Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tour of the Mooresville Graded Schools

Tour of the Mooresville Graded Schools in Mooresville, North Carolina.

On Friday, September 21, 2012, the Horace Mann League Board of Directors had a tour of Mooresville Intermediate School and Mooresville High School.  Following are some of the photos taken during the tour.  An article in the NY Times Education Section follows the photos.

Grace Cunningham, a teacher at Mooresville Intermediate School, helping a student .

Stan Olson visiting with students at Mooresville Intermediate School.

Martha Bruckner listening to students explain their assign.

Kristin Faucher, teacher at Mooresville Intermediate School, with students.

Gary Marx watching a student working on a project.
Mary McGee helping students in a Mooresville High School literature course.

Eisa Cox, Assistant Principal and David Sherrill, Help Desk Manager, explaining what is happening in the "Help Room" to HML Board members: Stan Olson (ID), Charles Fowler (NH), Gary Marx (VA), James Harvey (WA), Mark Edwards (NC) and Evelyn Blose-Holman (NY)

#12  Mark Edwards and Joe Hairston discuss the student management system, Angel.

#13.  Mark Edwards explaining the adaption of technology to the high school curriculum

Mooresville’s Shining Example (It’s Not Just About the Laptops)

Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
CONNECTING Tammy Rigby, a fifth-grade science teacher at East Mooresville Intermediate, helping Grace Lateef, left, and Caitlyn Yaede with a class exercise.

Grading the Digital School

Lessons to Be Learned
Articles in this series are looking at the intersection of education, technology and business as schools embrace digital learning.
Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
BREAK TIME Matthew Ward regroups during class, where each student has a school-issued laptop.

Readers’ Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.
There, a boy peering into his school-issued MacBook blitzed through fractions by himself, determined to reach sixth-grade work by winter. Three desks away, a girl was struggling with basic multiplication — only 29 percent right, her screen said — and Ms. Holsinger knelt beside her to assist. Curiosity was fed and embarrassment avoided, as teacher connected with student through emotion far more than Wi-Fi.
“This is not about the technology,” Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, would tell the visitors later over lunch. “It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.”
As debate continues over whether schools invest wisely in technology — and whether it measurably improves student achievement — Mooresville, a modest community about 20 miles north of Charlotte best known as home to several Nascar teams and drivers, has quietly emerged as the de facto national model of the digital school.
Mr. Edwards spoke on a White House panel in September, and federal Department of Education officials often cite Mooresville as a symbolic success. Overwhelmed by requests to view the programs in action, the district now herds visitors into groups of 60 for monthly demonstrations; the waiting list stretches to April. What they are looking for is an explanation for the steady gains Mooresville has made since issuing laptops three years ago to the 4,400 4th through 12th graders in five schools (three K-3 schools are not part of the program).
The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.
“Other districts are doing things, but what we see in Mooresville is the whole package: using the budget, innovating, using data, involvement with the community and leadership,” said Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who is director of educational technology for the United States Department of Education. “There are lessons to be learned.”
Start with math lessons: each student’s MacBook Air is leased from Apple for $215 a year, including warranty, for a total of $1 million; an additional $100,000 a year goes for software. Terry Haas, the district’s chief financial officer, said the money was freed up through “incredibly tough decisions.”
Sixty-five jobs were eliminated, including 37 teachers, which resulted in larger class sizes — in middle schools, it is 30 instead of 18 — but district officials say they can be more efficiently managed because of the technology. Some costly items had become obsolete (like computer labs), though getting rid of others tested the willingness of teachers to embrace the new day: who needs globes in the age of Google Earth?
Families pay $50 a year to subsidize computer repairs, though the fee is waived for those who cannot afford it, about 18 percent of them. Similarly, the district has negotiated a deal so that those without broadband Internet access can buy it for $9.99 a month. Mr. Edwards said the technology had helped close racial performance gaps in a district where 27 percent of the students are minorities and 40 percent are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Others see broader economic benefits.
“Even in the downturn, we’re a seller’s market — people want to buy homes here,” said Kent Temple, a real estate agent in town. “Families say, ‘This is a chance for my child to compete with families that have more money than me.’ Six years from now, you’ll see how many from disadvantaged backgrounds go to college and make it.”
Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
TEAMWORK Cameron Parnian, left, and Gordon Muhlestein pondering a lesson on their school-issued MacBook Air laptops.

Grading the Digital School

Lessons to Be Learned
Articles in this series are looking at the intersection of education, technology and business as schools embrace digital learning.
Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
MATH A timed tutorial on multiplication tables, with analog times tables, in a fourth-grade math class.

Mooresville’s laptops perform the same tasks as those in hundreds of other districts: they correct worksheets, assemble progress data for teachers, allow for compelling multimedia lessons, and let students work at their own pace or in groups, rather than all listening to one teacher. The difference, teachers and administrators here said, is that they value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions — curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst — and help educators deliver what only people can. Technology, here, is cold used to warm.
Mooresville frequently tests students in various subjects to inform teachers where each needs help. Every quarter, department heads and principals present summary data to Mr. Edwards, who uses it to assess where teachers need improvement. Special emphasis goes to identifying students who are only a few correct answers away from passing state proficiency standards. They are then told how close they are and, Mr. Edwards said, “You can, you can, you can.”
Many classrooms have moved from lecture to lattice, where students collaborate in small groups with the teacher swooping in for consultation. Rather than tell her 11th-grade English students the definition of transcendentalism one recent day, Katheryn Higgins had them crowd-source their own — quite Thoreauly, it turned out — using Google Docs. Back in September, Ms. Higgins had the more outgoing students make presentations on the Declaration of Independence, while shy ones discussed it in an online chat room, which she monitored.
“I’m not a very social person, but I have no problem typing on a keyboard,” said one of those shy ones, Chase Wilson. “It connected me with other students — opened me up and helped me with talking in public.”
In math, students used individualized software modules, with teachers stopping by occasionally to answer questions. (“It’s like having a personal tutor,” said Ethan Jones, the fifth grader zooming toward sixth-grade material.) Teachers apportion their time based on the need of students, without the weaker ones having to struggle at the blackboard in front of the class; this dynamic has helped children with learning disabilities to participate and succeed in mainstream classes.
“There are students who might not have graduated five years ago who have graduated,” said Melody Morrison, a case manager for Mooresville High School’s special education programs. “They’re not just our kids anymore. They’re everybody’s kids — all teachers throughout the school. The digital conversion has evened the playing field.”
Many students adapted to the overhaul more easily than their teachers, some of whom resented having beloved tools — scripted lectures, printed textbooks and a predictable flow through the curriculum — vanish. The layoffs in 2009 and 2010, of about 10 percent of the district’s teachers, helped weed out the most reluctant, Mr. Edwards said; others he was able to convince that the technology would actually allow for more personal and enjoyable interaction with students.
“You have to trust kids more than you’ve ever trusted them,” he said. “Your teachers have to be willing to give up control.”
That was the primary concern that the 60 visitors expressed during their daylong sojourn to Mooresville in November. “I’m not sure our kids can be trusted the way these are,” one teacher from the Midwest said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid trouble back home.
Thomas Bertrand, superintendent of schools in Rochester, Ill., said he was struck by the “culture of collaboration among staff and kids” in Mooresville and would emphasize that as his district considered its own conversion.
Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
CURIOSITY Backpacks line a hallway at East Mooresville Intermediate, a favorite stop of educators.

Grading the Digital School

Lessons to Be Learned
Articles in this series are looking at the intersection of education, technology and business as schools embrace digital learning.
“There’s a tendency in teaching to try to control things, like a parent,” said Scott Allen, a high school chemistry teacher in South Granville, N.C. “But I learn best at my own pace, and you have to realize that students learn best at their own pace, too.”
Mooresville still has some growing pains. In one ninth-grade social studies class, a video that easily could have been shown on a large screen instead went through the students’ laptops, several of which balked, “Unable to find proxy server.” One fourth grader, having to complete 10 multiplication questions in two minutes for the software to let her move on, simply consulted her times tables, making the lesson more about speed typing than mathematics. And those concerned about corporate encroachment on public schools would blanch at the number of Apple logos in the hallways, and at the district’s unofficial slogan: “iBelieve, iCan, iWill.”
Mooresville’s tremendous focus on one data point — the percentage of students passing proficiency exams — has its pitfalls as well. At November’s quarterly data meeting, there were kudos for several numbers whose rise or dip was not statistically significant, and no recognition that the students who passed by one or two questions could very well fail by one or two the next time around. Several colorful pie charts used metrics that were meaningless.
“I realize the fallacy of looking at one measure,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview afterward. “We look at scholarships, A.P. courses taken, honors courses, SAT scores. But the measure that we use is what the state posts, and what parents look at when they’re comparing schools moving here.”
After three years of computers permeating every area of their schooling, Mooresville students barely remember life before the transformation and are somewhat puzzled by the gaggle of visitors who watch them every month. (“At times it’s kind of like being a lab rat,” one 11th grader said.) But Mooresville understands its growing fame in the world of education, much of which has yet to find the balance between old tricks and new technology.
“So,” Ms. Higgins asked her English class after the bell rang, “you think you’re going to like transcendentalism?”
“Only if you’re a nonconformist,” a student cracked

Friday, September 28, 2012

Reaction to "Won't Back Down" Shows Critics Have Learned Something

By Anthony Cody on September 27, 2012 3:59 PM

It is hard sometimes for advocates of public education to see our own movement, when we are active participants in it. But the critical and public reaction to the movie "Won't Back Down" is providing us with some evidence of how far we have come in the past two years.
It was two years ago that documentarian Davis Guggenheim released "Waiting For Superman," heavily loaded with the message that unions protect bad teachers, tenure provides jobs for life, and charter schools are the only hope for our children. The movie was a commercial failure in the theaters, but it was boosted by a $2 million grant from the Gates Foundation to pay for national publicity. It was also the centerpiece for the first Education Nation week hosted by NBC, which prominently featured its heroes, Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada. Oprah even devoted two shows to promoting the movie.
Reviewers were mostly favorable towards "Waiting For Superman." The web site Rotten Tomatoes aggregates reviews, and also collects feedback from ordinary folks who have seen the movies. "Waiting For Superman" got an overall rating of 89%, with an audience score that was 84% positive.
Flash forward two years, and witness the release this month of "Won't Back Down," another movie heavily financed and promoted by education "reformers," with a similar message that teacher unions are obstacles to school improvement. This time the reaction has been decidedly different. The Rotten Tomatoes site indicates a reviewer score of only 35% so far, in spite of efforts bystaffers at Students First to boost the score.
This could just indicate a lousy movie, but a look at what the critics are writing suggests there is a far greater awareness of the complex issues at play in our schools. Movie critics have learned a lot in the past two years. Perhaps all of our writing and marching (and even striking) has begun to make a dent in public awareness.
Let's look at some specifics.
The majority of reviews for "Waiting For Superman" were decidedly positive. A review in Variety was written by John Anderson, who said:

Exhilarating, heartbreaking and righteous, Waiting for Superman is also a kind of high-minded thriller: Can the American education system be cured?
On the other hand, Variety's review of "Won't Back Down" was a bit less glowing. It was penned by Peter Debruge, who wrote:
Grossly oversimplifying the issue at hand, writer-director Daniel Barnz's disingenuous pot-stirrer plays to audiences' emotions rather than their intelligence.
Many reviewers are taking issue with the use of an emotionally loaded story to push a particular political agenda, one which demonizes teacher unions and promotes charter schools. But the movie is provoking some deeper discussions as well. Many reviewers are pointing out the source of funding for the film, and the strong political agenda that comes with it.
This morning I received an announcement that the US Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a "Cross-Country Tour to Discuss Education Reform," The announcement says 
The forums will also include a private screening of Won't Back Down, a feature film based on the real-life story of a single mother who leads an education reform movement that transforms her daughter's chronically low-performing school.
This is part of a campaign they are calling "Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity."
The Chamber of Commerce is seeking to gain access to the $500 billion spent on education each year for profit-making corporations. They characterize our system of democratically controlled, community-based public education as some sort of "government monopoly," in order to undermine support for public schools and build support for free-market alternatives.
This parallels the promotion of Waiting For Superman in 2010, but this time public education advocates have done a much better job uncovering the dubious origins of this propaganda feature. A month ago, the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group showed the central role conservative Christian businessman Phillip Anschutz played in getting the movie made, along with his ally Rupert Murdoch - who has declared himself greatly interested in potential profits from the education sector.
The Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch exposed a close connection between the "parent trigger" used in WBD and the American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC) which has promoted legislation allowing this maneuver in states across the country.
Activists from Parents Across America helped highlight the real consequences of pulling the "parent trigger." Leonie Haimson has done an excellent job tracking the controversy.
All this work has made a big dent in the public's understanding, as can be seen by some of the more in depth reviews. Ella Taylor at National Public Radio writes:
For all its strenuous feints at fair play, though, Won't Back Down is something less honorable -- a propaganda piece with blame on its mind.
Most impressive of all are the two pieces that have appeared at Salon Magazine. Their review by Andrew O'Hehir cuts to the heart of the matter:
As presented in this script (written by Barnz and Brin Hill), the Pittsburgh teachers' union has no goal beyond protecting the status quo at all costs, and no interest whatever - no altruistic interest, no self-interest and no public-relations interest -- in improving the quality of public education. Most people still understand, I believe, that teachers work extremely hard for little pay and low social status in a thankless, no-win situation. But this is one of those areas where conservatives have been extremely successful in dividing the working class, which is precisely the agenda in "Won't Back Down." Breeding hostility to unions in themselves, and occasionally insinuating that unionized teachers are a protected caste of incompetents who get three damn months off every single year, has been an effective tactic in what we might call postmodern Republican populism, especially in recent battles over public employee contracts in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It works something like this: 1) Turn the resentment and frustration of people like Jamie - people with crappy service-sector jobs and few benefits, whose kids are stuck in failing schools - against the declining group of public employees who still have a decent deal. 2) Strip away job security and collective bargaining; hand out beer and ukuleles instead. 3) La la la la, tax cuts, tax cuts, I can't hear you!
Today, this review was augmented by an analysis of the motives of those behind "Won't Back Down," written by Alexander Zaitchik.
Zaitchik writes: focus on the parent-trigger plot mechanism in "Won't Back Down" is to misunderstand the long-term strategy of the deep-pocketed education reform movement. Its plan is to undermine public education from all fronts, to keep throwing reform bills at statehouse walls and see what sticks. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, the reform movement's own version of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), provides legislators with thick "policy combo-packs" and encourages them to file legislation in flurries. Anything that moves the needle of public opinion toward privatizing K-12 is a victory. And it's a victory for more than just for-profit charter and private school companies. The school-choice army is increasingly diverse. It has a growing "digital learning" wing of technology and software companies eager to "individualize" and "virtualize" American classrooms. There are film education companies like Walden Media, more about which in a minute. There are educational testing companies, such as News Corp's Wireless Generation, which have been used effectively to pummel public education but have an uncertain future in the brave new unregulated world imagined by corporate reformers. Keeping the alliance flush with tactics and strategy are the libertarian think tanks at war with teachers' unions and the idea that the rich should pay education taxes to support schools their children do not attend. (Given the movement's storefront claims to care deeply about poor students of color, it is odd -- well, not really -- that its lineage begins with the voucher schemes Milton Friedman cooked up in the immediate wake of Brown v. Board of Education.)
The producer of the film is reportedly surprised at the controversy. In this story that appeared in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, he seems to hope the controversy will blow over:
If you look at the successful issues movies, 'Erin Brockovich,' 'Norma Rae,' and you think about why you liked those movies, I bet you don't remember what the issues are. What you remember are the characters realizing they can accomplish something, going up against a monolithic institution and being able to change it.
But in both Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae, we had heroic women standing up to corporate greed. While this may be a subtle distinction to some movie makers, it is dawning on many people paying attention that the substance matters, and as we saw in Chicago, unions can be one of the things that helps the powerless take on the powerful.

What do you think? Are the critics and public at large getting smarter about what is at stake in the debate over public education?

The Missing Piece in Teacher Evaluation Laws: Empowering Principals

The Missing Piece in Teacher Evaluation Laws: Empowering Principals

Yesterday, I wrote about Bellwether's new report on teacher evaluation legislation recently passed in 21 states. One big takeaway from this analysis: States are a lot more willing to pass teacher evaluation laws than they are to empower principals (and districts) to manage their staffs effectively.
Consider: 21 states passed laws requiring teacher evaluations based in part on student achievement. From the media coverage, you'd think that linking teacher evaluation to student achievement is the really controversial thing here--but it's the one thing all of these states have done.
States also took action to link these evaluations to key personnel decisions: 12 states' laws link tenure to teacher effectiveness, 16 explicitly give districts the ability to dismiss teachers rated ineffective, and 14 include some provisions requiring or incenting performance-based compensation.
But if we're serious about improving teacher quality and effectiveness, there's got to be a third piece here. We have to give school districts--and in particular, principals--the ability to effectively manage their teaching staffs, by making decisions about hiring, assignment, and so forth. Right now, a host of provisions in state laws, district policies, and teacher contracts--such as seniority-based transfers, excessing, and "bumping" policies--limit principals' ability to make decisions about who teaches in their schools or even the positions to which teachers are assigned. Taken together, these provisions also prevent districts from developing sound human capital strategies based on the interests of students, rather than adults.
By and large, recently passed state teacher evaluation laws don't do much about these policies or contractual provisions. For example, only 6 of these laws give principals the authority to decide who teaches in their school, by forbidding placement without the principal's consent. Only 13 states took action to end "last in, first out" teacher layoffs, which require districts to make reductions in force without heed to performance. While these layoff provisions have gotten a lot of attention, a bigger issue is "excessing"--what happens when teacher positions are eliminated at an individual school, due to population shifts, program change, or other factors. Typically, more senior teachers who are excessed have priority for other positions in the district--even if that means bumping a more junior teacher already in the position. These policies can undermine school stability, prevent principals from deciding who teaches in their schools, and ultimately drive oft-bumped junior teachers from the profession. Only one state, Colorado, takes action to change this, by creating a process for excessed teachers to find new positions through mutual consent hiring, and allowing for the eventual discharge from employment of those who fail to do so. A few states limit the scope of collective bargaining agreements to exclude these issues as subjects of collective bargaining--but that doesn't necessarily mean districts will change long-standing policies around assignment and excessing.
This is a problem. New evaluation systems have been sold as a way to drive improvement in teacher performance--but evaluations can't do everything that's been promised. Driving real improvement in teaching and student learning requires a degree of human judgement and effective management that must be done by people acting in principal and district-level leadership roles--who currently are too often precluding from using this judgement to effectively manage staffing. Moreover, the theory of action behind new evaluation systems remains largely untested in public education, and their are many implementation and design principals. That's not an argument against new evaluation systems--the status quo they replace was clearly deeply flawed. But, in contrast, it's abundantly clear why assigning teachers to schools without a principal's say or agreement undermines the principal's ability to create a coherent culture in the school and drive improvements in teaching and learning. And it's worth asking why many states are addressing the former while ignoring the latter.

Won’t Back Down is a crude work of art.

Bad Lessons From 'Won't Back Down'

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Won’t Back Down is a crude work of art.

Each character in the new film, about Pittsburgh parents and teachers who band together to take over a struggling school, is crafted less as a believable human being than as a talking point. First there are the students of F-rated Adams Elementary, a tapestry of white, black, Latino and Asian children. But racial diversity is not typical of failing schools; of the seven shut down in Pittsburgh this year because of low performance, two are more than 95 percent African-American, and the rest more than two-thirds black.

The idea of a parent takeover is based on laws recently passed in seven states, the most high-profile of which, in California, does not require any teacher buy-in at all—though it does offer the option of schools remaining unionized post-trigger. It could be years before any school fully completes the parent trigger process; the furthest along is Desert Trails Elementary, a predominantly Latino school in Adelanto, California. School choice activists there have been opposed by teachers unions and have received support from Parent Revolution, a nonprofit funded by Walden Media and the Gates and Wasserman foundations.
Then there is the seedy union boss who couldn’t care less about children and who has politicians in his pocket; and the best teacher at Adams Elementary, who happens to be a young, white, male Teach for America alum named Michael, who grows more troubled each day by the excesses of organized labor—despite his liberal inclinations. While many Hollywood education melodramas feature a white teacher saving a school of poor children of color (think Dangerous Minds), Won’t Back Down strives for some modicum of political correctness. Here the reform spark is lit by a white, working-class single mom, Jamie Gallagher, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with almost noxious levels of wide-eyed, girlish spunk. Frustrated by failed efforts to get her dyslexic daughter placed in the classroom of an effective teacher, Jamie convinces a veteran black educator, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), to join her in enacting a “trigger” takeover of the school—that is, a majority of parents and teachers can sign petitions to oust a school’s management and reconstitute it as a nonunionized charter-type school. In this effort, Jamie and Nona are opposed every step of the way by a cartoonish teachers union, which bribes Jamie to give up her fight by offering her free private school admission for her daughter, and publishes a flier attacking Nona as a bad mother.
Though Won’t Back Down is hackneyed and sentimental, Davis’s restrained emotionalism breathes life into Nona, a middle-class divorcĂ©e who had idealistically followed her mother into teaching, only to become burned out after years of battling bureaucracy. I found the character of Jamie much more improbable. Although she works days at a used-car dealership and nights at a bar, she never seems sleep-deprived or sick or worried about health insurance. Jamie always has the energy to grab a stack of petitions and rally parents to her cause with a smile; somehow she also has time to begin a romance with Mr. Teach for America. And though Jamie’s boss is constantly yelling at her for spending more time on activism than on work, she miraculously never gets fired.
Of course, a mother’s love for her child can motivate superhuman feats. Yet there are only so many hours in a day—especially for the working class in a bad economy. That’s why it is highly unlikely that hundreds of low-income schools around the country will suddenly find themselves facing grassroots trigger movements of the kind imagined in Won’t Back Down.
Indeed, like Waiting for “Superman,” the last school reform film financed by Walden Media, which is owned by conservative entrepreneur Phil Anschutz, Won’t Back Down depicts urban poverty in deceptive ways—not only as less exhausting than it really is but also as less deep-seated. When one police officer mom warns the reformers that a school takeover can’t solve the neighborhood’s underlying problems, like gangs and drugs, Nona intones, “You change a school, you change a neighborhood.” This claim is misleading. As an education reporter, I’ve visited many urban schools that are beacons of hope in troubled neighborhoods, but no school can find decent jobs for under- or unemployed parents who can’t put nutritious food on the table; nor can a school make up for the chronic instability of a young life spent in foster care or moving from apartment to apartment in a futile quest for safe, affordable housing. Volumes of research show such experiences affect cognitive development and children’s ability to focus in school; dedicated educators and counselors work wonders with such children each day, but they don’t rescue neighborhoods from poverty.
To respond to such obvious caveats, the screenwriters of Won’t Back Down have larded the film with ham-handed truisms. “I can’t wait to figure it [school reform] out with 10,000 studies about how being poor affects education,” Jamie says at one point. In the film’s denouement, a school board meeting at which the activists’ trigger proposal will either be accepted or rejected, Mr. Teach for America lectures the crowd, “Do any of you remember what we’re doing here? We’re not here for unions and teachers. We’re here for kids.”
That said, there are some moments even a union organizer could love. In the teachers’ break room, Nona acknowledges that although Adams Elementary is officially “failing,” many of the educators on staff have excellent ideas about how to improve their school, from a broader curriculum to community volunteering for students. In a movie like this, the heartwarming ending is preordained, so it’s not giving much away to say that the film spends the vast majority of its two hours diagnosing what’s wrong with failing schools (lazy teachers, their unions and complacent principals) and only about two minutes on the “transformation” of Adams after the dramatic school board vote. In a single gauzy scene, Nona, as the new principal, is leading an assembly with Mr. Teach for America in which students sing about going to college. Lo and behold, Jamie’s daughter can now read.
There would be more drama and more truth, I think, in the story of a school in the process of transforming, like the one Alexander Russo told in his book Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, about Locke High School in Los Angeles. In 2007 teachers there triggered a takeover by Green Dot charter schools, which are unionized, yet the aftermath was still contentious. Only 40 percent of the Locke educators who supported the transformation were rehired by Green Dot, and although student achievement is rising and Locke’s hallways are orderly, other South LA schools, like Crenshaw, have experienced major improvements without using a trigger, and through greater cooperation with organized labor.
Should parents and teachers have the right to take over schools? In Britain, parents can launch charterlike “free schools,” but even supporters worry that only the most involved and educated parents will go through the arduous process, which could further exacerbate educational inequality. I support many different pathways to school reform, including parent management—as long as it is closely monitored by proven educators, states and cities. Yet I’m not hopeful that this latest school choice trend will take off in any truly systemic way. Most single moms don’t have time for a third job, which is one good reason we must insist on understanding that quality education is not just a choice but a right the state must provide for all children.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Preparing Students for the Future?

By Nancy Flanagan on September 25, 2012 8:48 PM

I just finished The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age,certainly the most useful book I've read lately on how to cope with what might be ahead in education. Whenever prognosticators discuss our collective ed-future--21st century learning, the disrupted class, the shift-- there are snazzy phrases and new, improved strategies to make learning more efficient. Higher scores in less time at lower cost, competitive learning through better tools.
Authors Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall write instead about human relationships, using new tools and ideas to build networks and communities that are well-designed but evolving, collaborative and sustainable. These groups focus on the work educators themselves believe is most important. The text is filled with probing questions and illustrative stories, but nary a value-added chart. Favorite section heading? Put People Before Things (or Test Scores).

While reading, I kept thinking about two distinct movements--OK, shifts--from the last century, to define what students needed to be successful.

Hanging in my office is an old photograph of a one-room schoolhouse, with 37 children clustered in the dirt yard around the door. The teacher, tall and bespectacled, stands behind the group; the smallest child holds a slate reading "11-02-1900." My grandmother, born in 1890, seventh child in a Dutch immigrant farm family, stands solemnly in the photo, as do four of her nine siblings. All of them, she used to tell me proudly, "finished school." Meaning they all completed the eighth grade--more free education than their parents, born in Groningen, the Netherlands, had--a testament that life in America was a pretty good deal.
My grandmother, Nancy Oudsema Linega, left school in 1903, going to work as a clerk and errand girl in a neighborhood grocery and produce store. She worked there until she married at 33, earning enough to buy a car (before she learned to drive it), put a down payment on a home and do some traveling. Widowed a few years after marriage, she worked steadily through the Great Depression, supporting a young daughter and a mortgage. She was employed full-time well into her sixties, and part-time until she was 80, keeping the books for the same grocery store, by then a modern supermarket.
I would describe my grandma as an educated woman. She was a whiz at numbers--one of those people who can add up long columns of figures in their head, or calculate percentages in a few seconds. She read newspapers, books and magazines, and wrote long, grammatically perfect letters to me when I left home for college.
Grandma spoke Dutch and English, and had encyclopedic knowledge about plants and gardening, among other things. She was well-informed politically, and voted in every Grandma motorcycle.jpgelection--not surprising, since she was 30 the first time she was allowed to go to the polls. She also had a taste for adventure as a young woman; I have unearthed travel souvenirs, postcards with mildly naughty messages and photos from her trunk. It must have been some fun, indeed--the photo is proof that motorcycles were involved.
My grandmother's formal educated was bracketed by two major reforms in American schooling.
The Committee of Ten Report (1893), crafted by university presidents, professors and headmasters of exclusive private schools, set out to create the optimum standardized course of studies for high school students in the United States. The Committee, of course, was not thinking of poor immigrant or farm children--they were envisioning Young Men from Good Families. I imagine the ten learned men retiring to the smoking room after finishing their work to enjoy a tumbler of brandy and some bonhomie, confident they had shaped the intellectual direction of the republic for decades to come.
The Committee selected nine course threads. These included Geography, Greek, Latin and a third modern language (the Committee recommended German), Geometry in 5th grade, Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy, and similar courses in a 12-year template that looks familiar, even today.
Grandma studied precisely zero of those subjects.
The second major shift in defining educational goals for the 20th century, the Cardinal Principles for Secondary Education--deemed "goals for successful living"--were published in 1918. Their purpose was re-thinking high school, since increasing numbers of teenagers were showing up there, many of whom were formerly considered "not high school material."
The Cardinal Principles sound pretty mushy today, but they had considerable sway until mid-century--as well as strong criticism from those who felt that traditional intellectual rigor had been drowned in a sea of feel-good rhetoric. The Principles also led to a tracking model--honors, college, general, vocational--which burrowed deeply into the American educational consciousness.
My grandmother achieved every one of the Cardinal Principles in spades, from ethical character to vocation to worthy home membership and productive use of leisure time. As for the first Cardinal Principle--health--my grandma lived to 103, and voluntarily gave up her driver's license at 100. I'm not sure that she acquired any of those capacities--beyond "fundamental processes"--in school, however.
My point here is certainly not that my grandmother's one-room-schoolhouse curriculum was good enough. What I'm saying: the future is unknowable. Arguments over the definition of 21st century learning and a locked-in-concrete national curriculum are a waste of time. Especially while there are large subsets of American kids in truly wretched schools.
Entrepreneurs promising that their ideas, technologies and programs will make children ready for the future can't guarantee anything. Remember, the smartest, best-educated and most elite students of the last generation led this country into an economic abyss four years ago. Sniping over an exact delineation of what 21st century learners need is more about the snipers than the students.
I'm not particularly bothered by that murky road ahead. An excellent education really is built through lively relationships. Truly proficient teachers adjust the parameters of their practice constantly, to fit the unique students in their class, the resources available and, sometimes, the day's headlines. Planning blind is sometimes an effective change process--and connecting with other educators to support and learn from each is always other a superb idea. 

Where Does Free Speech for Students End?

Now that the fall semester has begun, schools will be faced with deciding where to draw the line on their students' right of free speech on the Internet. I'm not talking now about student-on-student cyberbullying, which is outlawed by nearly every state. Instead I'm referring to postings that slander teachers.
Recognizing the harm done to the reputation of teachers, North Carolina has made comments that "intimidate or torment" teachers a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $1,000 and/or probation ("Teachers Fight Online Slams," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 18). Critics maintain that the law infringes on the free speech rights of students. But every right has a commensurate responsibility. I have no objection to students posting their comments about their teachers as long as they do so in the same way that reviewers write about books. That means no ad hominem remarks. For example, if a student writes that Mr. X is a bad teacher because his lessons are confusing, I see no reason why that opinion should pose a problem. On the other hand, if a student writes that Mr. X is doing drugs because his lessons are confusing, that's a different story.
There was a time when the issue was more clear cut. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled inTinker v. Des Moines that students do not shed their right to free speech at the schoolhouse door. In other words, the right is protected on campus unless officials can show that the speech caused a significant disruption to school activities or violated the rights of others. What took place off campus, however, was seemingly immune. For example, at the height of the Vietnam protests, students on the staff of The Warrior, the newspaper at the high school where I taught, attempted to publish an editorial criticizing the administration's policy about controversial issues. The principal forbade it. To get around the ban, the same students put out a newspaper off campus titled The Worrier, and distributed it to students and faculty before they stepped on school grounds.
School newspapers, unlike the Internet, are relatively easy to monitor and control because of their physical presence. For example, a principal at a high school near St. Louis deleted two pages of the student newspaper because he objected to articles about pregnancy and divorce. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier affirmed his right to do so ("Unmuzzling High School Journalists," The Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2008). The high court's decision did not overturn Tinker, but it certainly muddied it. I say that because I fail to see how articles about pregnancy and divorce can cause a significant disruption to school activities.
But the existence of the Internet makes standards impossible to enforce. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually accepts the opportunity to rule on the issue and holds in favor of schools to protect teachers, I don't see how students who post anonymously can be muzzled. As the Internet grows in importance as the way young people communicate, I think the only realistic way of preventing teacher disparagement is by teaching students about their responsibilities. The process begins at home. It will be a daunting task because doing so requires imbuing them with fairness and judgment, two qualities that are in short supply among the members of today's generation.

Cartoons on Common Core Standards

Cartoons on Common Core Standards

by Larry Cuban
For this monthly* post of cartoons, I have selected images about the impending Common Core curriculum standards in math and English for K-12 students. While many countries have a national curriculum, the U.S. does not. Since the Common Core standards have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, the U.S. will soon have a national–not federally mandated–one.
According to a recent analysis of the Common Core standards there are two justifications for states adopting the standards (Brookings Study of Common Core):
1. Because current state standards vary greatly across the country resulting in unequal access to knowledge and skills, Common Core standards will be higher, uniform, and equitable for all students. When tests of those common standards are implemented in 2014-2015,  the quality of teaching and learning will improve. Students will then score far better on international achievement tests and the U.S. economy will grow.
2. By standardizing curriculum and assessments across states, multiple textbooks and instructional materials in math and English (and other academic subjects) will be reduced. These texts will aligned to national standards and tests. Major efficiencies will then occur.
There is, of course, another reason for adopting Common Core standards: schools are instrumental to economic growth and better schools will translate into success in besting global competitors in the  unending race for new markets.
There is much that remains unknown, however, about how these standards are to be implemented and much anxiety over new tests to measure how well students have met those standards.
Teachers were interviewed a few months ago and this is what they reported to the poll-takers:
Let the cartoons roll….
That’s all folks!

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