Theory and Practice

Season of Change

The educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end. – John Dewey

Change in Season
This image was taken in front of my school a few weeks ago. In Central Wisconsin, the leaves hit their peak color in early October. The sugar maple pictured here is the state’s tree.

What Reflects a Great School? Not Test Scores by Regie Routman (Education Week, October 22, 2014)

Regie Routman writes a very pointed commentary about the educational world’s infatuation with standardized tests. She admits that it is possible to raise assessment scores with lots of preparatory work, but the results are “an achievement mirage” which do not truly reflect a school’s collective ability. Routman calls upon school leaders to avoid such an environment, and instead focus on what works for teachers and students and motivates the entire school to make admirable achievements. Developing trust, modeling best practice during staff meetings, advocating for authenticity in instruction, and “focusing on what’s most essential for students” are some of the most important tenets of school leadership. Routman closes our her article by pointing out the contradiction that when “principals and teachers are expected to have a laser-like focus on test prep and raising achievement, they actually teach worse, not better.” This concluding statement should give every principal pause as they start to prepare for the new computerized assessments coming our way.

Schools Pave Their Way to the Cloud by Julie Smith (Ed Tech Magazine, Focus on K-12, Fall 2014)

Speaking of computers, Julie Smith shares her perspective on schools migrating student work and information to cloud-based servers. She acknowledges that reduced budgets are a main driver in moving toward online providers. The question still remains: How does this impact student learning as well as the bottom line? One major school district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has merged all of their student information systems into a unified cloud. Student data, lessons plans, and completed homework are a click away. These capacities can lead to improved access to content and more responsive instruction. Other districts, including mine, have embraced Google Apps for Education for their email and document storage. However, risks are inherent when using third party applications. This is a reason why the state of Illinois has created the public-controlled IlliniCloud, which allows for more of a walled garden.

What if Age is Nothing but a Mindset? by Bruce Grierson (New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2014)

In this very accessible article, Grierson interviews social scientist Ellen Langer about her past and current research on how environment and mindset can impact not only a person’s attitude about themselves, but also their physical health. In an earlier study, Dr. Langer had several seniors spend a week in a residence that was retrofitted with reading materials, television shows, and everything else a home may have had 22 years ago. Oh, and the participants had to pretend it was that period in time. After one week, her team recorded marked improvement in many areas of their subjects’ health, such as blood pressure and dexterity (confirmed by the fact that the seniors broke out into a game of touch football on the last day).  It appears that a person’s mindset may impact not only their brain, but also their body. What is Dr. Langer’s next inquiry? This coming spring, she plans on replicating her earlier work, only this time taking cancer patients to a remote tropical area and housing them in an environment that predates their initial diagnosis. I look forward to reading the results from this study, and hoping that the subjects find positive results from this provocative experiment of mindset.

K-12 Leaders: Look for Lessons Outside Schools by Andy Hargreaves (Education Week, October 22, 2014)

In an equal impressive commentary from the same issue of Education Week, Andy Hargreaves echoes Regie Routman’s assertions that trust and lifelong learning are the cornerstones of a successful school. Focusing on the individual teacher from a statewide-perspective will not improve learning. Instead, “organizations need more and better leadership that is responsible, inspiring, and effective.” Hargreaves has profiled many successful organizations in and out of education. The common thread he has found is what he calls “uplifting leadership” in these organizations. “These leaders uplift the opportunities or quality of life of the people they serve.” The four trends teased out from his observations of these organizations – a strong mission, an original focus for their work, collaboration, and meaningful data – have direct applications to schools.

Rotten Journalism: 4 Ways Time Magazine Misrepresents Teachers by Mark Barnes (Brilliant or Insane: Education on the Edge, October 25, 2014)

In a recent post on my original blog, Reading by Example, I shared that I did not have the words to respond to Time’s cover article about getting rid of bad teachers by removing tenure law. Luckily, we have Mark Barnes. He sounds off on many of the less-than-sound arguments made by Time journalist Haley Sweetland Edwards. Barnes accuses the magazine’s cover of being misleading, notes the cherry-picking of the bad classroom practices as examples for needed reform, and derides the poor choice of profiling a Silicon Valley millionaire as the next great leader in educational change. Campbell Brown and Nancy Gibbs attempt to mediate the uproar with follow up statements, but admit little to no fault with the original report. Certainly, there is a need to improve classroom instruction so there is better consistency from school to school. But as a principal, I can attest that getting rid of tenure will do little to make that happen.

To Sum Things Up…

The image of the changing leaves can be a powerful metaphor for our lives in education. From buds, to green leaves, to full color, to falling on the ground, and repeat. We seem to keep coming back to original mistakes that we have made, and obviously not learning from them. Now in my sixteenth year of working in public education, I have been around long enough to see ideas cycling back. What Regie Routman and Andy Hargreaves propose are not new. They have been pushing these sounds ideas of effective school leadership for many years. That their messages might seem new to certain readers says more about the reader than anything the authors propose.

The topic of environment specifically related to one’s mindset is critical. As you read in Dr. Langer’s study, what a person perceives as reality can literally become their reality, both emotionally and physically. These findings have strong implications for the classroom. How do your students feel about themselves as learners? Are they excited to come to school each day? Are we? We cannot change the circumstances that inhabit our students’ homes, nor significantly alter the tired political conversations promoted by questionable sources such as Time. But we can impact each child every day, through the joy and engagement found with exciting and thoughtful instructional preparation.

Our season of change also seems to be accelerated with the influx of technological “solutions”. We may be experiencing faster-than-normal cycles due to the steeper learning curves with digital access. But the cloud-based learning examples reported by Ed Tech Magazine are still in development. Despite what technological or political factors may come our way, we still have the control, as well as the obligation, to provide our learners with the skills and dispositions necessary to be successful today and in their future. I doubt that what we elect to focus on will be outdated any time soon.

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