Thursday, July 10, 2014

On Shutting Teachers Up

Nothing but net for Nancy Flanagan the other day in her post over at Teacher in a Strange Land entitled, "Shutting Teachers Up."

She writes, "When practitioners aren't allowed to openly share their critical perspectives, they lose the ability to speak their own truths and use first-hand experience as a lever for change."

And, "Any number of thoughtful, intelligent, provocative voices in education operate behind pseudonyms, to give them the cover they need. But there's something about writing under your own authentic identity, having to own what you write and defend your words from criticism, that's quintessentially democratic, and a mark of honest journalism."

And, "Technology has led us to the point where anyone can publish and anyone can opine. Money makes it possible for the profiteers to have the loudest voices at the same time as public employees are worried about losing their modest jobs. It's no way to pursue bona fide excellence in public education. If that was ever our genuine aim..."

You know, when I started in this profession I had this attribute I thought was ambition. I later named it idealism. Now think of as naivety.

I was going to step into a school, infect others with my powerfully positive attitude, and change some lives. I was going to report what I saw in schools, and enrage others about the inequities that existed there.

I initially began blogging under a pseudonym, "The Reflective Educator." I wasn't particularly careful about hiding my voice off the internet, though, and district officials soon discovered who was writing my blog.

That naivety believed that, of all places, public education would be a sector in which employees would be given the right to honestly express their views, and relate their working conditions. It's public, after all - AND EDUCATION!

But soon after I began doing so, I was threatened with a lawsuit on one occasion, and given a horrendous performance review in another district. This for writing about my opinions on schools and experiences in them.

An administrator I trusted convinced me to put my name on the blog if I really wanted to take a stand. She argued that I would be taken more seriously if I was brave enough to do so.

But attaching my name to this blog has also limited what I feel comfortable writing about. When I was first hired at my current school, the district made clear that they knew about my blog.

"Hi James. How was your first day? Great, great. Glad to have you on board. So....... by the way, we know you have a blog. Just wanted to let you know that we'll be monitoring it"

"Ummm - okay. Thanks for the heads up?"

Don't be fooled, you can't exactly express your opinion as a public school teacher freely. You do need to be careful. But as Ms. Flanagan points out, it's important work. Somebody needs to do it. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

On Schools, Health, and Success

In the Western world, success is often thought of in terms of working hard to become upwardly mobile, making a name for yourself, and, perhaps, accomplishing something of lasting importance.

Our notions of success, and the pressures they exert on our egos and superegos, have had varied effects on millions of Type A personalities in the modern world. (I include myself among them.) We push ourselves to the brink, attempting to fulfill societal expectations, and humblebrag about how many hours we spent working to get this contract signed or that task finished on our way up the career/reputation ladder.

We overextend ourselves, accumulate cortisol buildup from being overstressedovereat, and die early. Our role models are those who sacrifice themselves for their work, whether the result of that work is a better planet or insane amounts of money.

Health - "a state of being free from illness or injury." 

A major contributor to health is balance. Imbalance leads to dysfunction leads to ill health. In the body, this is easy to understand. If you eat too much sugar (inflammatory) or not enough vegetables (anti-inflammatory), you run the risk of develop a host of illnesses, cancer among them.

By what standards should we judge the health of a school? I don't think it's all that different from how we should judge the health of an individual.

  • Do students know how to deal with their emotions, so that they don't build up and lead to harmful stress? Do staff?
  • Are students and staff generally happy in schools or angry?
  • Is real food served? Are the meals balanced?
  • Does justice matter?
  • Is a sense of empathy cultivated?
  • Is the workload of students and staff humane?
  • Do students and staff have opportunities to build community and learn from one another's differences?
  • Are students and staff valued and affirmed for being who they are?
  • Do students and staff have opportunities to exercise their wide range of talents and interests? 

When we use the terms success and failure in discussing schools, we most often think about test scores, graduation rates, or suspension rates. I have never read an article that discussed school success with any of the components I listed above in mind.

If I had my way, I would change the connotation and denotation of success for both individuals and schools to be more closely aligned with 'health.'

In the 1970s, James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis. Taken to its full extent, it suggests earth, rather than a collection of organisms, might be better thought of as its own living organism. 

Think of the human body. Most of us perceive to be a single living organism, but it also consists of billions of other living organisms. Are we to our planet what the microorganisms that inhabit our bodies are to us? I think it's a reasonable conclusion. I think we might be well-served to look at schools the same way.

Ongoing scientific research continues to find stunning connections between the mind and body. Many people believe we should stop thinking about them as different things. 

If we continue to judge school and individual success in the very limited way that we do, we may one day discover that success is not at all what we wanted. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Faking Student Data

The Education Lab Blog at the Seattle Times today shares some of the stories of four teachers this past year using Washington's new TPEP evaluation system.

Teachers are cited as saying that they found the student growth goals component of the evaluation to be something of a joke. "Teachers were literally joking (I hope) about grading everything ridiculously hard the first time, and then just being easier on the kids the next time."

I appreciate this teacher's desire to be idealistic, but I'm quite sure that a number of teachers in Washington this year did just that.  When you make student growth a component of someone's evaluation and then give them control over how that growth is scored, this is bound to happen.

I don't think it's that teachers are evil, or out to get off easy, as one commenter suggested:

"Is anyone surprised that the first thing these teachers tried to do was game the system or somehow cheat the system into the results they wanted"

In my experience, teachers in many public schools barely have time to do the fundamentals of their job (planning, teaching, and assessing). For teachers on the comprehensive evaluation this year, it was about as much work as teaching an extra class.

Before working in the Highline School District, I worked in Washington DC. There, in 2009, Michelle Rhee rolled out a new evaluation system known as IMPACT. It did many of the same things as TPEP is trying to do in Washington State now. And prior to many evaluation conferences, I saw teachers scrambling to create data that looked favorable so that their conference would go well. A difference was that, in DC, many teachers lost their jobs as a result of those conferences. It had people operating in survival mode - a poor environment for nurturing students.

Public educators are extraordinarily overworked . The solution proposed for incentivizing us to do as much of that work as humanly possible seems to be to make us all highly accountable for proving that we've done everything we're supposed to. As a result, school-based staff are not only overworked (teachers work somewhere between 50-55 hours per week on average), but are now operating out of fear. Don't surprised if teachers are faking data.