Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why RIDE? A Walk Can Tell You So Much More.

An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. - Henry David Thoreau

It is my practice every day when I am done signing in late students to take a walk around the building - I typically do this once or twice every period of every day. It's a habit and a practice that helps me to "take the temperature" of the building, identify any significant issues and determine if there is anything  that I can do to ensure the best day that I can for our students and teachers.

What is most remarkable to people who travel through the halls of EGHS this year; the first thing that seems to jar everyone's consciousness; is the almost complete absence of anyone in the corridors.  The floors, still shiny and bright from a summer's worth of hard work by our custodians ... are invariably empty. Almost eerily so.  Kids are in class.  Engaged. Not wanting or needing to leave the classroom.

A lack of visual and social stimuli in the hallway allows a person to focus on the other sensory information that is swirling around them with each step... the sights and sounds of teaching and learning filling the air between those walls. As I walked through the English wing, I saw groups of kids presenting in one darkened classroom while others next door were becoming enlightened by a teacher's waxing poetic and sharing an obvious love of words and language that was simply infectious.

Entering the area where world languages are taught, I saw students moving around the room and working through an activity in a "flipped" classroom while another class sat in circles presenting and supporting one another's conclusions through accountable discussion. That department had room after room of smiling, happy, cheerful, active kids expressing themselves in words that I didn't completely understand, but infused with an engagement that was plainly obvious in any language.

At the end of the corridor I found a group of four students sitting at a table with i-Pads working on science.  I asked what they were doing and they explained that they were solving equations regarding the dissipation of energy through calories. "Cool," I thought, and then asked them where the rest of their class was.  They indicated that they had a choice of how they were going to learn the material, through various self selected methods and groups that could all accomplish the goals of the lesson, some with direct instruction, others through individual or group discovery.

I, myself, soon had my own discovery... the smile that was on my face, conceived through the satisfaction of seeing all of these great educational experiences happening at once, on one floor of our building, in one slice of time, wasn't going to go away anytime soon...

I headed downstairs and saw other science classes in more traditional lab settings, with the accompanying smells, sounds and excitement that most kids get in those teachable moments of social interaction infused with excited learning. 

At the end of the hallway I found two social studies teachers... one on hallway duty... another collaborating with him on their MacBooks, so entrenched in their collegial work that they barely noticed that I was there and gone by the time they finally looked up.

Continuing down the hall, one could not help but notice a library full of students taking out MacBooks and doing research on one side of the room while another teacher worked with groups on the other side using a smart board and Prezi to expand student understanding.

As I walked by the teacher's room I saw two math teachers working collaboratively to design and grade common assessments together.

"What a great place to teach and learn," I thought to myself while I found myself wishing that I had a camera crew with me filming a documentary about how modern schools work, because there were so many "best practices" already on display by 8:00 AM on a very typical Tuesday morning.

But at my school these aren't "best" practices, they are simply everyday practices.

As you walk the halls at EGHS and look at the faces of our school community, it is easy to discover through other people's eyes that there is something different going on this year.  A growing culture of appreciation among the faculty and students.  It's a different feeling in the building. Smiles are greatly increased. Adults and kids are more readily recognizing one another for their successes, contributions and kindness.

Rather than looking at a school through the lens of a deficit model, as the RI Department of Education has chosen to do when ranking and deciding which schools require "transformation," we have found greater success in noticing and recognizing the things that make each individual special- knowing that this view builds people up rather than making them feel weak. Knowing that empowering someone and believing in them can make a difference, change their attitudes, change their lives. And it has already made a difference this year.

Today will mark four weeks since the school's doors opened to students at EGHS. We have not held a single office detention since we opened, for the simple fact that I have not had a reason to put a student in there yet. Of course, this is not Eden, it is a building full of adolescents. So we know that there will be missteps- we aren't aiming to build robots. But our our kids are in class. Our kids are engaged. Our kids are doing their best work. They want to be here.  They appreciate and respect the work that our teachers do to make their classes better, and it all comes back to them tenfold.

On my second tour around the building about 30 minutes later, I discussed with several colleagues how magical all of this was, and how proud I am of our teacher's camaraderie, the focus on engagement, the attitudes and behaviors demonstrated by our kids, and the awesome teaching and learning that continues to improve every year. "It's the culture that you and Mike (our Principal, Michael Podraza) have built," said one teacher. "We love it here."

When I returned back to the social studies teachers who were planning together, I stopped this time to ask specifically what they were working on.  They explained that they were teaching the Age of Enlightenment, and they wanted their students to be able to write individual blogs based on the philosophers and political thinkers of the day and have other students be able to comment from the perspective of those who supported and those who opposed their beliefs. Inherent in undertaking an activity like this are many logistical and technological issues that require problem solving to accurately create, assess and provide the best feedback possible for 250 students and their work.

As we talked through each issue and problem, we were able to come up with great solutions together. By the time the bell rang we had come up with products, platforms and a plan to deliver it to our students. One of the teachers remarked to me in passing how nice and unique it was to have an administrator working with them in their planning and preparation. They remarked how nice it was to know that I cared enough to take the time.

But what else could be more important to me in that moment?

Two walks around my building, at 8:00 in the morning on a Tuesday, covering about 40 minutes of time.

That is all it took for me to see more cutting edge and inspiring practices being demonstrated than could ever be sold to struggling school districts by consultants paid by Race to the Top money...  assuming that most Departments of Education are truly concerned about improving everyday teaching and learning rather than simply turning schools into standardized test-prep center franchises- or closing public schools and "transforming" them into for-profit charter schools while simultaneously developing student demographic data warehouses that are being sold to the highest corporate bidder for future marketing opportunities.

They say that the definition of character is how you act when you don't know if anyone is looking. I would defy anyone from RIDE or any other school district in America to come and look at us on any given day, and any given time and let us know if you would want YOUR son or daughter to go to a school like this. To learn here. To grow here.

Unfortunately, schools in most states in the age of faux "accountability" are not judged on the teaching and learning over seven periods a day, or the 180 days a year where all of our teacher's and student's hard work is demonstrated and assessed.  We are all judged- students, teachers, and administrators-  by the score on a single test of reading and math. A single test taken over a couple of hours in the second month of a student's junior year. 

A test that, incidentally, despite what RIDE may tell you, we excel at. EGHS was #2 in the state in reading, #2 in math (by 1 point) and #1 in science on the state's NECAP tests.  No other school in RI can match our overall excellence in all three disciplines.

But that doesn't mean that we, or anyone for that matter should accept the belief that a lack of success on a single, standardized, culturally and economically biased test should be- in thousands of cases last year- the sole negative determinant of whether a student should be allowed to graduate high school, or how successful a teacher of any subject or grade has been over the course of the year, or whether a principal should be replaced and a school taken over.

But it often is.  Not just here, but in many states.  And it's wrong.

Next week our kids will take that test, and that single test will decide the fate and futures of thousands of students and educators.  That test that will count more than everything that student has demonstrated over the course of one hundred and eighty days of school and more than their entire high school experience.

It's absurd.  The test wasn't designed to do that.

It's a politically and corporately motivated decision with zero data to support it as good practice.

And it's a shame and a disservice to the many thousands of hard working students and educators in this and every other state.

Don't ever be persuaded to judge a student, an educator or a school simply by their performance on one test.

It doesn't define them.

It certainly is not an accurate measure of their growth or learning, and it doesn't come close to showing who they are or what they can do.

It can not predict future success or failure.

It is merely a slice of information.

A peek at what happens over an educational career...  a snapshot in time, kind of like a single walk around the building.

Come and see what we do every day.

Take a walk instead.  You'll learn a lot more.  

This is an amazing place.  

It really is.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"I am NOT number 4 (or 3,2,1,0)"

Found on a hallway floor this morning, a student's notes on a letter that we send home to parents in preparation for the next round of state (NECAP) testing in two weeks.... a telling reminder of the impact and importance of this testing on our students, despite the high stakes nature of the test.

About 10 years ago I was part of an inclusive policy-making process led by the Chair of the RI Board of Regents for Education, James DiPrete, a 40+ year teacher, principal and superintendent in RI, to develop the state's new graduation requirements. Educators, parents and students from all over the state were invited to public forums to discuss, debate and become informed about the new requirements over a period of several years while the policy was being written. Those regulations stated that state test scores would not count for more than 30 percent of a student's graduation decision. The other 70% would be decided by a choice of proficiency-based graduation requirements in conjunction with the student's four-year academic record as decided locally by the high schools. 

Since then, a Board of Education that is currently chaired by a personal injury attorney and populated by a doctor, a lifetime state administrator, two teacher's union administrators, two politicians, an accountant, two other lawyers and a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel decided unilaterally, without public debate, in a closed meeting that students will not graduate without achieving at least "partial proficiency" (a '2' out of '4') on the NECAP test in reading and math (Note: 4000 students in RI did not meet that math standard last year). "Partial proficiency" is, of course, an interesting term, as the "cut score" for any given level of proficiency can be manipulated from year to year, as has been done in other states for political expediency.

The board, voting in another recent closed session, rejected an ACLU petition to hold a new series of public hearings on the NECAP in regard to high school graduation. The Board's Chair, Eva Marie Mancuso said to The Providence Journal“The time for discussion is over … . We are using the NECAP as a graduation requirement, period.” When asked about the relevance or fairness of holding all students accountable for their performance on a single test that will decide their graduation, Mancuso responded, “It’s the excuse given by a vocal minority. ‘Blame the School Department. Blame the teachers.’ Let’s keep the focus where it belongs. We have to do something different [sic].”

I could not agree more.

A single test, taken in six 90-minute periods during the first month of a student's Junior year may ultimately deny them graduation- regardless of the success and proficiency that they may have demonstrated over the 5040 70-minute periods of teaching, learning and rigorous evaluation that they achieved over their four year high school career.

A single test that does not measure academic progress or learning. 

A single test that, despite the droning of education "reformers" has no way of demonstrating that it makes any student more "college and career ready" than the four years of varied evaluation and assessment that they received in our high school classrooms.

While we are on the topic of "college and career readiness," what if you want to be a plumber, carpenter, or electrician? A soldier? A policeman?  A firefighter?  An entrepreneur? A computer programmer? An actor or musician? Exactly, how does state testing make you more "ready"? 

Is there a single career that doesn't place tremendous importance on critical thinking, problem solving, verbal communication, presentation, the ability to research, to learn, to work with others in groups or to demonstrate proficiency in any area aside from reading, Algebra 1 and 2 and Geometry? NONE of those aforementioned skills and competencies are tested by the state, but all are superseded by the NECAP tests. 

In fact, most of those skills are effectively minimized in many schools because of the amount of time devoted to test preparation for skills that will be unused or completely forgotten by the vast number of students almost immediately after graduation... unless of course you find yourself using that Geometry and Algebra 2 every day in YOUR office.

Asking kids to take more and more higher end math that they will never again use will not create more college students or scientists for America, but data (or any guidance department) will tell you that it definitely is producing more and more feelings of inadequacy, stress, frustration and dropouts within our student population. We are not making anyone more "ready" for colleges and careers, we are impeding their progress. 

The reality is that colleges and companies are not willing to devote capital to remedial training and development of their students/employees... so they are passing the costs down to high schools... but ultimately that is becoming a human cost, not a financial one.

The simple fact is that state testing can't and won't ever be able to measure thinking, learning or complex thought and can't avoid cultural or socioeconomic bias. It does do a great job of measuring family income, but it can't measure non-verbal learning (or any other kind for that matter) and has no way of actually predicting anything- particularly future success in college or any one of the 800 different career categories cataloged by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But aren't American schools lagging dangerously behind many other countries because of our public school "crisis"? 

Here's the truth that no one with a "reform" agenda wants to admit: unlike those other countries, America educates and tests every student- students with significant learning handicaps, severe physical and mental illnesses, extraordinary poverty, homelessness, transiency, those for whom English is a 2nd or 3rd or 4th language, and those scores are all lumped together in the "reformer's" data. 

What is rarely discussed is that when scores of the disadvantaged are not counted into the mix (as happens in nearly all of those "top" countries- many of whom simply do not even educate students living in those circumstances), American students are at the top. But our values and our public schools demand that all lives are worthy of the same significance and are worthy of an education that will give everyone a chance to become successful in a career that appeals to their background, interests and aptitudes.

As I discussed previously: English, Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2 (those things tested on the state tests 2 years and one month into your high school career), are only viewed as "vital" to a 21st Century education because back in 1892, the president of Harvard University said that those subjects should be the basis for all high school classes. If you happen to be interested in something else – psychology, communication, computer science, marketing, architecture, international business, designing video games? Sorry. Those subjects weren't very popular at Harvard in 1892, so they aren't important enough to count towards your "college and career readiness" in today's "21st Century" curriculum.

As I looked at the note below this morning, I couldn't help but be reminded of what Joseph W. Gauld said in a recent op-ed articleEducation today is a terrible violation of every student's individuality and spirit. They are all cast in a formulaic worker-bee system designed to increase their value to the nation's workforce.

Each student is unique; our goal should be helping all youngsters -- rich, poor, boy, girl, black, white -- realize their best. This means not only helping each student achieve one's best in classrooms, on athletic fields, in community service and other activities, but in one's personal life -- behaviors, attitudes, problems, sense of purpose, peers, family, etc.

This is exciting education -- helping youngsters discover a best they never knew they had: an education that reaches their spirit, motivation, deeper potentials and sense of purpose, not a system designed by a self-serving trio of business, political and college/university interests.

I don't know who you are, note writer, but your voice was heard very clearly by me today.  And now I am giving your voice some amplification... I hope that many educators, parents, decision makers and "powers that be" will listen and begin a dialogue about what we are doing to public schools and students in this country.  

You are NOT number 4.  

You need to be Number 1 when we look at public education policy. I will always fight for you.