Sunday, February 22, 2015

Looking at Teacher Accountability Through a New Lens

In case you haven’t noticed the education profession has been under attack as of late. The brunt of these attacks has been aimed at the very professionals who are tasked with positively impacting the lives of children each and every day – our teachers.  In my mind education is the noblest of professions.  Without education, at some level virtually all other professions would be non-existent. This places our teachers at the forefront of molding young minds into the next generation of doers, thinkers, creators, leaders, and entrepreneurs.  If there is ever a profession that should be revered as much as that of a doctor who saves lives it is that of a teacher.  

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Unfortunately there is a growing rhetoric and sentiment that the education system in America is broken and our teachers are to blame for this.  New accountability systems have been championed and adopted across the country that reduce teacher effectiveness to a mere number.  The algorithm adopted by many states, which quite frankly makes little sense, crunches data sets in an attempt to measure the quality of a teacher against his or her peers. Each state has different factors that go into their value-added measurement (VAM) of a teacher, but the dominant component is standardized test scores.  Teachers are the true catalysts of change that can create schools that work for kids. Even though countless studies have debunked this means to truly assess teacher effectiveness states have moved full steam ahead ignoring the research.

With such a focus on standardization in schools, many teachers feel compelled to prepare students for a litany of exams, as the data extrapolated from them will be used for high-stakes evaluation. Administrators are also intimately tied to these results as well, so as a knee-jerk reaction an environment that resembles a test-taking factory is created.  The sole focus becomes one that emphasizes performing well on a test as opposed to learning.  What results is the proliferation of an industrialized model of education that reformers claim they want to get away from, but the policies they support only help to sustain it. This gloomy depiction of what is happening to schools across the country by people that have no business enacting education policy is forcing teachers to leave the profession at alarming rates. 

The structure and function of the majority of schools in this country is the exact opposite of the world that our learners are growing up in.  There is an automatic disconnect when students, regardless of their grade level, walk into schools due to the lack of engagement, relevancy, meaning, and authentic learning opportunities.  Our education system has become so efficient in sustaining a century-old model because it is easy and safe.  The resulting conformity has resulted in a learning epidemic among our students as they see so little value in the cookie-cutter learning exercises they are forced to go through each day. The bottom line is that they are bored. It is time that we create schools that work for our students as opposed to ones that have traditionally worked well for the adults.

Creating schools that work for students requires a bold vision for change that not only tackles the status quo inherent in the industrialized model of education but also current education reform efforts. Even though Common Core is not a curriculum, many schools and districts have become so engrossed with alignment and preparing for the new aligned tests that real learning has fallen by the wayside.   We need to realize that this, along with other traditional elements associated with education, no longer prevail.  How we go about doing this will vary from school to school, but the process begins with the simple notion of putting students first to allow them to follow their passions, create, tinker, invent, play, and collaborate.  Schools that work for students focus less on control and more on trust. 

There is a common fallacy that school administrators are the leaders of change. This makes a great sound bite, but the reality is that many individuals in a leadership position are not actually working directly with students. Teachers are the true catalysts of change that can create schools that work for kids. They are the ones, after all, who are tasked with implementing the myriad of directives and mandates that come their way. Leadership is about action, not position. Schools need more teacher leaders who are empowered through autonomy to take calculated risks in order to develop innovative approaches that enable deeper learning and higher order thinking without sacrificing accountability. If the goal, in fact, is to increase these elements in our education system then we have to allow students to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.  

For change to be successful it must be sustained.   Teacher leaders must not only be willing to see the process through, but they must also create conditions that promote a change mentality. It really is about moving from a fixed to a growth mindset, something that many educators and schools are either unwilling or afraid to do. The essential elements that work as catalysts for the change process include the following:

  • Empowerment
  • Autonomy
  • Ownership
  • Removing the fear of failure
  • Risk-taking
  • Support
  • Modeling
  • Flexibility
  • Collaboration
  • Communication

What I have learned is that if someone understands why change is needed and the elements above become an embedded component of school culture he/she or the system ultimately experience the value for themselves. The change process then gets a boost from an intrinsic motivational force that not only jump-starts the initiative but allows for the embracement of change as opposed to looking for buy-in.  We should never have to "sell" people on better ways to do our noble work nor rely on mandates and directives. These traditional pathways used to drive change typically result in resentment, undermining, and failure.

Even in the face of adversity in the form of education reform mandates, Common Core alignment, impending PARCC exams, new educator evaluation systems, loss of funding, and an aging infrastructure, at my school, we have not only persevered but proven that positive change can happen with the right mindset.  Teachers were put in a position to overcome these challenges and experience success.  Others can as well. Throughout the past couple of years, I have seen improvements in the "traditional" indicators of success by mainly focusing on creating a school that works better for our students as opposed to one that has always worked well for us. Technology was a tool that my teachers harnessed and leveraged to do what they did better while creating a culture of learning that actually meant something to our students. My recent TEDx talk provides insight into how this was accomplished.  

My message is to everyone who has and continues to bash teachers by implementing accountability structures that will do nothing to help our students succeed in life and follow their dreams.  There need to be more creative ways to hold teachers accountable so that a school-wide focus on relevant learning becomes the norm. Teachers should no longer be forced to prepare students for a world that no longer exists and be held accountable through one-dimensional means.  Teacher success should be judged on the products students create with real-world tools to solve real-world problems.  If teachers are allowed to innovate and allow students to create artifacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery, the end goal should be the acquisition of higher-order thinking skills.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tips for BYOD Equity

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives are being adopted by districts and schools around the globe.  With the growing access that students now have to technology at home, educators are seizing this opportunity to increase access in the classroom.  For cash strapped districts BYOD seems like the logical solution to leverage the mobile devices students have to enhance learning, increase productivity, conduct better research, address critical digital literacies, and teach digital responsibility.  In theory this all sounds fantastic and there are many benefits that I have witnessed firsthand after successfully implementing a BYOD initiative over five years ago at my high school. However, in practice it is important to ensure that any initiative involving student-owned devices is well thought out with a resulting plan for action focused on student learning. For more information on how to implement a successful BYOD initiative make sure all of these drivers are firmly in place.

One issue that comes up frequently with BYOD initiatives is equity. The equity issue either haunts those who have or are in the process of going BYOD.  There are other times, however, that this issue stops the initiative from moving forward.  In any case the ones who suffer are our students.  In today’s digital age, who are we to tell a student that he or she cannot bring their tools to class to support learning? Don’t get me wrong; equity is a real issue that needs to be addressed when rolling out or sustaining any BYOD initiative.  It is our job as leaders and educators to provide the best possible learning environment for out students.  With this being said the equity issue should not be seen as an obstacle or challenge that cannot be overcome. Instead of using this as an excuse, or allowing the naysayers to use this as ammunition to derail the initiative, it is our job to find applicable solutions in order to create schools that work for today’s learners.  After all, it is not about our (adult) learning, but our students.

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In my community where we made the decision to roll out BYOD many years ago, we did so knowing full well that all of our students did not own a device. Through our planning we also discovered that some students had parents/guardians who would not allow them to bring them to school for fear of theft or breakage. Then there was a small group of students who flat out told us that they had no interest in using their technology in school to support learning. All of these challenges could have been excuses not to move forward, but we decided to find some solutions to benefit the majority while not excluding any student.

Any successful BYOD initiative should focus squarely on how students can use mobile devices to support their learning.  If a lesson called for every student to use a device to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to a specific learning outcome it was our job to ensure this.  Here are some practical tips that we utilized to ensure BYOD equity:
  1. Know Your Students – Once a decision has been made to implement BYOD in your school/district and proper professional development has been provided find out who are the haves and have nots.  One suggestion is to use Google Forms to curate this information.  Going forward this will allow you to focus on those students who need access.
  2. Advance Planning – Notify students the day before that they will need to bring their device to class the following day if the learning activity calls for it. 
  3. Supplement School Technology – If a learning activity calls for every student to have a device then it is imperative that supports are put in place. Students will either forget to bring their device, not have one, or chose not to bring it into school. A successful BYOD initiative has ample technology on hand to make sure all students have access to tools. 
  4. Utilize Cooperative Learning – This archaic pedagogical technique is a necessity in a BYOD environment. There will be some cases where supplemental school technology is not available. Developing lessons where collaborative groups are established and all students have equitable access to a mobile device to accomplish the learning outcome is a sound practice.
  5. Engage Parents - Prior to going BYOD parent meetings should be planned and held to discuss the initiative as well as outcomes and expectations. These conversations should also clearly outline how the issue of equity will be handled.  
Device envy is another issue that is commonly referenced by BYOD critics as a reason for not implementing BYOD.  As children we all experienced some sort of envious situation in school.  For me personally it is when I wanted Air Jordan sneakers and my parents bought me Converse. Sure, it didn’t make me feel good, but I learned to deal with it.  Part of preparing our students for life is helping them to deal with envy in positive ways.  As educators the last thing we want to do is make students feel bad about the type of device he/she has, but we also don’t want to use this excuse to exclude the potential of mobile learning.  The best way to avoid any envious situation is to keep the focus on learning. Not only did we do this, but we also began signing out school owned technology to students who did not have access at all.  When it was all said and done we never received one complaint from our parents on the equity or envy issues.

So what are your thoughts on the equity issue? Would you add any tips that I might have missed?  For more BYOD resources visit this Pinterest board.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Administrating Your School With Success Using A Multi-Functional Communication System

The following is a sponsored post by DialMyCalls.

If long lists of numbers and phone chains are still part of your school’s communication system, it is time for an upgrade. There are hundreds of people you may need to contact at any given time, and dozens of different groups. Luckily our modern technologies have included amazing communication systems that can make your important job of over seeing a school so much simpler.

General Messages

Are you still relying on notes sent home and paper calendars to let students and parents know what is happening in the upcoming year? If you set up a website for your school, all of that information can be kept in one place where a distracted student can’t lose it. 

A comprehensive calendar can be set up to show school events and holidays for quick reference. You can even grant your teacher's access to post messages about necessary supplies and upcoming tests. A website lets school officials and families communicate effectively, and at their convenience.

Urgent Matters

Of course unplanned events happen with frequency at a school, and you need a quick method of contacting the affected individuals immediately. This is where a school notification system like DialMyCalls will become your communication central. All of the phone numbers your school needs to stay connected are stored in a central online database. Here they can be grouped into whatever categories you need, like teachers and staff and class by class. This makes it a breeze to pick out the right people you need to reach when time is critical.

DialMyCalls offers a variety of ways to communicate, depending on the situation: 

  • Voice message: When you want to remind a class of parents about an upcoming field trip, or your teachers of tomorrow's meeting, you can record a message and then send it to their phones. The calls are made instantly through your account, and when answered, the right recipient will hear your message. Consider the time you save by only having to say your spiel once, instead of having to make repeated calls during your busy day.
  • SMS text message: More and more people are relying on texts to communicate and now your school can too. Text messages get immediate attention when you have emergent information to share. Is snow causing your school to close early today? Let the parents know right away with an urgent text. An automated text message broadcast is the fastest way possible to get an important message across to hundreds at the same time.
  • Email messages: You can all use a special email feature for when you just need to send gentle reminders. Maybe your PTA wants to let parents know about their fundraising schedule, or you need to make a change on the calendar. An email can be used to direct parents to your website to get any updates about the school.

With the right technology at your fingertips you can completely modernize the way your school communicates. There are dozens of issues that need your attention daily, make them your priority by making communication quick and easy.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Getting Digital Tools On Your Side: 4 Steps

This is the second post as part of an adapted article I co-authored, Real-World Ready: Leveraging Digital Tools

A few weeks back I shared ways that digital tools can improve teaching and learning.  It goes without saying that the most important aspect of digital leadership is enhancing student learning while increasing achievement. Technology needs to be integrated with purpose in ways that support learning as opposed to driving instruction.  A good rule to follow is pedagogy first, technology second when appropriate. Using technology just for the sake of it is an ineffective practice.  Effective digital leaders understand this and through the observation and evaluation of instruction ensure that digital tools align to learning outcomes and are having an impact on student learning.

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The main driver of successful, effective teaching originates from educators who are scaffolding learning in relevant and strong ways. A grounding in the Rigor/Relevance Framework -- an action-oriented continuum that describes putting knowledge to use -- gives teachers a method for charting learning. This framework is based on traditional elements of education yet encourages movement from acquisition of knowledge to application of knowledge. Although digital tools themselves are no substitute for a clear framework, they can underpin it. No matter what digital tool is considered, introduced, or integrated into the classroom, capable teacher presence and teacher-centered instruction always belongs in the foreground.

How can you, as a school leader, take your understanding of the strengths behind some digital tools and create pathways for rigorous and relevant use of digital tools? Use the following best practices when assessing digital tools and their use in your school:

Prioritize Instructional Excellence: Technology can be an effective tool but it remains just that -- a tool. Educators provide the backbone of the student’s learning experience. A teacher should always have concrete answers to these questions:
  • What capabilities do I want my students to develop? In what specific ways is my instructional design rigorous and relevant? 
  • What are my benchmarks for rigor? relevance? relationships? creativity? inquiry? 
Armed with responses to these questions, a teacher can then go on to consider a specific digital tool, asking:
  • How does this digital tool provide a way towards full development of the capability I want to develop in my students? 
  • Is my teaching, using this tool, still just as structured, rigorous, and relevant as it would be without this tool? 
Identify Student Needs Around Use of Digital Tools: Information should not be confused with knowledge in evaluating digital tools. Knowledge is the recall of information, discovery, observation, or naming. Teachers should be able to define what knowledge (not information) students will need to apply when using a digital tool.

Create a Game Plan for Managing Student Use of Online Tools:  It takes work and careful planning to implement the use of digital tools in defined ways. Before introducing a digital tool into a learning context, teachers should understand:
  • How he/she will be able to support students in using a tool that might be unfamiliar
  • How each student will be able to manage it independently 
  • How he/she will take advantage of students’ diversity and inclination towards building community online 
  • How students and instructor will connect across sometimes great distance
Maximize Opportunities for Diverse Forms of Feedback:  Rather than relying on feedback or evaluation models suited to older models of assignments, have teachers ask:
  • How will this online tool allow me to hone in on each student’s thought process and provide targeted, formative feedback that can be immediately and usefully applied? 
  • How can my feedback help pave the way for next steps in learning and in reaching established, articulated, or modeled goals?
Educational landscape and digital landscape have become inherently intertwined. Learners are teachers alike are enmeshed in digital life and need effective, specific ways to best use digital tools in rigorous and relevant ways. Educators must be able to develop and enact rigorous, relevant instructional methods and formats, while learning about and using effective digital tools to underpin their instruction. As long as educators are clear about the learning objectives, digital tools can be a powerful supporting tool.