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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Avoiding School Reform Roadblocks

When initiating reform, an action plan must be developed before the school can determine how the reform will be carried out and how it will be measured. Too often, administrators become anxious and feel the need to change the reform before any data has been collected. More patience is warranted because if a plan is not working, it can be amended. The school team, which consists of educators, administrators, and other stakeholders, must make the necessary amendments without hindering reform efforts. Creating too many changes within one reform plan would be counterproductive and frustrating for all parties involved.

Many new administrators enter the field hell-bent on making a name for themselves and refusing to live in the shadows of their predecessor. Often, they feel as though their only choice is to go in a totally different direction, making the previous reform null and void. This situation creates frustration among the surviving faculty and staff. New administrators often make changes before they fully think about the consequences or repercussions of their actions. Perfectly competent adults massage their egos instead of thinking about what is in the best interests of the school and the children.

It is counterproductive to start one reform and then decide to start another several months later. Once a reform has been implemented, all parties involved must show fidelity to it until there is concrete data or evidence that indicates that it is ineffective. Reform is about creating an environment in which students are the priority and we as their teachers assist them in starting and finishing their journey to becoming educated citizens.

It is hard for many administrators and educators to grasp the fact that frustrations may worsen as the reform is being implemented. Often, issues arise because people do not welcome change. Some educators need to see that change is for the better before they completely support the reform. Once the rebellion to change has subsided and the reform has been implemented correctly, the waiting game begins. During this time, educators and administrators must go about the business of collecting data for analysis. The findings will give them a clear indication of whether or not the reform has served its intended purpose. If students are not progressing under the implemented reform, then it may not be fulfilling the needs of the students or faculty.

Strategic planning and the implementation of school reform sometimes require schools to absorb temporary setbacks in order to reap the benefits of long-term gains. Student progress might dip for a month or two before teachers and administrators see a significant gain in student learning and performance. Teachers and administrators need to allow change to take place and not panic when instant changes are not apparent. In many school reform efforts, educators and administrators must understand that policies and practices that met the needs of the past, do not necessarily address current needs or the needs of the future. They must realize that in order to obtain a great future you must let go of a great past.

Some administrators fall into the trap of emulating model schools. Model schools can be found in every major city, but when trying to recreate their success, many schools fail to achieve the same results. Trying to recreate another school’s success is potentially dangerous, even when schools share similar characteristics. This is because, regardless of the similarities, every district is unique. Often, after a large amount of time, energy, and money has been spent, the school declares the plan a failure and has nothing to show for the efforts.

Strategic planning, which is widely used in the educational arena, can assist districts in setting goals and implementing school reform. You would be hard pressed to find a school district that does not have one or more strategic plans awaiting execution. Strategic plans are a district’s consistent road map, even in the face of adversity. In the end, a strategic plan that reflects the culture and needs of each individual school is a better route than attempts to replicate the success another school.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Historically Black Colleges and Universities Are Worth Saving

If you haven’t been paying much attention to the debate concerning the relevance and effectiveness of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), now is the time to sit up and take notice. If you don’t, there is a chance it could soon be too late. Over the last two decades, we have seen the number of HBCUs in the United States sharply decline and this greatly concerns me. Those who believe in the benefits of HBCUs need to stand up and let their voices be heard, before these important institutions are gone forever.
HBCUs are coming under fire for everything from not improving their failing infrastructures to producing lower graduation rates, and more. But we need to take a moment to look at why people should pull together, rally around them, and help them make it through turbulent economic times. HBCUs have helped to educate some of the most prominent African American figures in this country’s history, including Jesse Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Thurgood Marshall, among many others.
HBCUs provide cultural benefits, as well as providing an affordable education. This cultural foundation has been important to the African American community for over a century. Our HBCUs were there, supporting the community and educating our people, long before other colleges would even let them through the door. So are we saying that, just because mainstream American colleges will now let black students in, we should abandon the institutions that supported us and helped us get to where we are today?
HBCUs are a part of African American tradition, going back generations. They were not only there during the struggle; they helped our people get through it! We owe them our support and respect. They were there for us, and it is time, right now, for us to be there for them.
The biggest reason that HBCUs are fading is because they are often lack sufficient funding, which makes it difficult for them to survive. Without adequate funding, they will end up deteriorating and are apt to become a thing of the past. The low completion rate at HBCUs has also been a contributing factor to their demise. But I believe that it is the other way around: the lack of funding has contributed to the lower graduation rates. HBCUs have to deal with the fact that many of their academically eligible students drop out of college each year because their financial needs cannot be met with Pell Grants and other aid. A large portion of HBCUs have small endowments, so there isn’t a huge rainy day fund to tap into when financial challenges arise.
I received my Masters and Doctoral level training from Jackson State University. Recently, Washington Monthly magazine ranked Jackson State University number 9 among 258 colleges and universities across the country in terms of social mobility, research and service ratings. This attests to the fact that many of our HBCUs are achieving astounding results, against all odds. In my home state of Mississippi, I grew up attending athletic and cultural functions at Tougaloo College, Alcorn State University, Mississippi Valley State University and of course the aforementioned Jackson State University. These universities are sources of great pride and a part of the African American intellectual tradition.
Now is the time when people who support HBUCs, including advocates, organizations, faculty, students and alumni, need to rally together to help save this historical piece of African American history. If these groups come together and make their voices heard, we will be able to save these institutions. But make no mistake, if there is no rally, if there is no coming together to let the powers-that-be know that we want them saved, then I predict that they will be gone in 50 or so years. And they will not return. Nobody is going to turn back the hands of time and open another historically black college or university, because it wouldn’t be historic. Right now, they are historic, and they need our support and rescue!
Many people are currently asking whether HBCUs are worth saving in the first place. I ask, how can these historical institutions, which represent African American culture, tradition and struggle for educational equality, not be considered worth saving? If they are not worth saving, then it makes it very difficult to find any other piece of African American heritage that is worth saving. These educational institutions are symbols of our people that must not be ignored.
I urge those who care about these institutions to speak out, show your support, and demand that adequate funding be provided to them, so that they can make it through these turbulent economic times. It’s not just about saving a college or university. This is a metaphor for saving ourselves! With proper funding, these schools will thrive, carrying on our culture and traditions as they were meant to do.
In the words of the great Eldridge Cleaver, “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” Which will you be?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Classroom Management in a Culturally Responsive Environment

Consideration of classroom management techniques is critical when building a culturally-responsive learning environment.  It is imperative that the instructor have a vast body of knowledge regarding culturally-dependent interpersonal behaviors or else it is possible that behaviors that are normal within the scope of a student’s culture will be misinterpreted as a behavioral problem or learning disability.  In general, it is likely that conflicts between teacher and students will arise if the teacher has not educated themselves about the culture and accompanying behavioral patterns.
For instance, many Asian children are taught by their community that it is a sign of disrespect to look an adult in the eyes.  On the other hand, in the European American community it is considered a sign of disrespect if you don’t look someone in the eyes when they’re speaking to you.  If a teacher is not sensitive to such nuanced cultural differences then they may interpret a sign of respect in entirely the wrong way.
To further illustrate, consider the standard style of discourse in a European American classroom.  Students are expected to sit quietly in rows of desks and absorb information that their teacher chooses to share with them.  If a student wishes to participate then they are required to indicate this by raising their hand and waiting patiently until they are given permission to communicate their thoughts. 
On the other hand in the African American culture, interaction is much more assertive and straightforward. If an African American student blurts out the answer to a question without permission, a teacher in a traditional classroom would be likely to mistake profound interest in the material for deleterious rule-breaking.  If the teacher quashes such culturally normal behavior then it serves to inform the student that his style of discourse is “wrong” while the instructor’s style of discourse is “right.” 
Instead of engaging in authoritarian classroom management techniques, an instructor in a culturally responsive classroom creates a caring, nurturing bond with their students; such that the students think twice about jeopardizing their relationship with the instructor by making poor behavioral decisions.  Potential methods for building rapport with students include spending time on social-building games over the first few weeks of class, starting up conversations with students outside of class, and starting the class in a welcoming manner despite whatever behavioral problems may have occurred during the last meeting of the class.  Such an amicable partnership between student and teacher tends to foster an optimal learning environment.
A key principle of culturally responsive classroom management is explicit instruction about rules in a caring way.  If students fail to adhere to a rule, contact is initiated in a caring fashion.  The instructor should consider that children do things for a reason and that it is the instructor’s job to figure out what that reason is.  Is it due to a culture clash?  Is it a reaction to a perceived power differential or social injustice?  If so, the rule itself may need to be revisited.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Lessons from Educators on the Big Screen Part II

In part I, we discussed and analyzed four inspirational movies about transcendent educators. In part II, we will discuss three additional movies and end with a brief summary and discussion. Without further ado, let’s begin.
Lean on Me is not really about a teacher per se, but about a principal, Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman), who comes to save a school about to be taken over by the state. It is run down and full of rebellious and even criminal-minded young people. Joe Clark, the principal with the baseball bat, quickly tries to run the school like some angry but well-meaning despot. At first his teachers are against his methods (and critics of the movie made the same mistake), but as both students and teachers warm up to him, it’s clear that what he is doing is really working.
He does, however, have his enemies; particularly one member of the School Board, who is trying to get him fired. When he is caught chaining the school doors against the fire department’s regulation, he is put in jail, and the School Board convenes a special session to decide if he should be fired. But the students show up in front of the jail en masse and demand his release, which is eventually granted. Immediately after his release, he receives good news; the entire student body has passed the test administered by the state. Here too, we are dealing with a dedicated educator who breaks the rules and succeeds precisely for that reason.
This may begin to sound like a litany, but Dangerous Minds is yet another story (based on a true story) involving the dedication of a teacher. Here Michelle Pfeiffer plays the real-life LouAnne Johnson, whose story the movie is based on. LouAnne Johnson, an ex-Marine, is hired on the spot without really being informed of the kind of class she is to teach. At first she almost gives up in frustration, but then she decides not to. Once she has made up in her mind that she is going to win over the students, the “battle” begins. Needless to say, once more, we have a movie about a teacher who breaks as many rules as it takes. In the end, the class is completely won over. In fact, they not only start learning and enjoying it, but they have also come to love and respect their teacher along the way.
Freedom Writers is based on another true story. Here Hilary Swank the real-life Erin Gruwell. Her dedication also leads to a compassionate understanding of her underprivileged students, and she achieves the ultimate breakthrough when she informs them that they aren’t the first young people besieged by problems. Although she is not permitted to use The Diary of Ann Frank, she does precisely that, at her own expense. She also buys notebooks for her students and encourages them to keep diaries that she would only read if they permitted her to do so. Needless to say, breaking all the rules once more allows a teacher to become an exceptional teacher whom her students come to love.
So you won’t think that I am advocating anarchy and chaos in the classroom, allow me to point out that this is far from being the case. The point all these movies make is that you can’t have a great school by making everything and everyone concerned wear the same straitjacket. Rules and regulations are fine, provided that they don’t interfere with the real business of teaching. These fictional and real-life educators got through to their students by leveling with them, by understanding where they come from, and by empathizing with their struggles.

Applying the Japanese Philosophy of Kaizen to School Reform

Education may very well be the single most important ingredient in allowing a person to achieve success in life. The ascendancy of each individual defines the prosperity of our society; hence, education is the backbone of a continuously developing society. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” Education is a continuous process of converting information into knowledge that can help students develop and explore further information.
In order to learn one must take new information and process it in a way that relates it to what is already known, and in the process form a newer, deeper understanding of the material. Just as learning involves changing one’s understanding of concepts and ideas over time, social phenomena such as education must also be subjected to ongoing scrutiny, evaluation, and change. It is necessary to recheck policies and practices upon which education systems are based, and continually strive to make improvements. 
We must consider ways in which our educational system can and should grow, change, and continuously improve in ways to best serve our children. In order for the United States to continue to progress toward a knowledge-based society, it is necessary to reform and streamline our education system to enable the development and assimilation of information as knowledge. Our schools are the primary institutions to facilitate transference and conversion of information into students’ knowledge base. It is our duty to keep a watchful eye on the schooling processes, and to change educational policies and practices to ensure improvement.
The Japanese have a philosophy of continuous quality improvement called “kaizen,” which they apply to many areas of their life. Kaizen is the idea that one does not need to wait for something to be broken in order to fix it. Rather, one should always look for opportunities to improve upon current processes, making things incrementally better as time passes. This drive for continuous improvement should apply to our educational system; we need to constantly be striving to make things better, reevaluating how we do things, looking at the results we are achieving, and taking steps to improve things incrementally.
Over the past century, many reforms have taken place throughout the U.S., and on a continuing basis. Despite the constant need for change, very few, if any, of these reforms really made their way to the school level. Most of the initiatives that led to reform originated from dynamic leaders who were capable of implementing these changes in an extraordinary fashion, despite the presence of various radicals in strong opposition to these changes. However, as soon as the leaders moved on to their next challenge, these radical individuals returned to their old ways. The reform was diminished, and eventually there remained no trace of it.
Study after study has shown that the American educational system is not just in need of regular, continuous quality improvement. Something very different is needed since the system is in a state of fundamental disrepair. Our children are performing poorly compared to other developed countries. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are performing even worse. Whether you believe that continuous improvement is good for our educational system or not, what is certain is that our educational system needs to change.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Lessons from Educators on the Big Screen Part I

The factor that ultimately determines how successful a student will become academically is the teacher(s) that they are assigned to. In this piece, I will discuss several movies that have explored what great teaching is all about, including great teaching in underprivileged schools. As I begin this piece, I ponder an interesting idea: what if all teachers in the America were “required” to watch and thoroughly discuss the following movies? I will list them in chronological order: To Sir, with Love (1967); Up the Down Staircase (1967); Teachers (1984); Dead Poets Society (1989); Lean on Me (1989); Dangerous Minds (1995); Freedom Writers (2007). With one exception, all these movies deal with rebellious and underprivileged youth in urban schools and economically depressed family backgrounds.
What they all have in common are teachers who rise to the occasion and whose methods are unorthodox. They are all unconventional in their methods, but they are all – or become – dedicated and compassionate and completely concerned with the welfare their students – as opposed to principals or fellow teachers or even school boards.
In To Sir, with Love, Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier), an engineer by trade, comes to teach a class in the East End of London, full of obnoxious and unruly and underprivileged white students. He wins them over once he abandons the posture of the “typical” teacher and begins to level with them. He teaches them that to have respect for others; they first have to learn to respect themselves. In the end, what was to be a temporary job, becomes his vocation. Everything we see in this movie is worthy of emulation by all teachers everywhere.
In Up the Down Staircase, a young idealistic woman, Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis) starts teaching in another “problem” school in an urban setting, a rough neighborhood. At first she is na├»ve and her students laugh at her. But slowly she begins to think about what kind of “kids” her students are, and begins to see them not as enemies, but as young people who need her help to get out of the cycle they are in. Eventually she breaks through to them, not so much by breaking the rules, but by compassion and understanding. Once again, it’s the quality of the teacher that makes the difference and her dedication to her profession (which, once more, becomes more like a vocation).
In Teachers we have yet another underprivileged school in a tough neighborhood. Here the hero (Alex Jurel) is played by Nick Nolte, but the most interesting and memorable feature of this movie involves another character (Herbert Gower) played by Richard Mulligan. When the mental institution tours the school, he detaches himself from the inmates and takes over a history class. His first act as authority figure in the classroom is to pick up the textbook, look at it, frown, and walk to the window and toss it out, to the surprise and delight of the entire class. By the time he is found out and taken back to the mental institution, he has managed to transform the whole idea of teaching history. As he is led by attendants from the mental institution through the crowded corridor of the school, the teacher played by Nick Nolte salutes him in an obvious sign of respect. Perhaps all good teachers should be a little crazy? Not a bad idea.
Dead Poets Society is the exception to the rule, but only in that here we are not in an inner-city school, but in a privileged private school for boys. John Keating (Robin Williams), an alumnus of Welton Academy in Vermont, comes back to his alma mater as an English teacher. His first act of business is to invoke the carpe diem theme and thereby to encourage his students to live in the present and to love poetry. His asking them to tear out the introductory pages from the textbook is another brilliant move. He calls that kind of “literary” claptrap “excrement.”
Here is another brilliant teacher who breaks the rules, and that’s really the secret of his success. In the end, he is betrayed – both by the administration and one of his own students. He is made the scapegoat for the suicide of a student whose egomaniacal and rigid father drove him to it, but Keating’s teaching ends up being blamed for it. The real tragedy of this story is that a clearly brilliant and unconventional teacher is booted out for all the wrong reasons. When after his departure things get back to “normal,” things also get back to what is hollow and insipid.
Well, that’s the end of part I. In part II, we will end th
Publish Post
e series by discussing and analyzing three additional movies. Feel free to comment and offer movie suggestions for part II.

Allocating Resources to Improve Student Learning

Providing every child with an equal opportunity to learn has been a central challenge in public education. In fact, at its inception, universal public education in the United States was viewed as the “great equalizer.” Education was perceived by some as the vehicle through which individuals could rise above the social and economic circumstances which may have created longstanding barriers to reaching their potential as individuals and contributing citizens.
As the test of time has proven, education alone cannot address entrenched social problems; multiple institutions, policies and support systems are necessary to level the social and economic playing field. However, education is and will continue to be one of the primary means by which inequity can be addressed. Public funds will continue to be allocated in support of educational programs, and the rationale for these investments will likely continue to be that education creates social equity. 
The purposeful and practical allocation of resources to support equitable access to high-quality learning opportunities is a major component of education policy at the federal, state, and local levels. Leaders at all levels of the education are charged with making decisions about how to effectively distribute and leverage resources to support teaching and learning.
Resource allocation consists of more than assigning dollar amounts to particular schools or programs. Equally, if not more important, is the examination of the ways in which those dollars are translated into actions that address expressed educational goals at various educational levels. In this respect, leaders are concerned not only with the level of resources and how they are distributed across districts, schools, and classrooms, but also with how these investments translate into improved learning.
 It is critical for resource allocation practices to reflect an understanding of the imperative to eliminate existing inequities and close the achievement gap. All too often, children who are most in need of support and assistance attend schools that have higher staff turnover, less challenging curricula, less access to appropriate materials and technology, and poorer facilities.
Allocating and developing resources to support improvement in teaching and learning is critical to school reform efforts. Education policymakers must be informed about emerging resource practices and cognizant of the ways incentives can be used to create conditions that support teaching and learning.
Resource allocation in education does not take place in a vacuum. Instead, it often reflects policy conditions that form a context in which opportunities for effective leadership can be created. For example, effective leaders know how to use data strategically to inform resource allocation decisions and to provide insights about how productivity, efficiency, and equity are impacted by allocated resources.
The roles, responsibilities, and authority of leaders at each level of education also impacts whether and how they are able to allocate resources to particular districts, schools, programs, teachers, and students. Further, the type of governance structure that is in place also affects decisions about resources and incentives. Governance issues arise as leaders become involved in raising revenue and distributing educational resources. These activities involve multiple entities, including the voting public, state legislatures, local school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers’ associations. Each of these connections can provide insights into how best to allocate resources and provide incentives that powerfully and equitably support learning, for both students and education professionals.
Resources necessary to operate a successful school or school district cannot be confined to dollars alone, however. Indeed, the resources needed to actively and fully support education are inherently complex and require an understanding that goes far beyond assessing the level of spending or how the dollars are distributed. Educational leaders must be able to examine the ways in which those dollars are translated into action by allocating time and people, developing human capital, and providing incentives and supports in productive ways.
Principals, district officials who oversee the allocation of resources, and state policymakers whose actions affect the resources the principal has to work with, are all concerned with three basic categories of resources:
1.  Money. Activities at several levels of the system, typically occurring in annual cycles, determine both the amount of money that is available to support education and the purposes to which money can be allocated. No one level of the educational system has complete control over the flow, distribution, and expenditure of funds.
2.  Human capital. People “purchased” with the allocated funds do the work of the educational system and bring differing levels of motivation and expertise developed over time through training and experience.
3.  Time. People’s work happens within an agreed-upon structure of time (and assignment of people to tasks within time blocks) that allocates hours within the day and across the year to different functions, thereby creating more or less opportunity to accomplish goals.
These resources are thus intimately linked to one another. Each affects the other and even depends on the other to achieve its intended purpose. An abundance of money and time, for example, without the knowledge, motivation, and expertise of teachers (human capital) does little to maximize desired learning opportunities created for students.
Furthermore, an abundance of human capital without money or time to distribute it does little to alter practice in classrooms or to share expertise with others. From their position of influence over the acquisition, flow, and (intended) use of resources, educational leaders thereby undertake a massive attempt to coordinate and render coherent the relationships of the various resources to the goals they set out to achieve.