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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Year Later and We Are Still “Waiting for Superman”

Recently I viewed the documentary, Waiting for Superman, for the umpteenth time, and I noted that almost a year after the film’s September 24, 2010 U. S. première, the American educational system is still not living up to its potential. Sure, education reform was the phrase on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but after a year, most of the fervor and commitment to educational change that was initially exhibited has all but subsided.
The comparisons with other developed countries show that the strongest nation in the world is still falling behind academically. The cost per pupil in the U.S. has soared to five times the level in the 1950s, after adjusting for inflation. With this kind of money being pumped into the system, why are many our school systems of such a low caliber, and further falling behind?
Statistics and common sense born of observation tell us that the biggest crisis in our schools is finding ways to educate students in low-income areas. However, as Waiting for Superman illustrates, our educational problems are not limited to poverty-stricken areas alone. As Lesley Chilcott, producer of the Waiting for Superman put it, “the dirty little secret… is that middle- and upper-class communities are suffering as well. When we talk about U.S. students ranking twenty-fifth in math, we’re not just talking about underserved communities, we’re talking overall.” Yet, despite decades of knowing that these problems exist, little improvements are being made to the system itself. Of course, everyone seemingly wants to improve America’s education system; they just do not seem to know or agree on how to do it.
The American public must believe that educational reform is a top priority issue in these times of severe economic troubles. It is understandable that, in today’s economy, people are primarily concerned about their jobs and putting food on the table. Upgrading education, although important to most, can hold a low priority in the mind of the average American, who is mostly concerned with keeping a roof over their heads. The paradox here is that this is precisely the time to make that investment into education. When times are tough in an economy such as ours, workers need to improve their skills to compete effectively in the local (and global) marketplace. The education system is where people turn to acquire these skills.
Furthermore, enhanced skills and technological talents are going to be desperately needed in the future, as America continues to struggle towards sustaining a dynamic 21st century labor force. Production is not getting easier and simpler – in fact, it is just the opposite. Along the same lines, workers down the road will need to be able to adapt to technologies that are just now being developed. If American students and workers find themselves in an educational system that cannot fulfill these necessary, required functions because it is sub-par, not only will these individuals and their families find little success in an economy that has left them behind; it will cripple America’s competitiveness.
Waiting for Superman has been criticized as being against teacher’s unions, placing the blame too squarely on the shoulders of educators, and misrepresenting educational statistics. Nevertheless, the film shined a bright spotlight on the harsh reality of our educational system, showing the exodus of middle and upper class children from our public schools; the sadness of the lottery system; and the general hopelessness that some express about our educational system and its future.
One segment of Waiting for Superman illustrates American self-confidence through an image of kids doing daredevil bike stunts, and then crashing. This scene shows, in a metaphorical sense, that while our students seem to have confidence, many do not have the skills to actually succeed.
A year later, Waiting for Superman still serves as a stark reminder of just how bad our educational system has become, and just how ineffective most of our efforts at improving it have been. The American educational system has reached a turning point, a time when things seem at their most dire, and yet many appear to simply sit idly by “Waiting for Superman.”
America needs to view this film as a public call to action, where each of us is summoned to be a Superman (or Superwoman, as the case may be), or at least to lend a hand in saving our educational system, perhaps without the flashy heroics and cape. Rather than waiting, we should strive towards getting every educator, educational leader, government official, parent, and citizen to educate themselves about the problems that exist in our educational system, and to work together to fix them.
What is most important is that we understand the deficiencies in our educational system, and strictly forbid placing blame – which rarely serves to encourage cooperation. Rather, we must demonstrate accountability for our situation and fulfill our responsibility to our children. Collectively, we must come together with an understanding that “Superman” is not coming to save our children, and it is up to us to work together to find innovative ways to rise to the challenge of fixing our educational system.
The future must be planned for; now. It certainly will not be an overnight process. However, by taking positive, productive steps, one at a time, an enormous amount of ground can be covered in the coming years. If we simply work together, we can restore the U.S. educational system to its former preeminence, and give our children the bright futures they deserve in our great country and aboard. We must become the Super-citizens that we have been waiting for.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

President Obama, NCLB and the School Reform Blame Game

On Friday, September 23, President Barack Obama announced that his administration's amendments to the No Child Left Behind Act would curtail the need for educators to "teach to the test." He also opined that although NCLB was well intentioned, it has not lived up to its hype. "Congress has not been able to fix these flaws so far," The President said in his remarks. "I've urged Congress for a while now, let's get a bipartisan effort, let's fix this. Congress hasn't been able to do it. So I will."  In the eyes of many, NCLB has actually contributed to our educational system becoming even worse. With skyrocketing costs, budget crises, inconsistent curricula, poor standardized test scores, and poor morale among teachers, administrators, and students, the need for sustainable and pervasive educational change is greater now than ever before.

The numbers of questions related to the quality of the U.S. educational system from multiple sectors of society is at an all-time high. Many American parents have seen reports that American schools rank well below schools in countries such as China and Japan, or have heard President Obama declare a “dropout crisis” in the USA. An abundance of news reports and discouraging case studies has created panic among education stakeholders, who want to know why the American K-12 school system is failing. However, many insist on playing the “blame game,” which in most cases is counterproductive.

Many Americans believe that only a small percentage of leaders understand the complexities of the school system, and that individuals who do understand the intricacies of the system use their knowledge to justify the mediocre performance of our teachers and students. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are often educated in dilapidated schools where too many educators lack the credentials and skills necessary to perform their duties adequately. High student-to-teacher ratios are found in most urban schools, and these schools often lack the resources to deal with the diverse challenges they face, including unruly student behavior. Education has been called the great equalizer, but for students living in poverty-stricken urban areas, it is little more than a babysitting service and a place to get a hot meal.

If American educators and school personnel do not make a concerted effort to develop effective measures to hold schools accountable for the education of all of our children, then the education crisis will continue. There is an exception to every rule, as some urban school systems are providing their students with a quality education. Unfortunately, however, only a small number of school systems meet the state and federal government student performance requirements. For underperforming urban school systems, the problem usually lies with the inability to sustain existing reform efforts and initiatives.

Mayors and school superintendents in these areas often concoct grandiose reform plans that are merely political devices meant to beguile voters into believing they genuinely care about educational reform. The idea that politicians create school reform to gain popularity and votes is sad and sobering. It is discouraging to realize that our children’s futures might be used as a political device to win elections.

Politicians are not the only people at fault for the shoddy education American children are receiving, but no one is willing to share the blame for subpar educational environments. If administrators were asked who was at fault, they might point to a lack of parental involvement and too few quality teachers. If teachers were asked who was at fault they might also cite a lack of parental involvement and ineffective administration. If parents were asked who was at fault they might blame teachers and school administrators.

Society in general needs to understand that the lack of quality teachers, effective administration, and parental involvement are all factors that contribute to the current state of our educational system. The country must unite and work together to carry the responsibility of enriching and continuing America’s future via educational excellence without playing the “blame game.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Creating and Sustaining Educational Change 101

When considering school reform, it may be advantageous for administrators to think of their schools as businesses. If the structure of the school were to reflect the business model, we would work from the assumption that students in the school system are customers, schools are the businesses, teachers are the employees/supervisors, and the administrators are the CEO’s.  
In any business, the customers needs always come first. The reputation for customer service is the best advertising a business can receive. Keeping this savvy business strategy in mind, the business of the school should be to create learning opportunities that lead to greater academic achievement. If educators make lessons fun while adhering to the curriculum, the graduation rate will increase dramatically. If children feel safe and entertained, they will want to come to school. It is the educator’s task to make sure students learn to love to learn, while it is the administration’s task to support their efforts. 
The most critical question administrators must confront is: where do we begin? Beginning reform by tackling several goals at once is noble, but not recommended. When trying to start reform in a complex environment such as a school, administrators need to focus on one task at a time. When making decisions, the administration needs to be sure to complete all steps of the reform in sequential order, using a strategic way of thinking.
In some cases goals can be independently accomplished. Departments will be able to achieve short-term goals while accomplishing the larger goals. In education, the improvements that matter the most are those that directly concern children. In order to create the necessary improvements, school districts must be reformed in ways that will sustain change. The ability of a school district to sustain reform should be of the utmost importance to the superintendent and the board of education.
Three conditions must be present in order to sustain reform. First, administrators must come to an agreement concerning the issues that have made it necessary for school reform to take place. They must be open and honest and refrain from blaming others for the issues that exist. All individuals directly and indirectly involved in the school reform must share a common vision.
Administrators should try to come to a consensus regarding the purpose of education and the roles of the faculty and staff.  They also need to agree on the rules and guidelines that will support the implementation of the reform, while respecting cultural beliefs of the faculty, staff, and students. Finally, administrators must communicate the current issues of the school and the vision for the future to stakeholders. Those who support and participate in reform need a clear vision of the common goal. Administrators must paint a reform picture that alleviates fears, and entice all to buy into the vision.
Communication is the key to running and sustaining a successful school when creating concrete reform. All participants and key administrators must agree to communicate with each other their understanding of the school reform, including their concerns. The administrators and participants must have a shared understanding of the issues the district faces, as they must learn to articulate, analyze, and explain the issues in a similar way.
There needs to be a common vision concerning students, schools, and the allocation of resources. Administrators must also anticipate new trends and issues preventing reform. Once the obstacles have been identified, it is the duty of the administrator to articulate these trends and issues to the powers that be, i.e., superintendents and school board members. Finally, the most important communication between administrators and staff is how to create reform that provides a quality education for all students.
Communication must also take place among the school district, superintendents, and the board of education in an intentional and ongoing manner. They must continuously reflect in an open and honest way on the effectiveness of the reform, and successfully communicate between departments in the case of promotions, retirements, or sudden resignation.
When creating school reform, administrators should consider communicating with community members. Community members and parents have a lot to contribute when it comes to school reform and they should be encouraged and allowed to do so. Parents and educators undoubtedly have a genuine concern for the needs of students. Why not place the important decisions concerning our students in the hands of the people that have the children’s best interests at heart?
Administrators should also consider teachers as a major part of school reform. Reform is considered a success or a failure based on the students’ performance, but teacher performance is inextricably linked to student performance. Through positive teacher-student relationships, genuine learning can take place in the classroom. Teachers know their students and the educational practices that work best in their classroom.
In schools across the nation, the people in the best positions to create positive outcomes have little to no control over the changes that are made and how they are implemented. Too often, the most critical decisions concerning the educational system are made by people without the capacity to understand the inner workings of the individual school and what it takes to ensure no child is left behind.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

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.

Wednesday, February 1, 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.