Monday, November 22, 2010

Blogging for Real Reform: Name Your Reform

At some point reform became a catchall word. Whether it’s the media, politicians, or unions, reform is most often used to define some us versus them relationship. So much of what we read about or hear about sets up educational reform as an either/or relationship. I’ve spent my career wishing most of the dilemmas I face were either/or scenarios. Rarely is teaching and learning, budgeting, or staffing so simple to solve as “Either this… or that, choose one option.”

I thought yesterday’s New York Times article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” (NY Times, 11/21/2010), was a great example of this either/or relationship. The author set up a construct in which students are either engaged in the content-based learning in school and are successful at warding off technological distractions, or technology has grasped poor unsuspecting teens and is thwarting their best efforts to be successful high school students. Articles like this don’t tell the story of classrooms across the United States where teachers and students are struggling and succeeding to meaningfully integrate technology. I read teacher blogs and tweets all the time, and so many teachers are succeeding at engaging students using new media, tools, and classroom paradigms. Anyone who has spent even one day in a classroom knows that some days it works, and others it doesn’t. Technology integration in 2010 cannot be distilled into “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” sound bites.

Good teaching is another reform issue that cannot be distilled into either/or statements. A school committee, superintendent, or principal who bases an entire teacher evaluation on a ten-minute snapshot in a classroom, or a standardized test result cannot begin to understand the myriad issues, decisions, actions that every teacher must make each and everyday. Distilling classroom reform into test results or one quick evaluation cannot begin to address the depth of understanding required to make meaningful decisions to improve the quality of teaching and learning in a classroom.

I recognize the current education reform vocabulary as the same terminology I use when I talk about getting in shape. For years I’ve tried to improve my own health and wellness by talking about going to the gym. I understand that actually working out and eating less would significantly increase my chances of being healthier, but that’s much more difficult than just talking about action. Education Reform has been the same way; lots of words very little action. I’d recognize my strategy anywhere. I don’t have a solid strategy for getting into shape and I can only speak in generally ambiguous terms about increasing exercise and decreasing late night snacking. But when it comes to school, I do have details to offer. I don’t believe there ought to be one definition for Real Reform, but I do believe that the people with the experience, those with the ideas and good sense to know how and when to try ideas, have been relegated to the fringes of the conversation. It isn’t always the case, but the loudest voices in the debate seem to know the least. Everyone reading this post already knows what the loud voices are calling for regarding high stakes testing, charters, and the other hot button issues. So in the spirit of the day, here’s one more small voice, attempting to contribute some substantive ideas for Real Reform.

         The traditional high school model in this country is fundamentally broken. High Schools are considered successful when many of the graduating students do not pursue post-secondary education or do not graduate. The bell shaped curve defines our notion of success. If some people get F’s and others get A’s what we are doing must be fair and equitable. This model was fine when a high school diploma could still be a ticket to the middle class, and there were jobs for all those students. But most of those jobs simply no longer exist, and we keep on feeling positive about the bell shaped curve.  

     The comprehensive high school model does not work for most inner-city students. I don’t know which model is the right one, but the shopping mall high school just doesn’t work with the students I know.

     There isn’t one right reform model. Making positive change in schools requires knowing your students and your community. What’s right for me may not be right for the kids I serve. What’s right for my students may not be right for your students. 
     The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) 2011 Standards offers a positive template for meaningful reform. No matter where you may be in the country, if you are reading this post, check out the new standards at 
      I do not believe these standards offer the way to reform schools. They offer a roadmap to developing a school aligned to what each community wants and needs. The standards don’t cover everything. They fall far short in defining meaningful technology use at the high school level. But here’s what they do define that I value:
      The first standard requires a clear statement of Core Values, Beliefs, and Learning Expectations. The authors say “effective schools identify core values and beliefs about learning that function as explicit foundational commitments to students and the community.” (NEASC Standard 1, 2011) When done correctly each school is identifying their own core values, beliefs and learning expectations. Asking the question, “What are your beliefs about school?” is so different than stating “These should be your beliefs about school.” NEASC further requires that the school define their own 21st century learning expectations. While some schools may take someone else’s laundry list of skills, the opportunity is there to define 21st skills meaningfully for your community.

      The curriculum standard shifts the learning outcomes for each course away from content knowledge and towards using content as the vehicle to learn skills. In my view, this is an example of naming Real Reform. In an economy and technological age where skills are valued more than content knowledge, we need practical and meaningful tools to make the shift. NEASC provides language and a roadmap to make this happen.

      Assessment is meant to inform students and stakeholders of progress towards meeting the schools’ 21st century skills. There must be assessment of and for learning. Assessment cannot be just a restatement of facts. If the school values problem solving, how can a teacher set up scenarios that both value and assess problem solving as a skill? Furthermore, assessment cannot only be summative. Formative assessment is informal daily assessment to ensure that all students, not just the vocal ones have learned what was intended today. Formative assessments ought to inform instructional decisions tomorrow, not at the end of the unit.

      When I’m at a party and strangers learn that I’m an inner city educator, they often make broad statements about inner city families, students, and schools. I try not to let this pass. In a non-confrontational way, I try to name what occurs in the schools I know, to address these broad statements about urban education. This is what I hope today is about; naming the reforms we value. Reform is rapidly becoming a non-word because it means everything and nothing at the same time. I don’t know that my thinking is right, but I do know I rarely come across an educational idea or dilemma that simply requires an either/or construct. Together, let’s ensure that calls for reform are articulately naming specific and concrete steps. Otherwise we either reform or we don’t.