar seems to be true of the large-scale prekindergarten program in Boston. Hirokazu Yoshikawa and Christina Weiland, both of Harvard, found that it erased the Latino-white testing gap in kindergarten and sharply reduced the black-white gap.
President Obama often talked in his campaign about early childhood education, and he probably agrees with everything I’ve said. But the issue has slipped away and off the agenda.
That’s sad because the question isn’t whether we can afford early childhood education, but whether we can afford not to provide it. We can pay for prisons or we can pay, less, for early childhood education to help build a fairer and more equitable nation.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Research, Knowledge and the Teaching Profession

by Ben Levin — August 29, 2011

The central argument in this short essay is that teaching practice in all schools should be grounded in evidence of effective practices based on both professional knowledge and external research, and that the development of a system to do this is a central need in education.

It is ironic that everyone in schools thinks that the work teachers and students do together is the most important thing about schooling, yet at the same time we are very reluctant to prescribe what teaching should look like. Those positions are logically incompatible. If teaching is so important – as I believe it is – then surely every school has an obligation to make sure that all teaching practice is as good as it can be. And surely every educator has an obligation to seek to improve his or her practice by being familiar with research and by getting feedback from colleagues and students.  
Yet we know that in most schools and school systems, teaching practice varies greatly from one classroom to another, and that results also vary greatly. If you don’t believe this, just ask students or parents. I have also asked many groups of school leaders about the variance in teaching practice. They all admit it is there but very few of them are doing anything about it in a systematic way.
If teaching is a real profession – and I believe it is – then it should engage in what other professions do, which is the pursuit of high quality practice every day and by every single person in the profession. This means not just sharing knowledge, but agreeing, based on evidence, on what counts as good practice and expecting everyone to be guided by such agreement.
In education, this idea is not widely accepted at all. Rather, the belief that teachers should individually determine their own practice is very deeply engrained. This belief is held not only by teachers, but also by many academics in education, who regard autonomy as the central aspect of professionalism. Yet this attitude is not characteristic of other professions. In fact, a professional is only autonomous in certain senses. Professionalism consists in the application of knowledge to specific situations; it does not permit a professional to make choices based on personal style or experience where those preferences are not consistent with the best available knowledge. Of course in all professions the reality is not always consistent with this ideal, but in teaching, the ideal frequently seems to be that teachers should be able to use whatever practices they want.
This kind of agreement on good practice is not about teachers being ordered about on how to teach. It is not about principals or school boards issuing dictates on daily teaching or lesson plans. That is managerialism, not professionalism, and it is inconsistent with what we know about building good practice, which requires the belief of the professionals involved.
Rather than managerial direction, I prefer teachers collectively owning their practice and expecting all colleagues to do what is right for students. “I’ve always done it this way,” or “that way doesn’t work for me” is no more legitimate for a teacher than it would be for any other professional who refused to follow professional codes of practice. What would we think of a dentist who refused to give a patient a lead cover when taking an x-ray or an engineer who declined to use a computer to verify calculations because “I’ve never done it that way”? Personal preferences cannot be allowed to override collective professional knowledge.
A commitment to common practice does not at all take the spontaneity and creativity out of teaching, any more than requiring 14 lines takes the creativity out of writing a sonnet or requiring punctuation takes the creativity out of writing prose. Indeed, as Campbell pointed out years ago (1972), a high level of technical skill actually increases the potential for creativity; it does not reduce that potential. You have to be good at something to be creative about it. Our knowledge about teaching is still limited in many ways (e.g., Hattie, 2008), so there are numerous areas in which there is no agreement on good practice. But where we do know about effective practices, such as using formative assessment, or giving students input and choice, or starting with an assessment of what students already know, or encouraging students to read in their first language, there should be no room for educators to decide they just don’t want to do these things.
Sometimes this idea of collective ownership of practice is translated into the concept of professional learning communities, in which teachers work together to define and implement good practice. Certainly effective professional work does require collective efforts leading to the commitment of teachers to new and better practices. As noted earlier, professionalism has to be built, not imposed from outside. And new practices have to be rooted in the realities of the profession; they have to be ideas that make sense to professionals. Moreover, we know that individual practice is deeply affected by the social setting. So we cannot change practice one teacher at a time; changes will only be sustained if they are supported by and consistent with the way the school or district as a whole operates. In that sense, professional learning communities are a part of a new teacher professionalism. However they are not enough.
Relying on learning communities is not enough because there is no system or driver in this approach that works towards compelling evidence on better practice. The history of professions is littered with examples of new ideas that were entirely rejected by the profession itself before they eventually became conventional wisdom and normal practice. The resistance of doctors to washing their hands between seeing patients is just one of the most egregious examples of the many that could be cited in medicine and virtually every other profession. People, in whatever occupation, are hardily resistant to evidence when it conflicts with our habits or long held predilections.
That is why the second key element in improving teaching has to be a robust research and development effort. Various ideas have to be tested and carefully evaluated, using the best available research and analysis, to determine if they actually do produce better results. Again, we simply have too much evidence, in education and other fields, of practices that were advocated – and often adopted – and only later found to produce no improvement in results.
The possibility for real improvement lies in bringing these two elements together. Research findings cannot determine practice because the results do not always take account of the endemic features of practice, and they will not have impact if they are inconsistent with how most practitioners see their work or with the social organization of schools. On the other hand, practical experience alone is not sufficiently trustworthy either, because it plays on human tendencies to favor what we like or what suits us ahead of what can be shown empirically to be true.
At present, no education system has anything like an organized system of this kind that brings together research evidence and practitioner knowledge in a way that privileges neither but forces each to be tested against the other in a way that is most likely to advance knowledge. Indeed, it is not even clear what such a system would look like if it were to be meaningful on the scale of a state or national education system. It would surely involve very different approaches to research than currently exist in most universities or other research institutions.
But the generation of valid and reliable knowledge, difficult as it is, is only a first step. The more important and difficult task is to have that knowledge become the norm for everyday practice. We know from history that practices in many fields spread very slowly even when they have strong empirical support. In education the mechanisms for learning from evidence are also weak. Few school systems have any organized system for learning about, sharing, and applying research findings in a methodical way. Teaching as a profession does not have the equivalent of, say, clinical guidelines that are designed to shape practice in health care.
Yet the benefits of moving in this direction are evident. If teaching is a matter of what any teacher decides to do, then it becomes vulnerable to whatever practices an external body, such as a legislature, wants to impose. It is only when a profession can demonstrate that its practices are well grounded in evidence that it can have any grounds to resist the imposition of others’ ideas. In this sense, teachers’ autonomy actually rests on their embrace of a model of professionalism in which teachers use evidence to define and shape their collective practice. Since the results of such efforts will also be better for students – by definition, since they rest on the best evidence of effectiveness – this is clearly the direction in which we should be trying to move. If teachers, teacher organizations and researchers work together on this goal, we could see very large improvements not only in student outcomes, but in teacher efficacy and satisfaction. Teaching would then be able to think of itself as a true profession.
Campbell, J. (1972). Myths to live by. New York: Penguin.

Hattie, J.A.C. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of meta-analyses relating to achievement. London and New York : Routledge.

Levin, B. (2010). Can education be a research-based profession? The Australian Educational Leader, 32(2), 21-23.
Levin, B. (2010). Leadership for evidence-informed education. School Leadership and Management, 30(4), 303-315.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Meet the CEO Behind the Attack on “Privileged” Public Employees

By Ruth Conniff, October 18, 2011

"Government workers are the new privileged class," James E. MacDougald, the founder of Free Enterprise Nation, told the Washington Post recently.

MacDougald, the Post explains, is a retired CEO who now heads Free Enterprise Nation, which the paper describes as a "research and activist group" which he founded "to call attention to the financial burden posed by government workers."
Actually, Free Enterprise Nation, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, is an "activist" group in the same sense that the Washington office of Dick Armey's FreedomWorks runs "activist" campaigns.
According to records available on Open Secrets, Free Enterprise Nation spent $30,000 so far this year and $60,000 in 2010 lobbying for changes in public employee pension rules, a ban on federal support for states and municipalities that are struggling to meet their pension obligations, and the expansion of domestic fossil fuel production and nuclear power, among other issues.
MacDougald put $1 million of his own money into the group,according to
It seems transparently ridiculous to call this a grassroots, citizens' uprising against the "privileged class."
But the anti-public-employee message Free Enterprise Nation and other rightwing groups are putting out has real traction.
Echoing through the talk-radio ditto-chamber, and recycled by Republican politicians from Scott Walker in Wisconsin to Arnold Schwarzenegger in California to Chris Christie in New Jersey, the idea that public employees are coddled and ought to give up pension and health care benefits is catching on with stressed-out private-sector workers.
For people who work in the private sector at all levels (and I have personally heard this message repeated by both well-off and underpaid acquaintances) there is real resonance to the message that public employees shouldn't have job security, a decent retirement, and high-quality health care mostly paid for by their employers while private sector workers have seen their 401Ks take a hit and are increasingly insecure.
The huge irony here is that the people pushing the message are the truly privileged (not cops-and-teachers privileged—corporate-lobbyist privileged) trying to stir up resentment among different sectors of the lower and middle class.
Governor Scott Walker does this masterfully when he talks to Wisconsinites about his caterer brother who has to pay $800 a month for benefits and would "love to have the deal" that public sector workers--whose unions the governor is aiming to smash--have.
(As Democratic state senator Jon Erpenbach of Wisconsin pointed out at a Progressive Magazine event last weekend, Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature are still comfortable enough with state employee benefits to continue to draw them for themselves.)
In a YouTube video James MacDougald claims that public sector worker have "better pay and better benefits" than private sector workers, and argues that the nation's financial woes are caused by private sector workers making an average of $59,000 a year paying taxes to support public sector workers' lavish $119,000 a year in average pay and benefits.
Those numbers are grossly distorted, as the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out since public employees in the professions, while paid considerably more than the lowest-paid private sector workers, still earn less than their private sector counterparts with comparable degrees. If you compare workers with similar education in the same line of work, public employees earn less.
Historically, people who do public service jobs were willing to accept lower pay in exchange for job security and good benefits, while their counterparts went for the big bucks in the private sector.
That may be changing. Thanks to the union-busting efforts and coordinated PR campaigns on the right, all American workers may now be gambling on Wall Street and hoping to cash out at the right time when they retire, with little in the way of job protection and declining benefits even as health care costs increase and health care industry profits skyrocket.
It's no accident, of course, that the right is targeting public sector unions, since 36% of public employees are in unions, compared with a paltry 7% in the private sector.
And it's no accident that unions are the target of the corporate-financed message that public employees should have their pensions raided and their health care rolled back
The Post notes that "union leaders say their members are being asked to pay for the mistakes made by politicians who chose not to adequately contribute to pension plans and by Wall Street firms whose disastrous bets led to big investment losses."
But if public employees are being asked to pay--taking big benefit cuts and seeing their unions destroyed--Wall Street banks are posting profits, paying large bonuses, and hoisting their champagne glasses thanks to trillions in taxpayer bailout funds.
The real punchline: they got where they are in part by convincing American voters that teachers and firefighters are the "privileged class."

Save the children by fighting 'truthiness'

Special to The Times

The Web wilderness of information confronting children poses new challenges. Guest columnist Mark Ray, a teacher librarian and Washington's 2012 Teacher of the Year, says school libraries and librarians are a critical to helping children learn to discern facts from "truthiness."
TRUTHINESS is hurting America. And I'm not going to take it anymore.
According to Wikipedia, this term, coined by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, is "truth" that a person feels intuitively "from the gut" or that "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Truthiness could be heard on a recent weekend when NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" posed the following question:
"(Presidential candidate) Herman Cain ... said that even though 'I don't have the facts to back this up,' he believed:
A. If he were to capture Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geith-ner, Mr. Geithner would grant him three wishes.
B. The White House is orchestrating the Occupy Wall Street protests to distract attention from its own record.
C. Phil Collins is the greatest singer-songwriter ever.
D. Kittens are the snuggliest."
The correct answer is B. But any of the answers are correct, because with truthiness, the clause "I don't have the facts to back this up" permits anyone with a blog or microphone to fabricate "truths" that are published and distributed on the Web in nanoseconds. And if you read it on the "Internets," it's bound to be true.
On Oct. 3, I was named the 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year. I am a teacher librarian. Since then, I have been fielding questions from reporters curious about what teacher librarians do and somewhat surprised that they even made school libraries anymore. Their core question is, "why do we need libraries and teacher librarians?"
It's simple. Among other things, librarians fight truthiness. And truthiness is bad for America. That makes libraries and librarians good for America. As a teacher librarian, my job is to ensure that students are effective users and producers of information and ideas. All teachers should be doing this, but right now, my classroom colleagues are working hard to make sure students pass their tests.
In this 21st century, we consume information by turning to a screen instead of a newspaper or book. In the past, we could go to the library and find materials that were likely to be accurate or at least balanced. While I'm not advocating a return to a time when libraries or books were the only place to go for information, I'm also sure that "The Google" is not a library. Today, we must make decisions about bias, currency and accuracy ourselves. Many students struggle with that.
Thanks to the Web, anyone can create ideas and information. For our students, this is a wonderful thing, vesting learning with authenticity and purpose and allowing them to use networks to collaborate, create and share their work and thinking with others throughout the world. But it is a learned skill and an awesome responsibility.
I teach digital citizenship and information literacy, which are about being safe, responsible, effective, informed and active as part of our society. These skills include both using and producing information with rigor, fidelity, fairness and purpose. While responsible adults would be loath to leave children alone on a dark suburban corner, they seem content to allow their children to attempt to make meaning from a screen and remain silent as districts close libraries and defer 21st-century information skills as something to be done tomorrow.
Truthiness is a pox on our society. Trading conjecture for the confirmed and sound bites for the hard work of research, scholarship and attribution, truthiness is a laziness of the mind. And like childhood obesity, it will cost our country far more than we realize.
Much has been written about the current political gridlock and social polarity that define the nation our children will inherit. Scholars contrast ours with earlier times when quaint words like compromise, concord and comity allowed us to do great things. Those great things were predicated on the ability to base decisions on facts and shared core ideas, not on our gut.
Getting to the truth has never been harder than it is today. The loss of libraries, teacher librarians and the ascendance of truthiness fundamentally hurts our nation. We are losing the expertise, resources and skills necessary to be informed voters and citizens. This is not about politics. All corners of the political and cultural debate contribute to our factually impaired fog. This is about fundamentally preparing our young people to be successful in work, college and life.
Truthiness is bad for America. And I have the facts to back that up.
Mark Ray is the 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year. He is a teacher librarian and instructional technology facilitator at Skyview High School in Vancouver.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No Child Left Behind Plan Doomed to Failure

English teacher in Joplin, Missouri
It pains me to say this, but from everything I have been reading Sen.Tom Harkin's plan -- and every other plan to revise No Child Left Behind -- is destined to be the same miserable failure the original law has been.
Until politicians stop ignoring the fact that major influences on education take place outside the schoolhouse doors, no educational legislation will ever have any lasting impact.
Blaming problems in our nation's schools on "bad teachers" and teacher unions has proven to be a winning formula at the ballot box, but one that comes at a price.
The never-ending bashing of teachers and unions has devalued the public perception of classroom teachers, the very group that has offered the only protection the United States has had against the rising tide of mediocrity that threatens to engulf us.
What we need is a No Child Left Behind act that truly addresses the problems that face education and society as a whole.
- Any law that fails to address the role poverty plays in education is doomed before the ink is dry on the president's signature. When children are poor, hungry and living in homes without books, education becomes secondary in their lives.
- The role of crime and punishment has also been completely overlooked. As long as we have a society that stresses punishment over rehabilitation for small-time offenders, we are putting more and more young parents behind bars, breaking up more families, creating more poverty and providing obstacles to education. The same people in the American Legislative Exchange Council who have been pushing the privatization of schools have also written so-called "model legislation" that emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation to keep profits soaring at their privatized prisons.
- The cuts that have been made in state budgets across the U.S .have eliminated the programs that have helped keep young people off the streets and provide an opportunity for them to receive a quality education. At the same time, cuts to school districts have reduced the number of counselors, and those who are left have to spend most of their time administering and evaluating the endless stream of standardized tests and practice standardized tests that take up so much of the students' and teachers' time.
- A system that prizes those who invest over those who work. We have seen a change in emphasis in what our society prizes. We wonder why we are no longer producing as many scientists and engineers when all of society's rewards are going to investment bankers, hedge fund owners, and CEOs. This is not a formula designed to help someone race to the top. It is also not a formula designed to foster an interest in education.
-A political financing system that allows those who would destroy public education so they can privatize learning or not have to pay for it to control the talking points on educational policy. Can there be any good reason why education is the only area in which replacing seasoned professionals with youngsters with no experience is considered to be a reform? Can anyone explain why the politicians who are so gung-ho on constructing ever-growing testing regimens for public schoolchildren are the first to enroll their own children in schools that do not have to jump through these bureaucratic hoops?
Plans to reform education will never succeed as long as the only changes are made to the schools and not to society.
If education is failing in the United States, it is doing so because of the wounds being inflicted upon it by our elected officials and educational bureaucrats who try to curry favor by becoming lapdogs in the service of whatever reform trend is making headlines.
The only way to see our children's lives improve is to remember that the public schools are not the problem. The same classroom teachers who have been libeled by self-aggrandizing politicians for the past few years will be a major part of the solution -- if they are still there when the dust settles.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mooresville, N.C., educators are emphasizing a strategy to link technology to achievement

By Ian Quillen

The two-level white brick structure, a transformed agriculture depot bought in the late 1960s, still holds some of the time-capsule allure of the days when Jason Brawley’s grandparents first bought the place and found leftover bales of cotton in the basement. Business goes on much the same as it did more than 40 years ago, when the roads south to Charlotte weren’t clustered with housing developments and fast-food joints.The Brawley family name adorns about a half-dozen businesses around Mooresville, N.C., including a furniture store on the corner of Broad Street and Iredell Avenue, at the edge of a cute but quiet downtown.
“They still do handwritten tickets, and they have not wanted to get into the future,” Brawley says of his grandparents, who still own the store that he helps manage. “We finally got laptops a year or two ago. … With bookkeeping and everything, I know [using laptops] would be easier. Luckily, I don’t have to do it, so I don’t have to worry about it.”
But while Brawley spends his days in a world of cherry headboards and magic-marker price tags, his 4th grade daughter spends hers at school working with a laptop issued by the 5,500-student Mooresville Graded School District. Her computer is part of a “digital conversion” program that some educators hope is the wave of the future.

Creating a Digital Culture

Mooresville High School Principal Todd Wirt talks about maintaining the school's culture in the midst of new technology programs.
Yes, 1-to-1 laptop programs have become increasingly popular across the country, along the way drawing criticism that the results of those efforts are not justifying the substantial investments. But the Mooresville district, which in its fourth 1-to-1 year has stretched its program to reach all students in grades 3-12, appears to be a model of how to do it right, and in a community whose roots are more akin to Mayberry than the state’s Research Triangle region.
Since the digital conversion began, the district has seen an improvement of 20 percentage points—from 68 percent to 88 percent—in the portion of its students who scored “proficient” on all core-subject state exams, in the subjects of reading, math, and science. Six of eight schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, up from two of seven schools during the conversion’s first year. And its 2010-11 graduation rate rose to 91 percent, up 14 percentage points from four years ago.
All of those gains have occurred while the district sat at 99th of the state’s 115 districts in per-pupil funding, at $7,463 a year, as of last spring, not including about 10 percent of the budget that comes from funds for capital outlays, before- and after-school programs, and child-nutrition programs. And while Mooresville’s population is by no means impoverished, the gains came during an economic downturn that has seen the proportion of the district’s students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch rise from 31 percent to 40 percent since 2007-08.
Staunch opponents of assessment-driven education may dispute the merit of some of Mooresville’s success. But other educators are asking how the district’s approach differs from that of less successful 1-to-1 initiatives, why it’s working, whether it can be replicated, and if it’s worth the sacrifices to do so.
Mooresville’s district leaders stress the reason for their success, in their eyes, is that their 1-to-1 implementation made up just a part of a districtwide reform to make teaching and learning more contemporary. And while the district hosts monthly open houses to welcome visitors interested in following the model, the leaders of Mooresville’s conversion say only districts with leaders who see budget and procedural restrictions as obstacles to be conquered, not feared, are capable of pulling it off.
“We have visitors all the time,” says Scott Smith, the district’s chief technology officer, who was hired by Superintendent Mark Edwards during the conversion’s planning phase in 2007. “When they leave, we’re like, ‘Yeah, they can do it,’ or ‘No, they can’t do it, because they have the wrong person in charge.’ ”

Higher Expectations for Teachers

When the principal of Mooresville High School, Todd Wirt, took that job in November 2007, he did so bent on changing what he recalls as a “complacent” attitude among teachers and other staff members in a school where achievement data were average. As he walks the halls nearly four years later, he takes perhaps his greatest pride in seeing most of the same faces standing in classroom doorways.
“What’s great about going from [68 percent] to [88 percent] in four years’ time is, primarily, it’s the same folks that were here four years ago,” Wirt says of his staff. “The true leaders of the staff are the same.”
While many school leaders wary of introducing new technology approaches cite teachers who may be reluctant to comply, by all accounts Mooresville’s teachers were given little choice but to join a new culture where 6,000 district-issued laptops to students and staff served as the centerpiece of Superintendent Edwards’ educational improvement strategy. Similar compliance was also expected in accompanying changes to curriculum, teacher collaboration expectations, and even staff conduct, all of which began to be implemented in the fall of 2008.
“I don’t think ‘threatening’ is the right word—I think ‘expectation’ is the right word,” says Judy Maupin, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Mooresville Middle School, who admits she rejected the 1-to-1 model at first. “The expectation is, ‘Here is your laptop, and you will learn how to use it. You will make it an integral part of your classroom, and you will incorporate it into 21st-century teaching.’ ”
At the high school, Wirt charged each of his academic department chairs with unifying each department’s curriculum during the year before laptops were introduced, and creating schoolwide formative assessments to test progress in that curriculum eight times a year.
More about the "Capturing Kids' Hearts" program at Mooresville:"Relationship Building"
Wirt also established the district’s Capturing Kids’ Hearts program, in which teachers are asked to greet students with a pat or a handshake, and open the classroom to details about the good things happening in students’ lives, in an effort to make the school culture less teacher-centered. That program eventually trickled down to Mooresville Middle School, and in varying ways, principals say, Edwards has mandated collaboration—both electronic and face-to-face—between teachers at all levels.
Widespread staff attrition that was feared because of the digital conversion never materialized, administrators say, though Wirt suggests that layoffs that came in two waves—a large one after 2008-09, and a smaller one after last school year—may have been a blessing in disguise. Layoffs that occurred were strategic, rather than adhering to policies such as “last hired, first fired” that in many districts protect teachers on the basis of seniority.
“To be honest, this school was staffed incredibly well when I first came, so much so that I wasn’t exactly sure what some people did,” says Wirt, whose school has lost nine teaching positions between layoffs and attrition as part of an 8 percent to 10 percent cut to the district’s operating budget since 2008. The district lost 50 to 60 positions because of those cuts, Edwards estimates, including 25 teaching positions.
“For some people, it was an opportunity to make some adjustments that needed to be made to our staff,” Wirt adds.
Rebecca Snyder, the president of the local chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s teachers’ union, took no position on the method of the layoffs, but said it was public knowledge that opposing the digital conversion would make a teacher more vulnerable.
But the proportion of turnover in the district’s leadership has been greater. Wirt is one of six principals in the district’s eight schools who were not on staff when Superintendent Edwards was hired in early 2007, though two just departed since 2010. Edwards, who previously led a 1-to-1 program as superintendent of the Henrico County, Va., school system, outside Richmond, brought in Smith from the Burke County, N.C., school system as his chief technology officer to lead the conversion. Terry K. Haas also came on board as chief financial officer in 2007.
“I think a lot of his decisions are based on leadership,” Smith says of Edwards and his management. “You’ve got to have the right people on the bus, but not only that, they’ve got to be on the right seats on the bus.”

Reallocating Resources

A summer institute has become an annual feature of the Mooresville district. That’s where the district hosts others interested in learning more about its practices and also offers sessions for its own teachers—for example, on programs like iMovie and Comic Life—to learn or refine skills for their digital arsenals.
And every year, Haas, the finance chief, offers visitors advice, but no silver bullet, on how a 1-to-1 program lives within its means.
“It’s really just looking at your budget in extreme detail and saying, ‘OK, do we need to continue this?’ ” Haas says. “If it’s not helping student achievement, and it’s not keeping the lights on, do we really need to be doing this?”
Edwards estimates the district has eliminated 95 percent of its spending on print textbooks, thanks in part to state policy that allows districts flexibility in how they spend state funding. Those textbooks that remain typically reside in science classrooms and don’t travel home with students.
The district has also reduced spending on calculators, encyclopedias, and maps, all resources that can be found embedded within a laptop and an Internet connection, says Haas. And it has reapportioned or cut positions for computer-lab coordinators.
Edwards says Mooresville spends roughly $200 per student per year on hardware, software, and maintenance costs for its laptops—which this year are newly unveiled MacBook Airs—with $35 of that covering digital content through subscriptions to services like Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Education’s content service.
The district leases its laptops rather than buying them, selling its lease back after two or three years to a third-party buyer that refurbishes the laptops for resale, Haas says. And while Apple machines are typically priced higher than their PC counterparts, Haas and Smith both say the cost is made up on the back end.
“The thing about Apple is they own the hardware and the software. And it’s user-friendly. And again, it just works,” says Smith, who heads an eight-person technology department he says would need more staff if the district was PC-oriented.
“There’s not nearly the technical issues to deal with on a Mac,” he says. “So from a total-cost-of-ownership standpoint, I don’t have to have as many people to help support it.”
The district’s 2010-11 total budget was $46.4 million, and district officials say parsing out expenses solely for the 1-to-1 program is nearly impossible because of its integration within overall district spending.
The district also saves money by resisting the purchase of e-textbooks from major publishers in most subjects; instead, it tells teachers to seek their own content and align it to the subject curriculum. Teachers are expected to share lessons with colleagues electronically via ANGEL, the district’s content-management software, created by Washington-based Blackboard Inc., and all four schools in the district’s 1-to-1 program each employs a technology facilitator to aid that process. The district’s three elementary schools only began distributing laptops to its third graders this year.
Still, the job description for teachers is decidedly more labor-intensive even though Snyder says there are positive tradeoffs, such as the lessening of time spent grading.

History teacher Judy Maupin, right, watches Principal Carrie Tulbert hug Alexis Butler, 12, between classes at Mooresville Middle School.
—Nicole Frugé/Digital Directions
“I would say the biggest challenge teachers have is the lack of time,” says Marsha Rhyne, the technology facilitator at Mooresville Intermediate School. “It’s a constant challenge for teachers to go out and to find new innovative resources and what actually matches the new curriculum they need.”
But the scariest specter for districts looking to follow Mooresville, says Haas, may be that such a drastic change to the traditional model is usually a one-way portal.
“When you stop and think about all the things we would have to go back and purchase to be able to go back to the way teachers used to teach, if we didn’t have the computers,” Haas says, “going back is not really an option.”

Following the Mooresville Model

Walk the halls at Mooresville High School, and you’ll see more than a few T-shirts devoted to Blue Devils football.
The back of one depicts an aerial view of the new turf field and rubber track installed in 2008 at what last year was renamed Coach Joe Popp Stadium, after a local legend who led the school to its only state title, in 1961. The front of another reads, “Friends don’t let friends go to Lake Norman,” a jab at the local rival that sits only across town, but belongs to the separate, countywide Iredell-Statesville school system.
Students have come to expect the personal laptops: "Beyond 'Wow' Factor"
Allegiance to the town, and the school system, is big here—so much so, says the Mooresville district public-information officer Tanae McLean, that some people who purchase property on the edge of the town seek to have it annexed into the town limits. And among many locals, the school system’s successes, including those in its digital conversion, are attributed to the liberty it enjoys as a one-high-school district and one of only 15 city-based school systems in the state.
“It allows them to make choices,” says district parent and alumnus Jason Brawley, whose family owns the furniture store. “Growing up here and going through it myself, I never knew how good it was.”
Mooresville’s leaders, from Superintendent Edwards to his central-office staff to his principals, acknowledge that the district’s modest size was a key factor in helping it change its culture and improve its achievement so quickly. Further, with the proximity of larger districts like the neighboring 20,000-student Statesville-Iredell system and the 134,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg a few miles south of town, Mooresville’s reputation and relatively few open positions could put it at a labor advantage, with many of its teachers having jumped across district lines for their current jobs.
“A lot of people want to work here,” McLean says. “On the flip side, … we have a lot of our teachers who, let’s say, if their husband takes a job somewhere else, they’re highly employable” because of skills they’ve learned in the digital conversion.
Mooresville’s school leaders also point to a growing list of districts, big and small, that are citing the district as their inspiration. The number of districts visiting at monthly open houses has been steadily increasing, with 17 attending a March event, according to the district’s website.
Alan Lee, the superintendent of the 28,000-student Baldwin County school system in southern Alabama, brought more than three dozen of his staff to observe Mooresville in action at one of its monthly open houses. This fall, he launched a pilot for a similar program at one of his district’s seven high schools, saying the digital-conversion model “may be the one last great hope for our nation.”
Then there is Edwards, a soft-spoken but no-nonsense Tennessean who is in his third district as a superintendent, and whom Karen Cator, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of education technology, has praised for an ability to “set high goals and then maintain a laser focus on them.”
In the Mooresville district, Edwards has assumed a role that at times resembles that of a university president. He established a private education foundation to help raise funds for district projects and has pulled in Mooresville’s business community, especially during the digital conversion’s launch.
Edwards helped persuade Lowe’s Cos. Inc., which has its corporate headquarters in Mooresville, to contribute $250,000 in startup money toward installing a broadband Wi-Fi network in the district capable of handling 1-to-1 access, and also recruited local Internet provider MI-Connection to offer a $9.95-per-month home broadband service for financially disadvantaged students.
And in “Race City USA,” whose claim to fame is serving as the home for more than a dozen NASCAR auto-racing teams, Edwards has gained national attention for his district, attracting PBS news cameras, Wall Street Journal reporters, and even an invitation to speak at a panel at the White House this past September.
Colleagues insist any such effort in other districts must be led by a superintendent in the same mold.
“He just doesn’t allow anybody around him to make excuses or build obstacles,” Principal Wirt of Mooresville High says of Edwards. “That’s not his ride at all.”
Vol. 05, Issue 01, Pages 14-19

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

Education Correspondent, PBS NewsHour; Author, 'The Influence of Teachers'
I have a simple request for my left and right-wing friends: "Be Careful What You Wish For." Here's why I say that. I know right-wingers who lust for vouchers, and I know left-wingers who live for the day when all children will have 'individualized education plans,' a la those in special education.
The latest call for vouchers comes from the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania (whom I do not know), but let's imagine how vouchers might work. Suppose that the voucher (basically a check that parents could take to the school of their choice for their child's education) was actually worth enough to buy a decent education, say $12,000. Just imagine how quickly that would attract scoundrels, scalawags and crooks, all posing as committed educators. Even cheap vouchers will attract an odd crowd, men and women who feel a calling to do some God's work. And, unfortunately, there will be no shortage of parents who will drink the Kool-Aid (which is more of a comment about how bad some public schools are than it is about the parents' gullibility).
And since the right-wingers want vouchers to be valid currency at religious schools, expect a flood of new schools -- and maybe some new religions too.
But that's actually not my big worry. We live in a society that protects religious freedom, and so all sorts of already-established religious institutions will be eligible for voucher-paid students. Be ready for a church school that teaches snake-worship, because those churches exist.
But you also should be ready to see an Islamic madras open in a neighborhood near you, perhaps one that preaches that Islam rejects violence and suicide bombers -- or perhaps preaching and teaching that America is the source of evil in the world.
You voucher supporters don't get to apply a litmus test here. Hand out the vouchers and get out of the way: that's the way it will work.
(Milwaukee voucher advocate Howard Fuller told me that his city has avoided those religious traps by having strict rules for participants, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Milwaukee's low dollar figure -- about $6,000 -- has a lot to do with the non-participation of zealots. Double the money, and they will come.)
As I say, "Be Careful What You Wish For."
Now to my left-wing friends and their desire for 'individualized education plans' for all children, an idealized vision of schools that focus on the needs of each child. An end to cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all education.
Wake up, folks, and take a clear-eyed look at Special Education, the birthplace of the IEP. For every IEP that has actually worked out, I am willing to wager that an equal number are in some sort of litigation. I say that because special education has turned into a cottage industry for lawyers, who have discovered that school districts are bureaucratic nightmares, often unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. So when a district cannot meet the precise specifications of an IEP, bingo: a lawsuit, which often leads to private school for the kid.
So if my left-leaning friends got their way and we had IEPs for all, that 'cottage industry' of lawyers would be transformed into a 'mansion industry.' But I doubt if very many others would benefit, including the kids.
As I say, "Be Careful What You Wish For."
The fascination with panaceas afflicts left and right. I stand pretty much square in the middle, as do, I suspect, many of you. So here's what I would like to suggest: A new narrative for our conversations about public education.
Right now our conversations and debates focus either on teachers ("Do we have enough good ones, and how can we get rid of the bad ones?") or on accountability ("We know that test scores are flawed, but they're the best we have, and we have to have accountability, don't we?"). The 'teacher' narrative is demeaning to the profession, for openers. The 'accountability' narrative ultimately justifies the status quo of cheap tests, a dumbed-down curriculum and, often, widespread cheating.
The narrative I propose addresses education's inconvenient truth.
Which is this: "There is close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. Kids with rich parents do well in our education system, and kids with poor parents do poorly. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks."
"However, we know that's not true because we have in front of our eyes hundreds of examples of schools and teachers that do change lives."
"So do not be mad about schooling's failure to dramatically improve the lives of all 15 million children living in poverty. Instead, let's insist that our schools imitate the successful places, people and practices. We should demand to know what's keeping educators from imitating success. Eliminate the obstacles and -- here's where you should get mad -- get rid of the educators who refuse to be copy-cats."
If you saw our PBS NewsHour piece this week about schools in rural America, you know that the challenges facing schools are growing. With unprecedented numbers of children in poverty (a growing number of them homeless), public schools will be forced to step up to the plate even more than usual.
And so, ignoring my own advice, here's what I wish for: We abandon the search for magic bullets and instead copy what successful schools -- and successful networks of schools -- are doing.
Here's our PBS piece from this week if you'd rather watch on the page:
John's book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it atthe book's official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

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