Friday, February 27, 2009

Iowa Core and the Lake Wobegon Effect

Outside of the elusive 21st century skills, which has many educators befuddled, there often is a common theme when it comes to the Iowa Core and school districts (or AEAs): "You'll find that we already do a good job with the content and instruction of the Iowa Core."

Which can be interpreted as "All the talk of radical and drastic change applies to that district over there, not us." When you consider some districts have proficiency rates above 95% and solid ACT scores, you can see their point.

But, even they are wrong. I have met several educators who say "I do formative assessment", until they learn what formative assessment is (and is not). Many will mention they do "Quadrant D" work, except that work does not represent "real-world, unpredictable situations" and is actually Quadrant C.

Even that is irrelevant, though. Let's say we were all perfect. We were all models of excellent teaching, as I've seen in places like Norwalk and East Marshall. Regardless of past performance or current level of excellence, all of us have to accept the following maxims:

My district/agency must change to meet the needs of 21st century learners.
#2 We cannot be satisfied until we meet the needs of all learners.
#3 We cannot be satisfied until we succeed on assessments that measure what is truly important.

Given that #2 and #3 (the needs of learners and the assessments to measure those needs) are always changing, we can never be satisfied. And thus, we must always do #1.

Which, of course, is as welcome to some educators as another colonoscopy. "We already have good test scores, we already looked at scope and sequences and how to teach for understanding. You mean, we have to do it again?"

Constant change is the nature of education. Even for the Wobegon CSD.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rethinking Giftedness

I will start with my biases. I have been a talented and gifted teacher. I was a talented and gifted student. And I currently have 3 children who are talented and gifted.

And now, my central theses:
1. There is no segment of the K-12 population that is more underserved that the talented and gifted population.
2. By narrow views of what "giftedness" is, we have grossly missed on millions of kids who are gifted.
3. We should teach to a child's gifts rather than remediate on a child's weaknesses.
4. To not do so is both immoral and strategically harmful for our society.

Few would deny that our educational system is not set up for gifted students, and that often they learn in spite of the teaching that goes on in their classes. Our classes are aimed for the middle, with special attention given to the struggling. But, many educators would also say that this discrepancy is okay. We only have so much resources and time, and we are measuring students on proficiency after all. Gifted students will have no problem reaching proficiency, even if we were to totally ignore them. So that's what we do (with some "enrichment" worksheets to keep them busy).

Iowa will not stay a great state if our goal is "proficiency", to have everyone at the 40th percentile. Our goal is to have the best... which means the best doctors, the best civil servants, the best farmers, the best accountants, the best mechanics, the best fathers and mothers, and the best community members. And to do that, we have to allow the gifted to learn and achieve way above the 40th percentile.

But how? This is where we need radical change in the setup of schools. A majority of Iowa's schools use some sort of the "enrichment" pull-out method, where the TAG teacher finds some time to meet with students when they don't need the content. This helps the general classroom teacher because they can focus on other students, and it helps other students because the gifted one is not answering the questions before they have a chance to think about them. And it helps the gifted, because they can work on fun projects that interest them. It's a win-win-win.

Except, it isn't. This is great for the general classroom teacher and students, but the gifted are often getting shafted. The external work is usually not tied to curricular standards and benchmarks. It usually doesn't replace future classwork, which they are still expected to master. And in effect, it slows them down so that they can stay relatively on pace with the rest of their age-mates. And in many settings that I have seen, there is little to any communication with the talented-and-gifted teacher and the general classroom teacher, so that the TAG learning is completely silo'd away.

We have to do away with this lockstep method of advancing via age-level. Which means compacting and acceleration, and the type of individual planning and collaboration that students with IEPs receive.


My oldest daughter (8) and son (6), both of whom are gifted, are lucky to be in a school where there is a high SES, meaning there is a large percentage of proficient students already. But, even then, I can see places where we can do better to educate them. Let me give you the story that illustrates my frustration.

If you were to ask my daughter what is she "good at in school", she would mention both her reading ability and her artistic ability, and she'd be right on both. However, she would say she is awful at math. If you ask her why, she would mention how natural her brother is at it, and how she "can't get the math facts page done in time". Since the math program focuses on mastery of math facts as a building block for future learning, it is easy to see where she gets the idea... she isn't the first done on the speed test.

Imagine her surprise when the following happened tonight. Her class is about to embark on division after learning their single-digit multiplication numbers. So we talked a bit about it, and after giving her a couple of math facts, she was able to discover that multiplication and division are reciprocal operations. Or as she said, "Oh, it's the opposite!". And voila, she now knows any "single-digit" division problems. Just like that.

At this point, I accidentally said, "See, you picked that up really fast! You will be great at algebra." Which, since it is apparently mentioned in the young adult novel she is reading, piqued her interest. "What's algebra?"

So, we took a look at some simple problems to show how it worked, starting with 6 + x = 4, and then moving to 6 + x - 3 = 11. Piece of cake, Dad. She could do it in her head.

Okay, let's pick some that you can't do in your head, and you have to solve for. 5x + 3 = 28? So when you write the number next to the letter, that means multiplication? Okay Dad, no problem. Okay, 3x + 4x - 13 = 8? I see how that works.

We've now been doing math for 30 minutes, when before, if we had asked her to do 10 minutes of math homework, we would have been the notorious worst parents in the world. And once again, I made a mistake. "That's really good, honey. Wait til you see when they have more than one letter."

So long story short, she was solving y = 3x squared + 1, graph and all. This is in an hour of curiosity-based education. And to boot, she no longer thinks her brother is smarter at math than she is.

Why aren't we doing this? Why aren't we letting students learn at accelerated paces, letting them tackle first-year algebra when they are ten and calculus when they are 13-14?

Not to be outdone, this is what my 6-year old son, the "math whiz who doesn't like to read that much" did. He got out the game Snorta, which has 12 animal figurines. I told him, "I bet you can't alphabetize those." So he did... without any words to look at. He thought of the spelling of the names and alphabetized them, even handling donkey and dog.

So look below at the picture and see if you can figure out what he did next:
This is a tough one... don't feel bad if you didn't get it. He alphabetized them by last letter, again without the word to look at. And, he had to develop the logistical rules for "pig", "dog" and "frog" himself.

There is a fundamental difference in gifted students that we still are not addressing, even in the lofty words of the Iowa Core's characteristics of effective instruction. The majority of students need relevant activities to become engaged, and thus, to learn. Gifted students do not need relevant activities. They need the ability to follow their own curiosity, and they will achieve at amazing levels.

The above two examples are completely irrelevant. Who cares if you can alphabetize 12 animals by the last letter? Who cares if you can graph equalities? Typical students would be bored out of their minds.

But gifted students are atypical, and that's a good thing. Relevance is irrelevant for them, and finding ways to try to tie activities into their real life will be seen by them as contrived and hokie.

We have to take the reins off, to let them explore and progress without fear of failure, or bogged down by extrinsic grades. And we have to let that learning replace future learning, to accelerate them, instead of punishing them by giving them extra to do. To not do so stifles the student, which hurts not only them but the future of our community.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cell Phones, Part 2

When we left off, we posed the question, "How could a teacher use cell phones in the classroom?" Here are some of the top applications being used today:

1. Using Poll Everywhere as a formative assessment tool. This program (free up to 30 responses per question) reminds many of the "Clicker" classroom response systems. Post a question, factual or opinion-seeking, and have students text in their answers. The website will generate instant graphed feedback. Use it to assess prior knowledge, to check students understanding, or to gather data on classroom opinion surveys.

2. Using Gabcast as a podcast tool. Gabcast allows you to record a phone message, and then it takes the file and posts it "podcast-ready" on the internet for you. It takes a lot of the technical knowledge of making a podcast (like via Audacity) out of the equation, and cell phones can give more students access when computers are scarce. Podcasts can be not only student projects and speeches, but also student singing or playing of instruments, and recording a classroom discussion. A different spin on this, use cell phones for students to record comments to voicethreads (I have an earlier look at voicethread here).

3. Use as an organizational tool. Depending on the phone that you have, they will come with notepad, calendar, and contact information. These tools can help those who struggle with organization since they are all contained in one place (the phone), and it ties into skills they already have. If you would like more than what your phone can provide, Dial2Do is a tool where you call in and it can send an automated email reminder (as well as many other functions).

4. Use as a text alert tool. A program like TextMarks can organize a group (such as a class) so that they can all give and receive text alerts and be on the same page. TextMarks advertises this as "Many-to-Many Text Discussions". This again ties into the way students communicate and connect today (sending email to a student account is so 2002).

5. Using Flickr or Blogger as a photocast tool. Students take images (or even video) with their phones camera and then post the images through a call. In addition to visual literacy projects, this too is a formative assessment tool, having students show updates on different steps in a process they are doing.

Like many other Web 2.0 tools, these tools are free for basic use. A special word of caution for students to know their plans, as texting can result in charges. UPDATE: As of 3/1/09, Gabcast is no longer a free service. While it isn't quite as featured as Gabcast, try out Gcast as an alternative.

In an upcoming post, we'll look at some of other cautions educators should be thinking about before making the cell phone plunge.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Discussion of Leadership & the Iowa Core

I attended School Administrator's of Iowa's afternoon session on the Iowa Core and leadership. It featured a panel of 7 administrators from a range of districts, all of which were identified as being ahead of the curve in implementation. Overall, each of the administrators were very impressive; they were an extremely positive group that fully believed in the change that the Core is bringing.

Here are some of the thoughts from the panelists:
  • Our sole focus so far has been on the first outcome, developing leadership. This is through not only beefing up our principals' comfort with curriculum, but also with enabling our teachers who are "influencers"
  • My biggest task as a superintendent is to keep constant communication with our board and community that "Change is Coming"
  • We started a "trial balloon" course focusing on the Iowa Core and surveyed the students afterwards. There reactions were they wanted more technology, less teacher talking.
  • When implementing, you have to ask yourself "Do we want commitment or compliance?"
  • It is important to create "patient urgency". To know that change is a process, not an arrival destination.
  • Superintendent involvement is absolutely critical... it can't just be passed down to others.
  • The principal needs to prioritize being in the classroom, seeing the school's teaching and learning.
  • We have to look at other measures to move "high achieving" districts. What are the ways your district measures the 21st century skills and concepts?

And my favorite...
  • As a principal, I have to start fires instead of putting them out.

Cell Phones, Part 1

Last week, the Quad City Times reported on Deb Berry's proposal to ban cell phones from all of Iowa's classrooms. Berry is a state representative from Waterloo, and is being driven to tackle what she feels is a critical issue:

Rep. Deb Berry, D-Waterloo, thinks teachers, administrators and parents are on her side. She understands it may inconvenience tech-dependent teens, but she looks at the ban as a safety issue.

Students are using cell phones to organize fights and pass test answers, for example, she said. Use “is out of control,” Berry said.

Besides, Berry, who is 50, said generations of Iowans have survived high school without cell phones.

When parents needed to contact their children, they called the office and left a message.

Berry’s bill would require school boards to establish policies prohibiting the use of cell phones during classroom hours.

The irony here is that this move seems very reactionary, especially given that more schools are rethinking their cell phone policies, seeing that they are fighting a losing battle, and looking at cell phones as somewhat analogous as calculators in education.


If you are in a secondary school, you understand the basic frustration. It's not that a classroom is a constant symphony of ring tones. It is rather texting and the need to "suddenly go to the bathroom" to have a 15-minute phone conversation that drive many educators crazy. And with many educators, the fear of using the phones to cheat on tests is reason enough to ban them from the classroom.

But on the flip side, cell phone policies are largely unenforceable. There are great discrepancies between teachers who confiscate left and right, those who don't have the where-with-all to notice when students are using them, those who don't care if students are using them, and those who have active classes where students don't have the time to use them. And even when they are taken, it doesn't seem to deter students.

And, many schools will mention involving the parents is a mixed bag as well. Some will be very supportive and take away their child's cell phone privileges, while others will argue that the cell phone is a necessary link to their child.


The reality is, cell phones use will only increase. In 2008, 17 million teens had a cell phone, which represented 79%. And in a 2006 techweb survey, 95% of parents would rather they remain in control of their child's use of a cell phone than the school. If Berry honestly feels parents are "on her side", she is sadly mistaken.

Plus, we are in the time of rapid technology development for cell phones, with the advent of 3G networks and the ability to push down huge amounts of data. The iPhone revolution is only in its infancy, and it is worth note that Apple's top developers are working on enhancing future generations of its mobile devices, the iPhone and iPod, instead of computers. Could it be that Steve Jobs feels the iPhone is the future of computing, with its ultra-portability and connectivity?

If so, it would behoove educators to be ahead of the curve with this new technology. Think about this: 71% of households have internet access, but 82% have cell phone access. And, unlike internet access, there is no correlation with SES.


The traditional thought is no, other than flat-out gadgetry. But traditional thought was soon proven antiquated for calculators. Consider this quote on paper and pencil from the 1815 Principal Association:

Students today depend upon paper too much. They don’t know how to write on slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?

Which looks strikingly similar to that paragon of educational reform, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg:

We are not going to allow iPods and BlackBerrys and cellphones and things that are disruptive in the classroom. Classrooms are for learning. Teachers cannot be expected to look under every kid’s desk at what they’re doing.

The better response is "How?" This is where the work of people like Hall Davidson, Marc Prensky, and Liz Kolb (check out there websites to see the work they are doing with cell phones in the classroom).

I'll look at more specific uses of cell phones in the classroom in the next post.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

More pitfalls of grading

Max Roosevelt from the NY Times has a piece on the negative consequences of grading in higher education (free subscription req'd). A summary of the pitfalls:
  • Grade inflation from high school leads students to think that the default grade is an A, not a C.
  • Students achieved grades in high school through a test preparation model, and they think this "magic formula" will translate into good grades in college
  • Students equate a grade with effort, as high schools often give, rather than achievement.
For a summary quote, Roosevelt mentioned:

If students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.

Or if grades were eliminated altogether...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Reflections on Technology Coordinator Meeting

One of my duties with Heartland is to facilitate the technology coordinator group. The core group of tech coordinator from central Iowa who comprise these meetings are a fun group to be with. We had our quarterly meeting yesterday, getting a chance to look at Ames' new middle school.

A couple of interesting thoughts from yesterday's meeting:

We had a vendor present on a filtering product, which is certainly more sophisticated than the products I used several years ago. What interested me was the tone of the presentation, as the vendor emphasized the ability to allow more than the ability to block. For example, it had the ability to block only specific inappropriate images appearing in appropriate searches in Google Images, thus allowing you to open up the entire site. Similar features allow you to open up other web 2.0 content and strip objectionable content out.

On top of that, the filtering database (running on a SQL server) had the ability to merge with student information systems of all flavors. This allows parents to access the records of where their children have been by the same login they would check their online grades. Which, I'll admit, I hadn't seen before. Given the nature of filtering with blocking, and the resulting game of proxies and executable files via flash drive that students get to play (what is more fun that defeating the system, after all?), you have to wonder if this is a more effective alternative. It would give parents a new perspective on their home computer.

The last feature of the filter to grab my attention was the ability to prioritize certain sites. In effect, you wouldn't block Facebook, but you'd make it perhaps a low priority, so that if another person was trying to access a higher priority site, they'd have full bandwidth needed and Facebook access would slow down.

In our "round table" discussion at the end of the day, the issue of filtering priority came up again. It surprised me to note that a majority of the coordinators there did not block Youtube, a measuring stick of sorts. And those that did emphasized it was not the content that they objected to, it was the bandwidth consumption.

As one technology coordinator noted, the tone of the groups discussions have changed dramatically in the last couple of years, as the group used to be focused on what to block, but now are focused on what they can allow. Or in other words, how the technology can help students learn rather than how we must shelter students. Perhaps this trend is isolated to central Iowa, but perhaps is representative of a bigger shift. One that is most beneficial for schools.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Call For Action: No Homework

I don't think I've ever agreed with Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews on anything, but we can find common ground in his latest column:

Throw away the expensive take-home textbooks, the boring worksheets and the fiendish make-a-log-cabin-out-of-Tootsie-Rolls projects. One of the clearest (and most ignored) findings of educational research is that elementary students who do lots of homework don't learn more than students who do none. Eliminating traditional homework for this age group will save paper, reduce textbook losses and sweeten home life. Students should be asked instead to read something, maybe with their parents -- at least 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 20 minutes for second-graders and so on. Teachers can ask a few kids each day what they learned from their reading to discourage shirkers.

Matthews might not have a good idea how to structure home reading so that it actually produces learning ("maybe" you could do it this way, for no other reason than to "discourage shirkers"), but his premise that students who do lots of homework learn no more than students who do none is correct. And important.

In a cathartic moment (I will channel Alex Rodriguez here), I can say this is the area that I didn't do very well as a teacher. I did a lot in my classroom, including homework. As a language arts teacher, some of that is forgivable--the bulk of the homework was a steady reading schedule to keep a good pace, and it was emphasized to students that they were expected to come to class, ready to discuss what they have read.

But becoming a parent changes that. When my eight year-old started the school year having a couple hours of homework per night, I was in shock. I didn't see my daughter anymore. And in talking with parents from other schools in the Metro area, there is consensus much of that is due to either A) packaged curriculum, such as a math series, or B) busywork projects. This opens your eyes quickly.

It makes one challenge some of the built-in customs that have never been challenged before. What is the authentic educational value of a posterboard display? Here's stuff I copied from the internet on topic X and made pretty with markers.

What is the educational value of crossword puzzles? Or even worse, search-a-word puzzles? With no research supporting constant drill with worksheets, why do we do it?

The answers are not pretty. We do it because it is easy to give. It is easy to grade. It keeps the kids busy. It is what schools have done for years. It is what is expected if you are a "quality" school. None of which are the answers we should care about, which is to help student learn.

My call for action is a bit overstated; we can't have "no homework" in schools. I still feel (perhaps my bias as an English teacher) that reading is important, and it is well documented that reading needs to be structured for students to learn. We also aren't going to police it; if students are engaged in a project to the point they take their work home and joyfully work on it, we'd be stunting their learning to say no.

The point is we need to reconceptualize "learning" as something other than "completing work". It needs to be authentic. It needs to be collaborative. It needs to be aligned with the Core. It needs to be constructive in nature. Everything we assign has to be weighed against these criteria. We cannot settle for the past reasons. If the work does not meet the criteria, it should not be assigned as homework.

Jay Matthews gets it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Duncan proposing national standards?

David Hoff from Education Week reports that Arne Duncan is talking wistfully about national standards:
His comments to (the American Council on Education) suggests he'll be pushing the issue in any reauthorization of NCLB that happens under his watch.

As for Duncan's comments:

If we accomplish one thing in the coming years—it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America.

I know that talking about standards can make people nervous—but the notion that we have 50 different goal posts is absolutely ridiculous.

Now, there is a long road between postulating and actualizing, and there will be more than one state (and professional teacher organization, and testing company, and textbook company) that will put up roadblocks if their standards are not chosen. But, the idea already has the basic support of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

This brings many questions to the forefront. What does this do to the state's work on the Iowa Core? First the downturn in the economy and other barriers to slow down the rollout of it, and then when high schools should start implementing it (2010-11), the reauthorization bill could require a whole new set of planning and priorities.

What groups would be consulted in the development of these standards? Would we start with NCTM for math, for example, or forgo the work that group has done?

Would the emphasis be on comprehensive coverage via standards, or narrowing the curriculum? This is especially apropos given that there will be several groups wishing for their standards to be represented.

What support would the government do to make sure this set of standards is viable? Or, would it be an unfunded mandate (I know... what are the chances of that happening...)?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Godin's Tribes vs. Whitaker's 15 Things

As I read Godin's Tribes, I couldn't help but think of what his message means for education. Not to say Godin's work is specifically for educators... he is clear his conceptualization of leadership is for anyone in any profession. Contrast this with Todd Whitaker's conceptualization in What Great Administrators Do Differently: Fifteen Things that Matter Most, where he has a very specific audience in mind (administrators).

Both books have similar messages, but they definitely emphasize different things. Godin's emphasis is solely on change. Not minor change either, like introducing a new dress code policy. Major changes. The world needs changing, he argues, and mainly fear stands in our way. It is essential for administrators (or any educator for that matter) to a) overcome their fear and go for change, b) provide a vision of that change to the members of your tribe, and c) provide the tools/network for the members of your tribe to enact that change.

Whitaker wouldn't disagree that effective administrators can do that, but his main emphasis is on creating a positive culture. His definition of effective leaders is they are the ones who aren't necessarily up front, pushing an agenda, but rather doing the dirty work to maintain that culture. He mentions the principal's important jobs are to be a filter for teachers (filtering out all the junk that can distract them from the mission of effective teaching), to constantly be repairing relationships, and to create the atmosphere of care in the school. His primary thesis is that it isn't programs that make a difference, it is people.


I believe this difference is critical. Schools are not as systematic as the corporate world. They are more organic, often running more like a family than a structure, and likewise as often taking on the values of the community. Because of this, schools are more resistant to change.

Which, of course, is not always a positive. In fact, given the different needs of students to be citizens in today's world and the differences in the ways they learn, that resistance to change is strangling. So, yes, Godin's message applies well for education... we need to seek out tribes to move schools forward. His message just doesn't take into account the nature of a school the way Whitaker's message does.

That's what makes an administrator's job difficult, and should give us pause every time we address budget cuts with "we don't need so many administrators". It takes a balancing act. As a principal, I struggled with this. I went in, bright-eyed, ready to lead. I saw my school needing to have a paradigm shift in the way students learned, but my efforts to mobilize a tribe to enact a vision were not as successful as I'd like them to be. This is because what our school needed immediately was attention to its climate. And only after I shifted my focus to the climate did I feel I was successful. And in the end, the school moved forward mimimally in terms of Godin's change.

This is a problem, because you could correctly argue a school is always in need of attention to its climate. And, while some of our greatest principals are excellent in attending to this need, it doesn't provide them much time to a paradigm shift. And schools stay stuck.


There is a passage in Tribes that I do feel is essential for education, and it coincides perfectly with Whitaker's message. A leader needs to know when to put forth a message, but also when to step back and let other members of the tribe lead. Nowhere more so than in schools. Whitaker argues a successful administrator leads by understanding the best teachers, making decisions with them in mind, and removing obstacles so that they can lead the school. It is people that make a difference, not programs.

This is the takeaway from Godin's book. Yes, schools must change, but administrators need to know how to do this.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Seth Godin's Tribes

I participated in Scott McLeod's discussion of Seth Godin's book last night. Some of the high points:

• Godin's central premise is that there is a fundamental difference between leaders and managers, that the world needs more leaders, and that being a leader does not require a prestigious position, but rather a tribe of followers.

• It seemed everyone there was driven to be a leader, that they had an idea that they felt passionate about spreading. It would be interesting to see the book's resonance with one who wasn't "driven" to be a leader.

• "How you go about a change" was a central debate. It was agreed there are widely different tacks necessary for your early adopters, naysayers, and general populous, but there wasn't a consensus on what that looked like.

• At one point, it was mentioned that "framing" is a central part to a revolution of change. Rather than allowing yourself to be labeled as "anti-establishment", it was important to reframe the other viewpoint as "anti-change". This is played out in both sides of the ongoing abortion debate in America.

• In education as well as other places, building a tribe requires the connective tissue for leaders to find followers. More and more, that connective tissue finds followers outside your building. The question becomes, where do we find these connective tissues to bring together people of a tribe in education?

• While maybe a minor point, Godin hammers on the theme of changing one's religion vs. changing ones faith, where religion is the codified structures around which the passion (faith) is built. In education, leaders struggle with finding ways to change a person's religion (traditional practices) while validating a person's faith (the passion to help students learn).
• Is leadership the same as marketing? They both attempt to persuade others to a product (or idea). But I'd argue this is only Godin's definition of leadership. A different definition of leadership, such as Todd Whitaker's, has a clear distinction (more on this later).

• Is a teacher desiring change a "heretic in trouble" if they do not have support higher up? Is it a hopeless cause? Is the only recourse to either retain the status quo or leave? Lots of discussion, and it seemed the answer was yes. But in today's world, support "higher up" can come from outside the building, or even the district, in the form of colleagues and other gurus of your administrators.

• And the big question, one that Godin dismisses maybe too easily, is the issue of risk. Leaders take risk and ask the tribe to take risks. Sure, you could lose your job, but the fear of that is what causes us to be stuck, says Godin. But many people argued this was not that easy. People need their jobs. If I try some new practice with my 5th graders and it fails, is that a risk that my students' parents are okay with? We deal with humans, not widgets in education.

• And last but not least, we could implement change in small steps to mitigate risk. But given the need for paradigm shift, can we afford to move slowly? Or as Miguel Guhlin mentions, you can't leap a 20 foot chasm in two 10-foot jumps.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

John Ensign doesn't get it

Senator John Ensign (R - Nev) recently appeared on Meet the Press and derided anyone who would claim public employees would be hurt by the economic downturn:

At risk of sounding too partisan, Ensign as well as many of his colleagues just do not get it. Iowa's state budget was cut so dramatically that Heartland AEA recently eliminated 18 positions, which is more dramatic than it sounds because there were hefty administrative cuts in that 18. This is on top of a salary freeze for many, and several other administrative positions being reassigned as non-administrative, as well as other non-personnel cutbacks.

That's not fearmongering. That's reality.

And that's not to say what the other 9 AEAs in the state will go through, or the DE, or any of the 362 school districts in Iowa. Or other states, for that matter. California has a $6 billion cut in educational spending alone. That's going to be done with printing on two-sides of the paper, Senator?


This hurts. It hurts most of all my colleagues that lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and it hurts their families. But, it also hurts Iowa's move to change and go forward. These people had special skills and abilities that, while being reassigned, cannot be replaced. And even if the economy were to get up and going, and we were able to fill those positions in a couple years, we've lost the sustainability of having those people in those positions. Acclimation time is a drag on efficiency.

Now think about this as school districts go through the same steps, in many times eliminating the younger, enthusiastic teachers who are very adept at teaching in the 21st century. Rather than have that 5th year teacher be an 8th year teacher in her teaching prime in a couple years, she's replaced by a new teacher. It then takes two more years for that individual to become more effective at teaching. Meanwhile, the energetic 5th year teacher has either left the state or left the teaching profession altogether.

The point is, we lose out much more than losing a warm body.

And our politicians need to have a sense of this, especially when they are demanding that states move forward with educational initiatives, because those initiatives will fail if there isn't continuity in the staff that are implementing them.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Iowa Core: Back to Basics or Forward to the 21st Century?

High schools in Iowa will be completing their Iowa Core implementation plans next year (completion date = 7/1/2010). As they do, their staffs will have discussions about what is effective instruction and good assessment. But a major thrust will be the alignment of content.

Here's where the philosophical discussion starts. How will you look at the content in the Core?

Will you see the essential content as a call to go back to basics, to beef up instruction time and effort in the 4 core areas? Or will you see the core as limiting the amount of content, freeing teachers from having to cover a flood of objectives, allowing time for teachers to go deeper and incorporate higher thinking? Or, will you see the core as another piece of red tape, another hoop to walk through, ending with an implementation plan that will appease DE visitors but will not affect instruction?

Obviously, you should not even begin to think of the last option above, although that will be tempting for some of our most jaded educators. Administrators will need to be wary of backroom discussions and help everyone remind themselves their mission as educators.

But among the first two, I see open interpretation... one district could easily look at the content one way while another district could look at it the other way. Much like Marzano, whose work with a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Marzano lists both an increased focus on basic essentials and a paring away of too many "essentials" as benefits of the system.

As mentioned repeatedly, I am a proponent of the second option, that the best value of the Iowa Core is that is allows us to look at what we can seriously get rid of in terms of content. For my philosophy discussions, here is my synopsis of why and how we can narrow the curriculum... use it to help your school any way you'd like.

This is what the 21st century curriculum will be.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Michael Wesch, the changing face of education, and the digital curriculum

An educational thinker that every educator should follow is Michael Wesch, who recently was named "Professor of the Year" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Wesch is a professor of anthropology at Kansas State University.

Below is a presentation he gave at the University of Manitoba last June:

The presentation is long, but there are a couple things pertinent to our discussion. Wesch does an excellent job analyzing how the classroom is changing (starting about a minute into the video). Interviewing his students, he found that over half hate school, but no one hates learning. He challenges the following traditional unspoken assumptions from the traditional classroom:
  • To learn is to acquire knowledge
  • Information is scarce and hard to find
  • Trust authority for good information
  • Authorized information is beyond discussion
  • Obey the authority
  • Follow along
At about 27 minutes into the presentation, Wesch switches and talks about his own classroom, where he is fully immersed, implementing the digital curriculum. He uses a netvibes mashup site to bring in student blogging, commenting, wiki contributions, and social networking (diigo and twitter among others), as well as RSS from articles throughout the internet, for students to use 21st century learning.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Eliminating grades in higher education

While many might correctly say that my desire to eliminate grades in K-12 education is a radical thought, it seems there is more and more discussion about just such a plan in higher education institutions.

The journal Inside Higher Ed has an article on this very issue. They report the following from the Association of American Colleges and Universities annual meeting:

When organizers of the workshop had audience members describe their experiences with grading, the closest they came to a fan was an associate provost who admitted that he saw grade inflation as completely out of control and said that for more students at his and similar institutions, the grade-point average range is around 3.4 to 3.8. It seemed that everyone else in the room had been motivated to attend by their sense that the system isn’t working.

Top issues for this are similar to what Iowa high schools might experience: grade inflation, grades "squelching intellectual curiosity", grade inconsistency from one class to another, and grades being an overall drain on the positive atmosphere of the class.

One interesting tidbit from Kathleen O'Brien, one of the provosts attending:

One thing holding back colleges from moving was the sense of many people that doing away with grades meant going easy on students. In fact, she said, ending grades can mean much more work for both students and faculty members. Done right, she said, eliminating grades promotes rigor.

And in other news, D'arcy Norman reports on one specific "fringe" professor who unilaterally decided to go gradeless. Norman offers good perspective on the need for mass acceptance, which we are still a ways from:

Isolated professors willing to risk their tenure by experimenting with gradeless classes will be perceived by the public as being “lesser” classes, not up to “the standards” of measurement. When a society only understands assessment of learning in terms of letter grades and curves, anything else is perceived as meaningless liberal garbage. Even if it is actually a profoundly powerful experiment in meaningful teaching and learning.

What is needed is a larger shift away from grades and numerical metrics of assessment. And that kind of change just isn’t possible with a lone professor tilting at that particular windmill. But, maybe, the concept has now gained a bit of public awareness, and subsequent experiments may meet slightly less resistance.

This will be the big challenge for schools, as there is large amounts of inertia from public expectations that the traditional grading system is the only thing possible. The questions to continue to ask: Who do grades serve? Do they help students learn (which is our objective)? Or do they serve to rank and sort, helping other institutions?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Professional Development Opportunity: Exploring Wikis

Keeping in mind the principles of sound professional development first (starting with a quality long-range plan)...

It is tempting to have everyone sit in a classroom and have one individual demonstrate wikis via the LCD. A better option providing hands-on experience is to pose the following scenarios before professional development time:

Scenario #1: My middle school team needs to plan our cross-curricular "Environment" unit. We need to make sure we coordinate our lesson plans to fit in the field trip as well as the project fair day. We also need a way to discuss how our lessons have a cross-curricular impact that other teachers can pick up.

Scenario #2: In my science classroom, my students need to create a study guide to prepare them for the test on potential energy vs. kinetic energy and simple machines.

Scenario #3: In my 5th grade classroom, we would like to enhance parental communication, parental feedback, and parental involvement. In addition, we'd like to have parents share their talents/skills/experiences with our students.

Scenario #4: We need to plan a community-building potluck for the inservice on February 13. We need to A) brainstorm what to bring, and B) determine who will bring each item. But we don't have time for a meeting, and "reply-all" email is too messy.

Use these scenarios to highlight some of the dilemmas that we face in terms of coordination and collaboration. When you address the staff, you can make mention of how we often think of wikis as Wikipedia... that is, an editable encyclopedia. But really, wikis are so much more.

Next, set the staff loose. Have staff who have never experienced wikis before start at the Wiki-Walk Through. This site does an excellent job of explaining the what, the how, and the why of implementation, giving examples in a number of subject areas.

Experienced staff can look at the Wikipatterns website instead. This website highlights numerous strategies to encourage more wiki collaboration, which is perhaps the top frustration for teachers who have used wikis in the classroom.

Regardless of the group, have them add the new thoughts they learned and ideas for implementation on a separate wiki. Encourage teachers to add to other people's thoughts, or pose questions for each other. This will give the inexperienced the chance to practice editing, linking, and saving, and all teachers will be able to see how ideas can be interwoven.

Bringing the group back together, you can talk about how wikis can be used to address so many more things than just building an "encyclopedia". Today, we used the above scenarios and had some volunteers play the part of the teachers, students, and parents that were collaborating. Their example is here.

With each time you look at 21st century tools, it is important to have an agreed-upon list of principles of quality teaching to refer to. For example, Will Richardson's list of shifts in education would work well. Wrapping up the session, you can run through the list, showing how wikis serve as a 21st century teaching and learning tool.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Shifting Emphasis of the Workforce

Not that the workforce is the primary target of our education (we easily lose focus that we are helping develop well-rounded people, not just workers)...

But, George Siemens has a post on a recent report showing the shift from the service-industry to the creative-industry that mimics what we are seeing in Iowa. Analysis and synthesis skills, as well as social intelligence skills, are key to properly training this workforce... not a deep focus on core knowledge.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

100th Day Celebration and Other New Holidays

Today is the 100th day celebration for my kids (who attend the Johnston school district) and my wife (who teaches kindergarten in the Johnston district). And, this won't be the most profound or earth-shattering post, although it does allow me to use my "100" stock photo again.

Still, it has me thinking. There was no 100th day celebration when I was growing up. Either we failed to see the significance of the 100th day, or we were under strict guidance not to celebrate... I'm not sure which. But let me reiterate from an outside observation: This is a significant day for elementary students.

My son had to build a creation with 100 items in it (he went with the lego pyramid). My wife was busy counting out 100 beads and 100 pieces of macaroni, and getting her 100-piece puzzles for school. I found out that there are actual children's books devoted to this day... and we have 2 of them! The Biscuit series of books apparently has a 100th day book for Biscuit.

So here are the deep questions: why is this day significant? Why 100 and not 106? Just roundness of numbers I suppose. And, are we celebrating that we have 100 days down, or that we are just on day 100? And what are the various messages our young students can extrapolate from this celebration.

In all seriousness, I've discovered that I missed out on a lot of celebrations as a kid (and I'm not that old). We didn't celebrate Dr. Seuss' birthday. Or Earth Day. Or Mole Day. Or Pi Day. So, why the more celebration? Does our need to celebrate reflect on how we have changed as a society, or maybe how drab and depressing our day-to-day lives have become?

Okay, now I mean it... in all seriousness, as a principal I liked the celebrations in school, as long as it A) helped the school climate and B) remained an instructional endeavor. Which is, perhaps, the problem "Back to Basics" people have with celebrations of any kind; they feel it takes up time that can be used on drilling.

The things to take from this is celebrations of this type help a building be organic, to ebb and flow as life does, instead of being a sterile regimented schedule. Which, is exactly the benefit of flexible scheduling and students networking with other students through social media.

I suggested to my son that he could dress up as some one who is 100, but he told me he doesn't fit into my clothes.


A tool I've played with about a week now is Shahi, a mashup tool that combines the feed from Flickr photos and Wiktionary definitions, in essence creating a visual dictionary.

For a visual learner like me (and a plurality of the learners in your classroom), this is an excellent tool for vocabulary acquisition. It allows students to not only work individually, but to have visual content to couple with the definitions. And with visual content, you will have improved recall.

As a user, you have the option of using Google or Yahoo images instead of Flickr.

One drawback, you don't have the option of filtering your images (at least that I could see). You are at the mercy of what Flickr users have tagged words. For example, the first vocab word from Animal Farm that we would discuss as a class was the term "scullery", a word that isn't used much anymore. There are great visual images of what a scullery is... a room used for butchering and washing up (nobody would miss the word on the quiz after seeing them). Unfortunately, there are many questionable images of maids that come up with the search. As with any other tool, you would need to teach digital citizenship with it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rethinking Professional Development

I'm not a big fan of formalized educational planning, especially what appears to be "planning for planning sake". It becomes ritualized hoop-jumping (see: CSIP, teacher portfolios, SIAC, among others)

Not that any of those are bad, but many schools are doing those to check them off their list. And given the length of the list, maybe understandably so.

Perhaps it is my bias as someone in professional development, but I see a big difference with the state's Iowa Professional Development Model. That planning is a central component to professional development, and indeed, a good thing.

At the heart of the plan is the central belief that professional development is ongoing, systemic, and intentional (Guskey). You wouldn't move forward with professional development until using data to see what your needs are, and then setting specific measurable goals to address those needs. From there you put together the learning process in an ongoing method of introduction, theory, training, feedback, and coaching until change is implemented, all the while gathering data to use for you next round of reflection and needs assessment.

The good news is that most district leaders I work with get this. The bad news is, it is harder to implement this in practice than in theory. There are limits with resources for coaching and feedback, and there are slots of inservice time to fill. Nowhere is this more obvious than in technology professional development, where sit-and-get is still the norm.

The biggest problem with technology integration PD is that there isn't a "bigger picture" framework in place. The premise for PD about Google Docs is that "Google Docs is a 21st century tool that can help out in the classroom". But that premise is worthless if there isn't a bigger picture about how we teach in the 21st century and why we need to use collaboration. And most importantly, what is the end goal for this professional development? When teachers see the big picture and districts supply ongoing support and accountability to measure effectiveness, they implement it.

So, while I will, from time to time, offer ideas for professional development (both to curriculum directors and on this blog), all of those ideas are housed as steps in the bigger picture. Some "bigger pictures" to consider:
  • Identifying what "teaching and learning in the 21st century" is, how it is implemented, and how it is measured.
  • Understanding the pedagogy of sound assessment, including different methods for implementation
  • Developing a teacher's Personal Learning Network to use as a primary device for teacher improvement (as opposed to the traditional "top-down" approach)
All of these provide a good framework for professional development. If a staff sees the needs and the desired outcomes for these, they will see the applicability and the need of the 21st century tools provided.

Monday, February 2, 2009

100 Posts and Counting...

I see from my odometer that this is my 100th post in this blog, which in the grand scheme of things, is just a drop in the bucket (many edubloggers have several thousand posts).

Rather than look back on the posts, I thought I'd share with you the things I'm working on currently, and how they'll benefit Iowa schools:
  1. I help facilitate the statewide online council, representing each AEA and the DE. The council is working on ways to provide more and better online training for teachers. Right now, we are working on a central clearinghouse registration system, so that we share resources across the state. Our hope is that if I'm a teacher in Keokuk, I could take an online course from a teacher in Sioux City, who might be the expert on that topic. Geography won't matter anymore.

  2. To further help with that, the online council is developing online teaching and course standards to ensure quality. We have a working draft completed with standards based on the Iowa Teaching Standards, NACOL standards, SREB standards, among others.

  3. Those standards are leading towards better training for would-be online instructors. We are developing courses off those standards to help all educators--instructors, facilitators, administrators--become more confident in their knowledge of online education. Since we are going statewide together, you will see quality courses.

  4. We're also expanding the definition of what online training means, beyond the Moodle course. In addition to the mandatory trainings Heartland offers, we are adding training for Web IEPs and Positive Behavior Supports.

  5. The council is also looking at developing statewide online communities to help teachers connect with other teachers, and to build their own personal learning networks. Our goal for these communities is to have them available in the fall of 2009.

  6. Just as important, I am working with the Iowa Association of Alternative Education, which is starting to look at the ways online education can benefit the student at-risk. Just as we hope to provide training for online professional development instructors, we also hope to provide training for online K-12 teachers and facilitators. For those interested, I will be presenting at the 2009 Spring Conference on March 26 & 27.

  7. I'm also working locally with a couple districts on their 1:1 initiatives and implementation of the digital curriculum, including providing training and support for instructors as they digitalize their curriculum. Other districts interested, feel free to contact me.

  8. I also serve as a member of the Iowa Core network, specifically their new technology/21st century skill team. Our goal is to help crystallize what the nebulous "21st century skills" look like in the classroom and help schools discover the tools to get there. We've just started work in this area... we have a long ways to go.

  9. On a local level, I provide training for AEA staff, area Superintendents, and the area Curriculum Network, as all three groups are looking at social media and web 2.0 tools.

  10. And as you know, I will continue to blog. My goal for the blog is to both highlight and facilitate change in Iowa's schools and to provide a discussion of the resources to do so. I'm on the look-out to continuously improve the blog to do that.

And with that, I'll start on my next 100...