Thursday, July 26, 2012

Standardization Will Destroy Our Education System, If It Hasn't Already

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

This summer I have made a commitment to reading more and have chosen books that I think will help me become a better leader.  A few weeks ago I finished Drive by Daniel Pink and am now halfway through with Linchpin bySeth Godin.  I highly recommend both of these book at any educators who is interested about the science behind motivation or overcoming resistance to become and indispensable component of an educational organization. 

Through my reading of both books it has become painfully clear that many of our current politicians and so-called educational reformers have it completely wrong when it comes to standardization.  Now I have always thought this was the case, but these two books have not only reaffirmed my views, but also given me a great deal of concern as we inch closer to an educational system that focuses on test scores as the number one determinant of achievement. 

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Dan Pink reveals that the keys unlocking and sustaining intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  As a leader this is the type of teaching and learning culture that I want to foster and cultivate, one where creativity flourishes, students find relevancy and meaning in their learning, and teachers are given the support to be innovative.  A teaching and learning culture powered by intrinsic motivation will achieve this.

Unfortunately we are being forced in the opposite directions.  The current education movement is laden with "if-then" rewards and a carrots & sticks approach to motivation. If students score well on standardized tests they move on to the next grade level or graduate while their teachers receive favorable marks on evaluations.  These are forms of extrinsic motivation and will work in short term, but performance will not be sustainable as those motivated intrinsically.  The same can be said for merit pay.  Pink has provided a compelling case as to why this will never work and this is supported by the research. 

Students are not motivated by standardized tests, as they find no true meaning and value in them.  Teachers are motivated for all the wrong reasons, of which includes job security or a financial incentive.  A focus on standardization narrows the curriculum and creates a teaching culture where creativity, exploration, critical thinking are scarce or non-existent.  It creates a culture that students do not want to be a part of and one that can only be sustained with the use of "if-then" rewards or carrots and sticks.  Is this the direction we want to go in?  Do we want schools to squash creativity and reinforce a model that worked will in the 20th Century that will not prepare our students for their future?

Seth Godin describes linchpins as indispensable components of an organization that are artists in there own right.  These individuals don’t follow a manual, but instead are guided by an urge to do what is right.  In my opinion we want to create schools that allow teachers to become linchpins because in the end students benefit from their creativity, passion, and innovative mindset. However, standardization follows in the footsteps of a century-old education model focused on industrialization, which influences teachers and administrators in a way where the artist in each of them never evolves.  This entrenched system produces students that lack creativity, are fearful of failure, work extremely hard to follow directions (homework, study for tests, not question authority), and are leaving schools with undesirable skills in a post-industrial society. Schools focus more on filling the minds of students with useless facts and knowledge as opposed to learning essential skills that can't be measured with a #2 pencil.

Godin continues to provide example after example of how education has it all wrong.  Take the resume for example.  Virtually every school has students craft one to go along with their college application materials.  Students don't need resumes, they need to create artifacts of learning that provides detail as to what they can really do or know.  Godin provides a compelling alternative to a traditional resume and hiring process.  I have tweaked the business example he provided into an educational one. Instead of standardization, have students make a presentation of their resume and skills learned while in school.  Have them defend, answer questions, and lead a discussion with a variety of stakeholders.  Does this seem more meaningful and relevant? When analyzing the science of motivation presented to Drive I would certainly say so. 

My only hope, and this is wishful thinking, is that research and common sense will ultimately prevail to save our education system from future demise if those with influence and power keep steering us in a failed direction.  Let us learn from the past and create an educational system that instills a sense of intrinsic motivation and creates learners that are indispensable.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

An Action Plan for AP Success

Advanced Placement (AP) exams, in a variety of subjects, are offered at virtually every high school.  I had been particularly concerned about my school’s overall performance the past couple of years.  Our scores were well below the state level and our District Factor Group (DFG), which is a comparison of similar schools based on socioeconomics.  Last year only 46% of those students taking AP exams scored a 3 or higher.  This number was so troubling that we knew it was time to take action.

In collaboration with Central Office, some changes were made in late June of 2011.  Historically, up until this point the District paid the full cost of exams taken for every student, regardless of the score they received.  The first major change was that only students scoring a 3 or higher would be fully reimbursed for the cost of each AP exam he or she took.  Yes, this is an example of an “if-then” reward.  Daniel Pink would probably not endorse this type of motivation, but it was obvious that the current structure was not working, as many students didn’t seem to be taking the exam(s) seriously.  The second major change, with the assistance from Central Office, was to encourage AP teachers to attend a week of targeted training sponsored by the College Board and then to provide them with reimbursement.  The last change was the development of an action plan by my HS Administrative team and me focusing on bringing up our overall scores.   We decided to shoot for the stars and established the following goal: By June 2012 seventy-five percent (75%) of the students taking an Advanced Placement (AP) exam will score a three (3) or better.

AP scores were recently released and I was totally shocked when the scores were broken down.  We experienced significant gains over the previous year where 72% of our students taking the exams scored a 3 or higher.  This represented a 26% increase over the previous year.  Those who follow me on Twitter were able to experience my excitement and pride firsthand as I shared this amazing news.  I was so proud of my students and AP teachers, as well as the collective work of both the High School and District Administrative teams.  We identified an area where we needed to improve, didn’t make excuses, and developed a multifaceted strategy to address the issue at hand.

Many educators asked me specifically about the strategic plan I developed with my administrative team at the high school.  Based upon the goal stated previously, the following activities were put in place and monitored throughout the year:

  • In September, all involved staff will meet to discuss how to increase AP scores and review data from last year.  This meeting was held and the dismal scores from the previous year were discussed.  Collaboratively as group activities were established to address our low scores.
  • Administer practice tests and problems through Study Island and other web-based resources. Other resources suggested to teachers included the following:
  • Organize a minimum 3 study sessions throughout the year leading up to the test.
  • Consult with local high-performing districts to acquire strategies and tips.
  • Attend relevant training during the year.
  • Identify constraints that could hinder the success of the plan (time, availability to attend trainings, student participation, Study Island not available for all tested subjects).
Action plans do not have to be fancy in order to be successful.  The changes and action plan highlighted above were able to assist us in significantly improving student achievement on the AP exams.  However, none of this would have been possible had it not been for the hard work on behalf of my students and teachers as well as the collaboration and support from Central Office.   

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Streamlining BYOD With ClassLink

After a semester long pilot program with the senior class during the spring of 2011, we rolled out our Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program to the entire student body in September.  Throughout the entire 2011-2012 school year, we worked to refine our approach, implementation, and learning outcomes for the program.  The model that we developed is customized, based on our student body and overall objectives of the program. 

Students are permitted to use their devices for learning during non-instructional time (i.e. lunch) or in class at the discretion of the teacher.  Mobile learning devices (i.e. cell phones) have been successfully integrated as student response systems using free web 2.0 tools such as Poll Everywhere and Celly.  Smartphones and Internet accessible devices have been used by students to conduct web-based research, take notes using Evernote, manage work through Google Docs or Dropbox, organize their assignments on their calendars, and develop projects with a variety of other tools.  Even though our school has more than enough available technology in four computer labs and two mobile carts, some students are more comfortable working on their own devices.

One thing we quickly realized is that our students owned and brought a diversity of devices to school including smartphones, iTouches, iPads, laptops, and other tablet devices (Kindles, Nooks, Playbooks, etc.).  The challenge then became how to deliver a uniform experience across all devices in order to assist with the teaching and learning process.  The solution came in the form of an award winning, web-based application called ClassLink Launchpad

With ClassLink students and teachers can access a customized dashboard that is pre-loaded with a variety of tools that are used on a regular basis.  I was able to establish the specific tools added to each of the respective dashboard (teacher, student).  The best part is that for both groups the dashboard appears the same no matter the device that is used to login and access it. Below is what the dashboard looks like for my teachers.

Setup was a breeze, which was managed by both representatives from ClassLink and my IT department.  Student and staff information was uploaded from our information management system (PowerSchool) in a seamless fashion. Existing usernames and passwords for both teachers and students could be used to access the ClassLink Launchpad application.  An added bonus for my teachers was that Classlink allowed them access for the first time to their school drive, which we call the p drive.  With this feature on their dashboard they could not only access files that have been saved for years at home, but they could also work from these same files now at home and conveniently save.

We began using ClassLink late in the spring, but are extremely excited about the promise that this solution holds to enhance the teaching and learning culture of our school through BYOD.  There are so many more features that my teachers and I will explore in the coming months.  More training and webinars will be provided for my staff so they are comfortable using ClassLink with learning in in mind.  We will also focus on making students aware of ClassLink and the dashboard that has been specifically created for them.

How do you manage your BYOD program if you have one at your school?  If you don't, what are the factors holding you back?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Change Should Be a Reality, Not a Possibility

Change in education seems to be as illusive as the Loch Ness Monster.  Everyone seems to be talking about it, but little action leading to meaningful results seems to be the mainstay in many schools.   Through my work over the years as a teacher, educational administrator,  and learner through I have identified common roadblocks to the change process.   If identified and addressed appropriately these roadblocks can be overcome.   

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1 - It is too hard:  News flash, CHANGE IS NOT EASY!  Please keep this in mind as I continue this post. There is more talk about change in the field of education than actual change.  If it were easy we would see innovative programs, authentic learning experiences, successful integration of technology, and students yearning to arrive at school each day.  The fact of the matter is that nothing in life comes easy, let alone transformation change in education.  Educators must be willing to take risks, learn from mistakes, and put in the time.  Realize going in that it is going to be a difficult process, but rewarding in the end.

2 - I do not have the time for this: Ah, the old time excuse.  This is probably the most common excuse given when educators and the thought or sight of change come together.  We are in a profession to make a difference in the life of a child, leave a lasting impact, motivate students to achieve, instill a sense of life-long learning, and prepare them for success once they leave our schools.  If someone says they don't have time to work towards change that helps to achieve these goals then they should question why they are in the field of education.  Dedicated educators make the time because it is their job!  You ask any child who had a teacher that turned their life around and they will tell you that the time spent was priceless!

3- Lack of collaboration:  The field of education has been moving from a profession that hoarded ideas, lessons, and successful strategies to one that is openly willing to share this bounty with as many passionate educators as possible.  Innovation and change is a collective process and schools that get this concept have personnel who routinely collaborate amongst each other and with those outside of their schools.  "Together we are better," is the motto that change agents abide by.

4- Directive approach:  Ok, I have been guilty of this when trying to get my staff to utilize Skype.  Thankfully I learned from this mistake and have found that change occurs through shared-decision making, consensus, collaboration (see #3), and modeling.  As a leader, I had better be able to effectively model what I want my teachers to implement if I have any hopes of seeing the idea succeed and be sustainable.  In education you can't just tell someone to do something because you are mesmerized by a piece of technology, read the latest book on innovative practices, or heard a great speaker discuss PLC's.  You need to get each and every stakeholder involved in the process (see #3), properly model the strategy, and put the time forth to ensure successful implementation (see # 1 and 2).

5- Hierarchy in schools: The hierarchical structure in many schools is most often a deterrent to innovation and change.  This results in #4 being prevalent and no chance of #3 because ideas have to go through so many layers and red tape to even be considered.  Schools that have moved away from this structure support learning cultures that are innovative.  Educators need to be placed in environments where flexibility and freedom to take risks and try out new ideas and initiatives without fear of repercussion are actively fostered.

6- Lack of support:  As leaders how can we expect teachers to be innovative and move towards change if we don't support them 100% of the time? Support can come in many forms, such as release time, supplies/equipment, professional development opportunities, feedback, and just god old fashioned listening.

7- Fear of change:  This is a given, so it had better be expected.  If numbers 1-5 are addressed this will help to alleviate this feeling.  Passion for helping kids succeed on the part of administrators and teachers will always work to one's advantage when trying to subdue the fear a group might experience when trying to initiate new ideas.  Passion is what drives us!  Use it to your advantage.

8- The naysayers,  antagonists, and "self-proclaimed" experts:  Well you should have known this was coming.  Some people will never get on board with the change process for a variety of reasons (none of which we agree with).  Then there are those individuals that do not even work in schools that think they have all the answers to everything and will immediately shoot down ideas that have the potential to enhance learning just because they personally don't like them.  Those that embrace change and experience success should be celebrated, honored, and commended.  This is the best way to motivate others and inspire them to willingly become part of the process.  Ideas that work in one school might not work in another and that's OK.

9- Ineffective professional development:  How many times have we sat through training sessions that were boring, meaningless, and didn't provide any practical implementation ideas?  Professional development has to be relevant to educators, contain numerous choices, and be hands-on.  More often than not this can be done with teacher leaders present in all buildings.  If money is going to be spent make sure it is on a vetted, well-respected presenter where you will get your monies worth.

10 - Frivolous purchases:  Money does not equate into innovation and change.  Just because you purchase the latest technology doesn't mean everyone will use it correctly or productively.  Professional development (see #9) is key.

Sustainable change leading to a cultural transformation does not have to be an illusive or long, drawn out process.  Begin by identifying your own potential roadblocks that may or may not be mentioned above and focus on developing solutions instead of excuses through consensus with a variety of stakeholders.  Be a transformational leader and take people where they need to be!