Thursday, December 22, 2011

Common Core Needs a New Learning Corps!

"There may not be any curriculum that every learner needs to know, but there surely are many curriculums that most need learners to know."

There's lots of talk out there in Web 2+ land these days about learning standards, standardized testing, common core curriculums, even having teachers read scripts to students to assure that all learners are hearing the same thing. Madness abounds! Who even knows when the kids are listening to anything the teacher says.

A teacher's curriculum delivery plate is far too full these days, not just with standards, but with all the other cultural, social, political, and local necessities that constitute what children are expected to know. Well, at least expect to be tested on. For more on this topic, read Jamie Vollmer' List:

It's my intent in this blog to tilt a different windmill. Pancho, hand me my Quixotian lance. What do our students really need to know? The answers, whatever they are, must be doable.

One of the recently touted solutions is Common Core standards. It makes sense, really. At some acceptable level of competency, kids need to know how read, write, compute. The devil is in the details of when and how much. Not all will pass 5th grade tests in 5th grade.

I'll digress on this last observation, because the enemy of standards is us. We have a plethora of disconnected school districts. We group our learners by how old they are, not by what they know and need to know. For more on this topic read "Animal School" - fable with a moral that's been around for over 50 years:

Why group them at all? Why not deliver the Common Core standards to each learner, one at a time. We could make lessons available, with the requisite testing, online 24/7 and even include real, live tutorial and mentor help for those who need it. Hey, it's already happening. But, let's have all states adopt the same definition of standards: every learner needs to know these skills and understandings before diploma time. Maybe we could even have a Confederation of States Commission to oversee it and let the states get on with other business.

Classrooms could then become a gathering-place of learners with like interests and comparable readiness to learn the non-core curriculum du jour or the semester....watercolor art, choral music, journaling, geocaching, poem-making, etc. Why, they might even choose something new to learn that would motivate a more aggressive mastery of their Common Core standards. Students could even form learning teams and help one another, teachers assisting as needed. And our teachers wouldn't have to read from teleprompters either.

With 16,000 school districts and an equal number of school boards, alignment for effectively delivering common standards is nearly an impossible task. Let's let the new technologies and Web 2.0+ and a Common Core Commission of States help deliver what our current classrooms can't. Then let's create New Classrooms to deliver what Common Core can't: Competencies in Action.

I know, I know! My windmill is a dream. And so is my tilting. But dreams can happen, one newly revised classroom at a time, a place where learners are ready, willing, and able to show us that they know. Even Horace Mann might approve.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

More Nonsense!

I read this lead story in our local St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press:

For those of you who remember Popeye cartoons, I experienced one of those "I can't stands it no more" experiences and penned this piece...OK, OK....typed this terse and pithy retort.

What's your two cents on it? Thanks!
Dear PP:

I read your interesting piece on student test scores today.

As a teacher celebrating his golden anniversary of teaching this year, I have a comment. I'll try to be terse and pithy.

What matters most in kid's learning is having the motivation and readiness to learn. If the learner doesn't care and/or isn't ready for the curriculum being presented, almost nothing else poverty, geography or residence or school, teacher excellence, school budget, you name it.

Next in importance and relevance comes the host of other factors that help: student interest, parental involvement, time on task, conducive classroom, pervasive learning environment....there's more, but you get the point.

These ill-conceived standardized tests we've all been sold are designed to measure the performance of an hypothetical standardized student. I hasten to add that this student does not actually exist. He/she is an amalgam of the norming process by the test-makers and designed to give an abstracted average of performance. Furthermore, these tests don't just measure what happens in a classroom. They measure what's been learned in the environment at large during one's waking hours.

Real learners don't come abstracted that way, being as they are good at some kinds of learning and less so at others. Since these tests are little help in helping actual students, we now use them to measure schools, or worse, teachers for which they were not designed. That said, it seems to me that standardized testing is largely a waste of time and an increasingly bigger pile of money better spent elsewhere.

It is not surprising to find that motivated, ready-to-learn students can do well almost anywhere, (exceptions duly noted). Abe Lincoln, we are told, got much of his learning by the light of the cabin fireplace. By today's standards, many of my generation came from neighborhoods and went to schools that would be called impoverished or substandard. We did not think of ourselves that way, however, and many of us ended up with an education that helped us not only find a job, but lead a modest, "examined life."

I do not deny that it is a very different world today. Although the standard of living for almost everyone is higher, the perceived value of an education is diminished in the eyes of many. Good paying jobs for manual labor are mostly gone, and the ones requiring more extensive learning are fading, too. I remain surprised and grateful that so many students do want to learn.

If we'd stop this irrelevant debate and invite both parents and students to join us, I truly believe we'd have more learning more.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Better Learning for ALL!:Locking the Locker Room Door!

Just like the weather these days, everybody talks about educational reform, but almost nobody does anything about it. Except for maybe a ray of sunshine here and a thunderstorm there, schools and the kids in them continue pretty much as Horace Mann started them almost 200 years ago.

Sad, isn't it? We know a lot more about how kids learn, but we rarely can do anything about it. We have more tools for learning than ever before, but even when we have them (which is also far too rare), the teachers haven't been trained in how to use them.

Now there are a few dozen exceptions to this tragic pickle jar we find ourselves in, some schools with staff and kids that have leapt ahead in their teaching and learning. Most don't last for long. Leaders leave, teachers burn out, funding fails and the lamp of learning is dimmed again.

Furthermore, we find it almost impossible to replicate them anywhere else, no matter how extensive the documentation and supportive research. The chemistry is never quite the same.

What can we do to change this tragedy?

Let's dream dreams. What if we brought together some caring, creative folks and asked them to imagine a school, or even better, a learning environment, where more kids learned more. We'd stipulate that we can't make all kids learning everything right now, so we'll settle for more learning more.

We keep this team of change agents together until they come up with a Manifesto for K-12 Learning Success, with the motto: "That More Will Learn More!" Let's go way out on a limb and say we can list what's needed and what it will cost, and we can find a way to fund it, too.

What's next? Educational paradise? Hardly. Why?

We have over 16,000 school districts in America, all controlled by separate school boards, superintendents, principals, plus state boards and agencies, and a host of federal regulations if you want their federal funds. What do you think are the chances of convincing tens of thousands of entities to adopt a unilateral plan for change? What do you think are the chances of changing even a few? As the old saying goes, "Slim to none!"

If you've been in K-12 or higher-education for any length of time, you know this is true. With the local control of schools, directions for change can't come from outside. It's hard enough to make them come from the inside. And even if you can light a fire big enough to make that happen, how do you keep it from burning itself out over time?

So, allow me to suggest the only firm conclusion I can draw from my own effort with school reform: True change begins and ends with changed practices, one practicer at a time. The proof is in each dish of pudding. Here's the story:

Start with your own classroom. Here's one more key tip: involve the students as change partners. Give them more responsibility for being in charge of planning, doing and reporting on their own learning. Let the parent be their partner. You are the team member. Each student leads his own Personal Learning Plan.

That was the most significant idea at our Saturn School of Tomorrow: the Personal Learning Plan, owned by each student. It works. Listen to the last line of this video made by the Saturn School kids to tell the whole world about their school.

Never give up. Change what you can. Pass it on and pay it forward.

Now what's this business about "Locking the Locker Room Door" in the title above? Comedian Bill Cosby told a joke with a moral once about the coach who got his players all pumped up at half time to mount a major comeback. They were chomping at the bit, ready to go out and win the game, but the coach couldn't find the key to unlock the locker room door.

Make sure you have the key.

And, may the Force of Change be with you.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Teacher's Curriculum & Duties Plate

Ever wonder why teaching is so much harder today? It's never been easy, of course.

But take a look how more and more is required of those who teach our kids. And then we want to measure teacher effectiveness with the test scores of the kids they teach.

If you can't hug a teacher, thank him or her profusely!

The Ever Increasing Burden on America’s Public Schools


America’s public schools can be traced back to the year 1640. The Massachusetts Puritans established schools to: 1) Teach basic reading, some writing and arithmetic skills, and

2) Cultivate values that serve a democratic society (some history and civics implied).

The founders of these schools assumed that families and churches bore the major responsibility for raising a child. Gradually, science and geography were added, but the curriculum was limited and remained focused for 260 years.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, politicians, academics, members of the clergy, and business leaders saw public schools as a logical site for the assimilation of immigrants and the social engineering of the citizens—and workers—of the new industrial age. They began to expand the curriculum and assign additional duties. That trend has accelerated ever since.

From 1900 to 1910, we shifted to our public schools responsibilities related to

• Nutrition

• Immunization

• Health (Activities in the health arena multiply every year.)

From 1910 to 1930, we added

• Physical education (including organized athletics)

• The Practical Arts/Domestic Science/Home economics (including sewing and cooking)

• Vocational education (including industrial and agricultural education)

• Mandated school transportation

In the 1940s, we added

• Business education (including typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping)

• Art and music

• Speech and drama

• Half-day kindergarten

• School lunch programs (We take this for granted today, but it was a huge step to shift to the schools the job of feeding America’s children one third of their daily meals.)

In the 1950s, we added

• Expanded science and math education

• Safety education

• Driver’s education

• Expanded music and art education

• Stronger foreign language requirements

• Sex education (Topics continue to escalate.)

In the 1960s, we added

• Advanced Placement programs

• Head Start

• Title I

• Adult education

• Consumer education (purchasing resources, rights and responsibilities)

• Career education (occupational options, entry level skill requirements)

• Peace, leisure, and recreation education [Loved those sixties.]

In the 1970s, the breakup of the American family accelerated, and we added

• Drug and alcohol abuse education

• Parenting education (techniques and tools for healthy parenting)

• Behavior adjustment classes (including classroom and communication skills)

• Character education

• Special education (mandated by federal government)

• Title IX programs (greatly expanded athletic programs for girls)

• Environmental education

• Women’s studies

• African-American heritage education

• School breakfast programs (Now some schools feed America’s children two-thirds of their daily meals throughout the school year and all summer. Sadly, these are the only decent meals some children receive.)

In the 1980s, the floodgates opened, and we added

• Keyboarding and computer education

• Global education

• Multicultural/Ethnic education

• Nonsexist education

• English-as-a-second-language and bilingual education

• Teen pregnancy awareness

• Hispanic heritage education

• Early childhood education

• Jump Start, Early Start, Even Start, and Prime Start

• Full-day kindergarten

• Preschool programs for children at risk

• After-school programs for children of working parents

• Alternative education in all its forms

• Stranger/danger education

• Antismoking education

• Sexual abuse prevention education

• Expanded health and psychological services

• Child abuse monitoring (a legal requirement for all teachers)

In the 1990s, we added

• Conflict resolution and peer mediation

• HIV/AIDS education

• CPR training

• Death education

• America 2000 initiatives (Republican)

• Inclusion

• Expanded computer and internet education

• Distance learning

• Tech Prep and School to Work programs

• Technical Adequacy

• Assessment

• Post-secondary enrollment options

• Concurrent enrollment options

• Goals 2000 initiatives (Democrat)

• Expanded Talented and Gifted opportunities

• At risk and dropout prevention

• Homeless education (including causes and effects on children)

• Gang education (urban centers)

• Service learning

• Bus safety, bicycle safety, gun safety, and water safety education

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we have added

• No Child Left Behind (Republican)

• Bully prevention

• Anti-harassment policies (gender, race, religion, or national origin)

• Expanded early childcare and wrap around programs

• Elevator and escalator safety instruction

• Body Mass Index evaluation (obesity monitoring)

• Organ donor education and awareness programs

• Personal financial literacy

• Entrepreneurial and innovation skills development

• Media literacy development

• Contextual learning skill development

• Health and wellness programs

• Race to the Top (Democrat)

This list does not include the addition of multiple, specialized topics within each of the traditional subjects. It also does not include the explosion of standardized testing and test prep activities, or any of the onerous reporting requirements imposed by the federal government, such as four-year adjusted cohort graduation rates, parental notification of optional supplemental services, comprehensive restructuring plans, and reports of Adequate Yearly Progress.

It’s a ponderous list.

Each item has merit, and all have their ardent supporters, but the truth is that we have added these responsibilities without adding a single minute to the school calendar in six decades. No generation of teachers and administrators in the history of the world has been told to fulfill this mandate: not just teach children, but raise them!

© 2011 Jamie Vollmer | To purchase this list in poster form or to invite Jamie to speak visit

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bloated Blogs! Time for Twitter-Blog....

Hey! If you can tweet it in 140 characters, you sure ought to be able to say it in 140 words.

Look folks, the world's attention span is shrinking before your very enter key.

People today move on to the next tweet or website if it takes more than 4 seconds to open or 40 seconds to understand.

"Terse and pithy!" can be our new mantra!

Having enjoyed Victorian literature for many years, I understand it's not possible to convey all messages so quickly. But if you can shorten a message, just do it.

Here's a couple of tips:

• Reread your blog text. What can you toss? What's repetitive? What's essential?

• Use bulletpoints instead of lengthy text.

• A good presenter told me: "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em; tell 'em; tell 'em what you told 'em!"

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Animal School Redux

Does anyone remember reading that classic fable called, "The Animal School" by George Reavis? It was first published back in 1946 and is more true today than ever before. Read it below:

Sad to say, we are still trying to standardize our students by requiring them to take standardized tests on a largely standardized curriculum. Never mind that the kids are all different in abilities and interests, but grouped largely by age, as that's the only descriptor we can easily measure. We'd like standardized results from all of them too, with all of them above average in running, flying, swimming and whatever.

Did you ever stop and think what it means to have everyone above average? I don't recommend it, as it can cause an instant headache. Never mind that it's impossible to have everyone above average!

Since these NCLB tests we now give our kids tell us little or nothing about how to help each Jason with his reading or eqach Gwen with her grammar, we have to figure out something useful to do with them. Billions are being tossed by states and feds into the test-makers' coffers annually, largely to assure us that while our students are not quite there yet, it's only because teachers have not yet done enough.

So now, instead of using these tests for the purposes for which they were written....testing K-12 students....our leaders tell us we will use them to test the quality of our teachers instead. If the kids are not all above average, it is clearly the fault of the teacher. Right?

Think about this: Many teachers have 35 kids in their classroom in the fall and maybe 35 kids in the spring. More often than not, they are not the same 35 kids. Whatever demonstrable teacher effect exists is not being measured across the same set of learners. On any given day 20-30% of the students may be absent too, but not all on the same day.

So what do we do? I propose that, if you want to evaluate teachers with standardized tests, then create a valid and reliable measure specifically designed for the teachers. We need a test that tests teachers.

If the tests themselves were correlated with actual classroom performance, this could be helpful information for teacher improvement. We would then need to put resources in place to help them improve, something we are not doing well or at all right now. Perhaps, some of that touted federal investment in our collective futures would make sense being spent here.

This proposal does not address the Animal School conundrum. It could improve those teachers, trainers, coaches who are trying to get all the learners equally able to run, swim, fly, and burrow. But we all know that equal competency for each learner can't happen across the curriculum.

But perhaps by then we will all wake up to the fact that standardized tests can only bring unattainable standardized results. As Reavis says at the end of his article:

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

Sounds like more charter schools to me!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Support Your Local Teacher!

Here is my Letter to the Editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in response to their lukewarm editorial on the recent teacher issues here and elsewhere:

"Teachers could use more help, and fewer critics"
By Tom King
Updated: 03/26/2011 04:04:31 PM CDT

Count me among your readers who value measured opinions, such as yours in "Evaluating teachers: a moderate proposal" (March 20). But, as Paul Harvey might have said, here's "the rest of the story."

I, like you, "cherish" our teachers (having been one and worked with hundreds in my career). "Cherish" is not an emotion widely tied to teachers these days. More and more, it's become like the zany sports world where coaches are blamed, fired and changed at whim if the players don't perform. If students aren't doing well, just fire the teacher.

Teachers are broadly blamed for the ills in K-12 education, guilty or not. The inherently faulted "No Child Left Behind" legislation has gotten so twisted that districts are now using their students' standardized test scores to measure teacher performance, somewhat akin to evaluating the physician with patient blood-sugar tests. Changing the acronym for NCLB to something different, as the current administration recently proposed, won't change the faulted nonsense of standardized testing, for either students or teachers.

Even if there were high, positive correlations between student tests and teacher performance (there aren't) in today's classroom it rarely applies. Consider that, in many of our inner-city schools, in the classrooms of greatest concern, students enrolled with a teacher and tested in the fall are not the same students who are tested in the spring. The kids have moved on ... somewhere else. No teacher effect.

It doesn't make sense to measure a student who hasn't been with that teacher over time. Nor does it address the issue of students enrolled but rarely present. Or those enrolled who can't speak or understand English. Or those with special needs. The classroom is a volatile environment for a controlled study. The variables keep changing.

Sensible proposals to evaluate teachers can be a good and needed tool for improving teacher performance. We all need to get better at what we do in life. So, it makes sense to call teaching a practice, just as we do for doctors and lawyers. But with continued declining budgets, fewer school district dollars have gone into professional development, continuing education and programs to improve teacher performance. Fewer teachers are seeking advanced degrees in their fields, one measure of advancing teacher competence.

Teacher seniority is not a good answer for evaluation, or making changes. But it's no worse than picking just another number just because it's easily measured, like a standardized test score. In both instances, neither measure correlates highly with teacher performance.

The best way to improve teacher performance is for skilled teachers and trained administrators to more frequently observe teachers, followed by helpful discussion and an improvement plan. Simply videotaping teachers can be a big help, too, enabling teachers to help themselves improve.

Teachers could use a lot more help in the classrooms helping students, and fewer critics. Volunteer to help your teachers by spending some time working with kids who need help. Mentors make a big difference. So do involved parents. We don't need a controlled study or more standardized tests to know that more helpers make the bigger difference to improve students' learning and teachers' performance.
Tom King of West St. Paul is a retired teacher and administrator from the St. Paul Public Schools. He founded the reform-based Saturn School of Tomorrow in 1987. He has taught grad-ed courses at the University of St. Thomas, since 1974.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sherpas and the Race to the Top of the Peak

In the words of Jerry Springer (remember him from the early days of TV mayhem?) "What is going on here?"

We've got the President and Ed Sec Duncan trying to get all the schools racing to the head of pinnacle. Never mind that you can fit many more angels on the head of a pin that you can schools. Anyone with commonsense knows there isn't room there for 16,000 school districts, 100,000 schools, let alone 50+ million students. Commonsense is very uncommon in DC these days.

Even if we could get all of K-12 education moving that upward direction, whatever that means, there's not enough sustaining funds to pay all the Sherpas of the world to get us or keep us there. And, if you look at the research, any school that makes it to, or even near, the top doesn't stay there very long.

The sherpas, in this analogy, are the 3 million teachers who labor incessantly to help learners learn and scale against all odds. Lately, the critics have taken to lambasting these helpers for laziness, incompetence and being overpaid.

Instead of worrying about the many children being left behind, our government and business leaders worry instead about schools being left behind, or teachers falling behind, or standardized test scores on nonstandard kids falling behind the standards, whatever they are. We all need a reminder to remember our kids aren't standardized?

One might like to blame some of this lofty, pinnacle thinking on a political party or some errant billionaires, but few seem to really understand the nonsense of their proposed remedies.

Standardized tests are called summative evaluations and are designed to produce a normal curve, a distribution where half are above the middle score and half below. It's impossible to have everyone above the median middle, unless of course, you live in Lake Woebegone and you have Garrison Keillor to extol your virtues.

These tests are made up of questions which only "sample" what learners know. They are far, far from testing the extent of basic knowledge and understanding we'd like all kids to know, to say nothing of the higher levels of learning, like analysis or synthesis or evaluative thinking. Those latter skills are what help us contend with good jobs and life, in general.

Doesn't it make much more sense to focus on helping more learners learning more? How about finding a way to bring more parents into the act? More importantly, let's let students and parents have greater responsibility for a Personal Learning Plan for their child. One that gives far more control and input into what each student needs to become a better learner. Who knows better than the student what they know and what they don't know. Often, they even know better what kind of help they need to be successful. Let each of them plan their work and work their plan, as that old IBM motto put it.

We don't want schools on the top. We want the kids on the top. Each one residing on their own personal peak of proficiency and performance. So, let's all put our efforts and energy into helping more learners learn more!

We teachers and parents are each the Sherpas. Let's help our kids reach the top.