Not Back to School

For the first time in more than 15 years, this autumn, I won’t be heading back to school; and my wife, after 18 years of teaching, has also opted to take her career in a new direction. Since 2002, I’ve been involved in educational settings in a wide variety of capacities — working, volunteering, attending, or some combination of the 3 (in addition to the other jobs I’ve held — oy vey, that’s a lot of jobs). And, over the course of each school year, I learned a great deal about: education programming, the impact of a school’s culture and the teachers that define it, the way students react to various types of incentives, the importance of community support, the role of parents/guardians and caregivers, the good, bad & ugly that comes from a strong, weak, or negligent administration, and of course, the ways in which opportunities, or lack of opportunities, affects a student’s long-term trajectory; (not to mention all of the latest trends, fads, slang, and how to up my emoji game). As I reflect on what I’ve experienced/learned, I can only wonder, what if?

What if?

What if we allowed high school students to tell us how they define success, and then let them work towards that goal, given a set of loosely constructed parameters within which they would need to stay? How would that change their outlook on school, on their future, on society? How much of a difference could that make in their long-term involvement within their local community?

What if all communities had the ability to financially support their local schools? What would happen if we could make-up for the lack of state funding, which prevents those students most in need from getting the extra help that is required, to achieve some semblance of equity? What types of investments would we see in the schools where 70% of kids are experiencing poverty? What sort of programming might we find that could provide those opportunities that are taken for granted in more affluent communities? How would that positively affect the inter-generational programming that is already doing great work?

What if the funding of education was looked at in the same way that we look at funding our military – as a matter of national security? What if we decided that taxes were a net positive, when being used to promote the common good through public educational services? What if we deemed it to be in the public’s interest to ensure every student’s potential is realized?

What if all administrations (not just some) understood the importance of supporting staff by… supporting staff, and providing meaningful and ongoing professional development? How would that change the current paradigm? How might that change the efficacy of educators, as they prepare for a new challenge?

There are a lot more What Ifs” we could consider (and I won’t even start on what’s happening in our education programs in America’s great universities), but until we have elected officials who are all-in, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to provide public schools with the necessary funds, it’s just an exercise in futility. Even those proposals that don’t have large price-tags attached are connected to funding by the series of human links that allow for the continued operation of schools. So until that day comes, we should focus on those practices that are most likely to contribute to a student’s success.

What Works

Looking back and assessing which practices had the greatest effect on the students, I recall three particular applications or ideas: 1) Personal Connections (being part of a community, which directly relates to class-sizes), 2) Meaningful Learning Practices (connecting what is learned to real-life and teaching the topic in a way that is engaging for the learner), and 3) Funding ($$$$$). The first and third items are true across all grade levels, to include post-secondary. The second practice is most relevant beginning around 8th or 9th grade (and also important in the younger grades), depending on the individual student. These 3 items, in no particular order, have done more to promote student growth (mental, psychological, and emotional), than any other combination of educational programming or curriculum. When students feel that they are part of a community, are given the opportunity to learn about subjects/fields that they find interesting, and the school/district has enough money to ensure kids have the necessary resources to experience what that learning can lead to (e.g. field trips, camps, or bringing outside professionals into the classroom), there is no limit to how far that student can go. And how far a student can go often aligns with how that student defines success.

When adults attempt to define success for the students, they rarely use specifics, and they rarely get it right. No one can tell me what success looks like in my life, aside from me. Why do we think we can tell students what success looks like for them? This goes against the very idea of having students do their best in order to achieve “their” goals. Let’s let them tell us where they want to go and then help them get there. For some it will be a 4 year college, for others a 2 year degree or year-long certificate program. Others will want to serve their country in the military or spend a year volunteering, before deciding what comes next in their life. Others will go directly into the world of work; and for these young people we need to have more pipeline programs that help them realize their dreams. Through a combination of on-the-job training (OJT) and one or two classes, 2 days a week, they can learn a trade while earning a living and feel successful as they see their efforts pay off. Additionally, the efficacy they are building can provide benefits that will extend to the other adventures they encounter throughout life. That skill, efficacy, isn’t something that will be tested for on a standardized test, but it will better prepare a person for what follows upon entering adulthood.

If we know anything about life, we know that it rarely goes according to plan. The best laid plans veer off course and we spend years recalculating and navigating for a new course. The future of work, and the rate at which technology is changing, virtually guarantees that the average worker will go back to school at least once (which means, changing plans), if not several times, to update skills or learn a brand new “career”. When one decides to switch careers, and goes back to school to learn a new set of skills, efficacy goes a long way in helping them persevere. So we owe it to the younger generations to make sure their efficacy levels are as high as possible before they reach adulthood. And considering the number of hours they spend in classrooms, school is the ideal place to work on this.

I’ve learned from a host of brilliant minds — entrepreneurs, educators, creatives — to include many teachers, students, staff, parents, community members, and people who have dedicated their lives to helping children. They all have/had different ideas of what success looks like, and they all understood the importance of believing in oneself, i.e. efficacy. When class and/or work settings were smaller, they had more time to build-up each student/employee and make them feel as if they were controlling their own learning. If we can provide more of this type of interaction in public schools, we can go a long way towards achieving successful outcomes as defined by the students.

By providing superficial goals and deeming students successful, upon completion of “mastering” said goals/skills, we’re setting kids up for disappointment. And furthermore, the failures that occur aren’t genuine, they’re pre-determined, based on a set of factors that has nothing to do with the child’s actual intelligence. Allowing them to take a more meaningful role in their future, failing and succeeding, provides the motivation needed to get the most they can out of their educational opportunities.

In 2010, I wrote a reflection on what it means to be “All In“, as it related to working in education. Eight years later, I feel no less passionate about the work of educating young people, I do however, feel that the system is set-up in a manner to prevent every student from getting the best possible education. That doesn’t mean that the overwhelming majority of the millions of people involved in education aren’t doing their best to provide opportunities, it means that State, Local, and Federal Governments aren’t providing the necessary funds to ensure every student gets the instruction, attention, and opportunity they deserve. Let’s work on providing more funding so as to facilitate the personal connections and meaningful learning practices that work so well when provided.

If you’re headed back to school this fall, best of luck!

 

 

 

Achievement Gap -vs- Achievement

The achievement gap has garnered a lot of attention since the implementation of No Child Left Behind (2002). It is the raison d’être for numerous individuals, and offices, within schools, districts, states, and the federal Department of Education (not to mention the nonprofits focused on it). We think, and talk, and think, and talk, and think some more, about how to eradicate this persistent “gap” in our children’s educational outcomes. But nobody (or, nobody I know) is asking, “what are the children on the ‘wrong side’ of the gap learning” (they focus on what the students are not learning)? Because, they are learning something. Is anybody else curious about that? Or do I stand alone (a place I’m fairly accustomed to). These kids, the ones who fail to achieve the rank of “proficient” are not dumb— nor are they lazy or “bad”; they are kids who are growing up in a world that many people know nothing about.

Measuring achievement is nothing new for schools. Standardized tests have been around in one form or another for more than half-a-century. The idea of understanding what kids know, how well they know it, and at what age they are learning it, is not a bad idea; it helps teachers figure out how better they can help those who are falling behind in particular areas. However, the newer ideas of sanctioning schools (under NCLB), students, and teachers, based on these tests, is not helpful. Preventing a school from receiving needed funds, or a high school senior from graduating, is not conducive to furthering educational outcomes. Furthermore, the idea that we need to have these high stakes tests (read: high stress for students, teachers, administrators, et al.) administered annually between 3rd grade and 12th grade (some variability by state), defeats the purpose of a well-rounded education—as we see more and more time spent on tested subjects (math & reading primarily) and test prep, meaning less time for everything else: social studies, phy-ed, art, music, recess, technology, languages, etc.

As we begin the new school year, it might be helpful to start thinking about the reason we send kids to school in the first place. While the world has changed a great deal in the past 100 years, the reason for providing a free education has remained relatively stable—we want to prepare succeeding generations to successfully carry on, and improve upon, what’s been done prior to their arrival, while ensuring that they understand the importance of their role as members of our citizenry. For the life of me, I can’t understand how scoring proficient on a given test can be used as a means of measuring a child’s ability to succeed in the world. To assume that they are not adequately learning because of a test score, is akin to assuming that Brett Favre was a terrible quarterback because he threw so many interceptions. Both assumptions are false.

There are all kinds of things that come into play in any child’s education. For starters, where they are born and spend the first few years of their life is extremely important. Children who experience violence, hunger, poverty, instability, abuse, for an extended period of time, are more likely to lack the all-important ability to trust others. Furthermore, the connections that are used to identify situations and react accordingly (synapses) are more likely to be “short-circuited” before they are able to fully develop. Because the human brain develops more in the first three to four years than it does for the remainder of one’s life, the child’s early environment will have an enormous impact on the remainder of his/her life.

“Because of the brain’s plasticity during the early period of rapid development, the younger the child the more vulnerable is their developing brain to the effects of the environment. Adverse environments can be particularly harmful and have long lasting effects, altering the developmental trajectory of a child’s learning” (Goswami, 2008).¹ 

Second, the surroundings of their early years (3-10 y.o.a.) play a significant role on whether or not they are able to develop the skills needed to perform well on these tests. Children who are in a near-constant state of fear, depression, anxiety, i.e. stressed, are less likely to have the ability to focus on those tasks that are not immediately relevant to their general well-being. Any kid that experiences poverty at a young age can appreciate the realities of being hungry, not having seasonally appropriate clothing, uncertainty about whether there will be electricity in the house, or if the house they were staying in last week is different from the house they are staying in this week. Add to that list the possibility of growing up in a neighborhood that experiences greater instances of violence and one has the makings of a very difficult childhood where survival is the primary goal and everything else is secondary.

These children (and not all of them score below proficient, but of those that do, these kids make up a disproportionate number) are extremely smart, highly motivated, and have the ability to adapt and overcome circumstances that we find in places like Chi-Raq or Bodymore, Murderland. The fact that the majority of these kids grow up to graduate high school is proof of their tenacity. And yes, you can question the curriculum, the teachers’ subjectivity, the “rigor” of a particular course or school, but you cannot question the child’s desire to be successful and figure out what they need to do in order to achieve that success (however they choose to define it).

When we rely on standardized tests to provide us with data, we must consider the context of the child’s entire situation. Some students who are attending the “best” schools in America have test anxiety and don’t score proficient. Their teachers can vouch for their intelligence, ability to think critically and creatively, but they can’t explain why the student performs so poorly on a test. Conversely, we find students who are experiencing homelessness and yet they find a way to achieve at the highest level. What’s going on in their brains (which includes what happened during the brain’s formative years) is playing a remarkable role in the current scenario. So how is it that we continue to make such extreme outcries about the achievement gap when we fail to address the problem at its core.

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There are places that are addressing the problem from the start. The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and other Promise Neighborhoods across the country, are working with communities to promote healthy living, stable housing, and intensive educational assistance before the child enters kindergarten. Additionally, many nonprofits have a niche and they work tirelessly to bring about change in their area. This is work that must be done in order to bring about a transformation that will provide greater access and opportunities for these children. These are great first steps in a long process, but we need to think deeply about what the future holds for our youth and what will provide them with the greatest opportunity to succeed. Will tests determine their worth or give them an edge when applying for a job, or would we be better served to focus their efforts on more meaningful classroom objectives?

Students achieve regardless of what a test score tells us. They achieve in various ways. Some students, who can’t pass algebra their first time (or second or…) find jobs working in retail or restaurants. They have basic numerical literacy and therefore are capable of running a register, making change, doing the simple accounting required on a balance sheet or an inventory list. They don’t have to know the quadratic equation to do those things, they have common sense. And, if they decide to remain in the business, and the business requires them to learn more advanced math, they’ll figure it out; because it becomes part of their routine, it’s not some random equation asking them to determine the function of x given y (or vice versa).

Making test scores more important than they actually are is damaging to students, communities, and teachers, in the form of a stigma that attaches to anyone involved in the outcomes. The more important outcomes, the ones that we should be celebrating and learning from, are those achievements that don’t show up on a test. When students figure out what their passion is, and then begin the process of moving towards getting paid to work in a capacity related to that passion, that’s achievement. That’s what success looks like. Why should we tell kids that success is dependent upon something that they find trivial or boring, or not worth the time. I realize that this comes across as radical, but I believe very strongly that once we start providing children with opportunities to learn about a passion they have, we will see graduation rates increase and greater successes both in and out of the classroom. Stefanie DeLuca digs into this idea (identity/passion projects) in her book, Coming of Age in the Other America; it is an extremely important piece of the achievement gap conversation.

Apprenticeship programs (Pipeline etc.) are a feature of Minnesota’s long-standing commitment to helping people find work that is both meaningful and pays a decent wage. Students can benefit greatly from the introduction that is provided, both to the work and to the network they build while learning a trade. And, the employers benefit from the opportunity to show a young person the right way to do a job— which will pay benefits to the broader society (economy) regardless of whether that young lady stays with that company for 40 years or takes on a new opportunity a year after completing her apprenticeship.

So here’s the thing, do we want to live in a society that picks “winners and losers” based on test scores? This means we are identifying those who “deserve” a shot at real success and those who are relegated to a lifetime of unsatisfying work… when they can get it. This is the way it’s been for too long in our nation; the kids born into the “right” circumstances, are afforded the greatest opportunities with nearly unlimited access to exploit those opportunities. While the kids born into less than perfect circumstances are relegated to whatever’s left, e.g. school funding, employment, housing, etc., etc.

The issue is not terribly complicated, nor are the means of addressing it. It is the political affairs that complicate matters. Here are a few ideas, some of which are in practice in some school districts around the nation, but not everywhere.

1) Fiscal policies that provide greater equity in funding are a good place to start. We know that the challenges are greater in schools that serve a larger percentage of students experiencing poverty; so why not give them significantly greater funds to address those needs. That might mean shifting some property taxes to surrounding districts, which could cause an uproar, but uproars are part of the deal (elected officials are supposed to hammer out these types of details…compromise). And, while using the equity lens— 2) lets ensure that weighted student funding is being used, and used properly. We need to target the children with the greatest needs, be they physical, mental, or emotional.

3) Expanding the Promise Neighborhood model can provide the type of outreach and assistance that make real differences in the community’s future. This does not imply a similar scale for every new program, as smaller sites could provide similar benefits; it is the actions undertaken that fuel the change. 4) Moving to Opportunity (MTO) (1994-2004), a program designed to study the effects of providing housing vouchers to low-income families (random assignment with a control group), had some fairly significant effects, 20 years later. Providing stable housing, in neighborhoods that are not populated primarily by families experiencing poverty, makes a big difference, especially for the children.

And finally, 5) stop with all the testing. Provide students with more course options (to include the return of industrial arts and home-economics in addition to new classes that reflect markets with high job growth potential: aircraft maintenance, cyber-security, renewable energy, bio-technology, etc.); make connections between what is being taught and its relationship to real-world work; take advantage of current apprenticeship programs and develop new ones; and implement passion/identity projects that will capture each student’s imagination and provide them with extra incentive to take full advantage of their educational opportunity.  In this way, we can make education relevant to all students.

One other thought related to current practices; the high achieving students (like the 9th grade girl who is doing college level math) should not be stuck taking random courses that are preventing her from reaching her full potential. Those students who are able to move more quickly through the system (1-5 percent), should be able to do so. Why hold them back when they have the ability to succeed at a more advanced level? Do we tell the 9th grade basketball phenom that he can’t play on the varsity because he’s too young? No, we allow him to take control of his future by using his talents to expand his opportunities. It’s not that difficult to allow students to move more rapidly, the system only needs to accept the change.

At the end of the day, it’s not enough to thoroughly analyze the data provided by these tests. We can’t make assumptions based on some scores and potentially inaccurate or incomplete observations concerning students’ lives. Students deserve better than that. They are entering a world vastly more complex than the world of just 20 years ago. They don’t need to learn rote memorization skills, they need creative and critical thinking skills. They need people to believe in them, inspire and motivate them, and then, help them up when they stumble (and stumbling is all-important here, learning from mistakes is critical to any kids development). The real-world is not standard in any way shape or form. Life is messy so we might as well embrace that messiness and let students know that it only gets more difficult after graduation. By giving them a few tools, we can help them move through the next stage.

So there it is, a fix for our achievement gap problem, rather simple. Why didn’t anybody think of this before. The playing field in education, and life, is inherently unequal, that’s the nature of our world. And while it is in everyone’s best interest to work on leveling the playing surface, it will not happen in the near future, and maybe not even in the distant future. That, however, is no reason to stop trying. But until that day comes, focusing our efforts on providing the kinds of opportunities that are more likely to result in real achievement, measured in paychecks and well-being, ought to be the goal. Anything less is shortchanging the students who have already been robbed of their lunch money… change is all they’ve got left.

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Manhattan-Lower East Side-SoHo

 

¹ Winter, Pam. Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story – Neuroscience and early childhood development: Summary of selected literature and key messages for parenting. March 2010.

http://www.scseec.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Reports%20and%20publications/Publications/Early%20childhood%20education/Engaging%20Families%20in%20the%20ECD%20Story-Neuroscience%20and%20ECD.pdf

The State of Education

We often hear people say that “the schools are broken” or the system has failed, or some other negative comment which is usually meant to cast aspersions on those schools having the most difficult time turning out “high achieving” students. Districts with classrooms bursting at the seams, dilapidated buildings in need of an extreme makeover that would baffle Ty Pennington, and a budget that had to cut all of the arts & music programs, are examples of the most visible needs at these schools. Add to that list a full-time nurse being cut to part-time (because we all know that students only get sick or injured on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings), and sports programs and other extracurriculars that are bare-boned and funded through private donations, athletic fees, and whatever money the district hasn’t spent on the basics. Several of the schools that fit this mold have been featured in books by Jonathan Kozol and others.

Conversely, we occasionally hear that people are very happy with the school district their child attends. Their school has a high graduation rate, most students score ‘proficient’ or above on standardized tests, and they experience no shortage of funds for the band, the football team, and the swimming & diving squad. The high schools in these districts often make Newsweek’s list of “Best High Schools” and they are just as good, if not better, than many of the private schools in their area.

The truth is, both of these scenarios are examples of some of our nation’s school districts. But many more districts fall somewhere in-between, and are not often featured in magazines or books. They serve a wide variety of students who come from a wide variety of cultures/backgrounds and fall all along the socio-economic spectrum. These districts produce world-class scientists, authors, athletes, civic and business leaders. They also see students who are unable to complete the K-12 system, some of whom become homeless and highly mobile, and other students who have difficulty functioning in society. This is what our typical school district looks like. It is not one extreme or the other, rather somewhere in between and always hopeful that with the next new program, they can alleviate some ill that is preventing their school from making the “Best” list.  Our educational system is not, on the whole, broken. But neither is it in prime condition. Major systemic overhauls are needed.

Many districts are in need of fixes in one or two or seventeen areas. Those fixes, the majority of the time, require funding. This does not always imply new funding; some cases require money to be shifted from a program that isn’t working to a new program that has exhibited promise elsewhere. But more often, it does require additional expenditures. This, financing, is often the area where policy matters get hung up (whether it’s education policy or anything else).

As we’ve recently witnessed in Maryland and Minnesota, deciding which programs are funded, and how the state decides to spend its tax revenues, is highly controversial. Governor Hogan (R-MD) made the choices that he, and some of his constituents, believe to be right. While other Maryland citizens, especially those engaged in the profession of educating children, disagree. Not every district in Maryland is in dire need of additional funding, but there are districts that could benefit greatly from extra funds.

Sometimes funding is necessary to upgrade infrastructure or some other tangible feature. But more often, funds are required to provide those things that are not as easy to put a price on. Professional development is one area that schools can choose to cut back on, if they are experiencing a budget shortfall. This may seem like a fairly inconsequential cut but imagine the auto mechanic who is asked to work on new cars, using new technology, and never receiving any instruction about the new automobile features or how the technology works. Providing ongoing professional development is the best way to keep teachers up to speed with the ever-changing world, which means their students will have the opportunity to keep pace with their peers in surrounding districts.

Another area that is often overlooked, until it’s out of control, is class size. Somewhere in the history of education, a consensus was developed about how many students should constitute a typical class size . It is pretty standard for 20-25 students to be in a class, in the typical elementary classroom, and a few more in the typical middle school and high school class. This has worked fairly well for many students—not all. The problem is not the average class-size in the typical school. The problem is when budgets are cut and class-sizes explode, and teachers are told that they have to deal with it, just like any other professional would. The problem is two-fold; many teachers will do what they have to do to make it work, which means they’re putting in more hours outside of school while making the same wage. Meanwhile the students, the BIG losers here, get less attention, fewer questions answered, and more competition for the same amount of resources. And if we look at which schools have the most overcrowded classrooms, we find the majority of them to be in inner-cities.

Which brings me to the issue that many people in education circles don’t talk about. An overcrowded classroom in the inner-city of Minneapolis, or Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or any other large American city is very different from an overcrowded classroom anywhere else. Inner-city schools, on average, have more students growing up in adverse conditions, than schools in suburban and rural areas (and for clarification, urban does not always equate to inner-city but all inner-city schools are within urban locales). Children growing up in inner-cities are more likely to experience poverty and violence (Thompson, 2014) and this makes learning more difficult, especially in overcrowded classrooms.

If we want to make one major policy change that will have the greatest effect on closing the achievement gap (something that I’ll get into more in another post), reducing class sizes in inner-city schools would be that change; in my opinion, and a host of others (Chingos & Whitehurst, 2011). It’s true that reducing class sizes from 20+ to 10-12, or 35+ to 15-18, would cost a lot of money. But if we think about the amount of money we are currently spending on those former students who didn’t get a quality education (not for lack of valiant attempts by the teachers) we can’t afford to not make the investment.

Class size reduction is not necessary for every student to be successful; but if we are truly interested in providing every student with the opportunity to achieve the “American Dream” (assuming it can still be achieved by the average Joe or Jane), then we owe the students that are growing up under the most difficult circumstances access to more tools so that they might achieve results similar to those outcomes the more advantaged students are attaining.

The state of education is not all bad. Millions of great people wake up everyday and set out to change the world by inspiring young minds. They don’t do it for the money or the fame (shocking, I know), they do it because they care about their students. By providing these teachers and schools with the resources they need to perform their jobs at the highest level, we can make our economy more stable and our society more equitable. Both of which are relatively important for a nation’s long-term viability.

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Take time to stop and notice what’s not directly in front of you, like wild flowers.
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Education is not only a human endeavor.