Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Want Kids to Learn? Put Them in Charge - Well, Almost!

Want to know a secret?

Something that will have more kids learning more?

Something you can have your students do that takes only a few minutes a day.

It's so simple you won't believe it. And if you pay it forward, it could change the K12 world for the better in an iFlash! It's called iLearner. Short for I'm the Learner. I'm the one in charge. I'm the only one who can make my learning happen.

It's the answer to the question: Who's responsible for my learning?

The answer is, altogether now, "I am!"

Riddle me this? Why have we left the most important part of learning out of the learning equation? The answer is at the bottom of this rant.

Back in the early 21st century someone thought that quality in K12 education was like quality in producing widgets. It was all part of what was called the Total Quality Movement or TQM. The thinking behind the production of excellent widgets was to standardize them. It makes sense.

But I have a revelation for the millions of us pursuing TQM in our schools today: our students aren't standardized. They are all different. Their needs are different.Their desire to learn is different. The resources they need to learn differ. Their goals in life are different. Their talents are different and so are their limitations.

But we treat them as if they must all be the same. They must know the same things and meet the same standards. Everyone needs to be above average, regardless of talents. Way back in my teacher-prep days...OK, it was way back in 1958, our education Prof put this clarifying piece of satire in our hands: "Animal School." Read the link below.

In a nutshell we each can't do all. Nor can we each meet all the same standards at the same level. Nor should we.

So why do our teachers have to give up so much learning delivery time to standardized testing? The answer, I believe, is that our educational leaders have been sold a promise in a poke. The promise, incidentally, is worth millions to test-makers and investors and politicians and educators in chief who support this nonsense. The promise is that testing will help make all learners learn all equally well.

That promise is patently false and anyone worth his or her educational salt knows it.

Here's a promise that is patently true: Put learners more in charge of their own learning and their learning will (almost always) improve. I added the parenthetical caveat because nothing is perfect, no matter how good it is. I call it iLearner.

Require each learner, with the help of parent, advisor, mentor, teacher, create a Personal Learning Plan and Portfolio. Keep it terse and pithy. The basics: What do I need to know; what resources and help do I need to learn it; here's my plan to show you that I know. Visit the plan daily with a member of your team and update your progress. When ready, show by a test or a project that you really do know.

If someone wants to make an app out of this million learners idea, share the profits with the schools.

PS: The rant answer is that we have left the learner out of the learning equation because we missed a simpler, less costly answer: Make each child the key part of the teaching/learning team.

PPS:  "Animal School"-- by George Reavis, originally published in 1940's. Will we ever learn?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Educated Man (And Woman)

56 years ago I was a sophomore at the College of St. Thomas. Msgr. James P. Shannon was President and frequently held convocations that dealt with topics important both inside and outside the classroom.

One that I will never forget was titled "The Tradition of Respectful Argument." As you listen to the upcoming debates along politicians, or read current political articles by many axe-grinding journalists, you will find far more disrespectful argument.

Like most ad hominem, personalized attacks, all these diatribes do is cause further diatribe.

Read Shannon's piece below and reflect on it. Pass it on if you find it worthwhile. I did. That's why I saved it all these years. As it yellows, it still holds its truths.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Poverty and Student Achievement

I've read more and more bully-pulpit Tweeters, big-time Bloggers, famous FB-posters and powerful Pundits lately suggesting that to fix the problem with K12 student achievement, all we need to do is solve the problem of poverty.

First off, let me say the problem of student achievement is hard enough to fix. In fact, we're still trying. But until we get our focus off all this time-wasting standardized testing nonsense and find more ways to involve students and parents in assuming responsibility for learning success, improved achievement is not likely to happen.

What will work, you say? Well, I have a plan that will work. How do I know that? It worked before in an innovative school many years ago and it will work now.

What did we do? We required each student (with a parent or mentor) to develop a Personal Learning Plan - a listing of learning goals achieved; a listing of what yet needed to be achieved; and lastly and importantly, what resources the student needed to achieve it.

Why would this help? It puts each learner in charge of his or her own learning success. Not the teacher, not the principal, not the school, not the school board, not Sec. Duncan or Pres. Obama.

Let's ask ourselves, "Who is fundamentally responsible for our own learning?" Answer: "We are!"

Sure others can help us, motivate us, observe us, praise us, correct us, show us, invite us...but for us to learn, we must learn it. No one else can do it for us. We can be led to the water, they can even salt our hay, but if we are to partake of it, we must choose it.

It's that simple. Require each student to create, enact, assess their own Personal Learning Plan. Revisit it regularly. Report on it frequently to parents, mentors, advisors, teachers, the public at large, if you wish.

That single transfer of the major responsibility for learning to the learner can enable this increase of student achievement we've all been looking for.

No, it may not work well for everyone. Some will need more help than others. Some will choose not to do it. But bottom line, more will learn more.

Let's close with an observation on learning and poverty. Perhaps it's more appropriate to say ignorance and poverty. Years of research show these terms are positively correlated. That does not mean one causes the other.

When I started school over 65 years ago, many students were poor, especially by todays' standards. But our own expectations, and those of our parents, resulted in many of us becoming successful learners, graduating high school, seeking post-secondary training or education. Some did not, and dropped out of school, but were able to find work. There is little of that kind of work left any longer that pays well.

In a nutshell, poverty doesn't mean you can't learn. It does mean you may not have the resources or encouragement that others may have, but we all know you can succeed anyway. In fact, many of our recent immigrants provide ample evidence of learning success when parents care and students work hard to learn.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Education's Vote

So, who (OK, whom) will we support in the next election for our Education President?

We haven't had a strong supporter in the White House in a long, long time. Neither party!

Where can we turn for political leaders who will support kids, parents, teachers, principals and all those in education.

The current focus on standardized testing does nothing to help K12 learning. It wastes time, money, talent and the futures of our learners.

Millions of dollars from the Pearsons of the testing world go into the PACS and SuperPACS of politicians for reelection and more support of the Pearsons.

What thoughts do you have on this tragic situation? We can't keep supporting those who won't support us. Can we? Will we?

We need some solutions fast!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Grading the Graders: More Meaningless Madness!

Have you been following the recent drive among pundits and pols to find a new use for those standardized tests they give to our kids?

Those costly tests, which also take much time away from learners and teachers, are largely useless in helping individual students. The sample of questions and student answers just don't tell teachers enough about what to do with the data to actually help the student.

This testing costs hundreds of millions of dollars every year, in addition to even more priceless lost learning time. The sizable profits made from the sales to over 16,000 school districts and state departments of education end up in the coffers of the testing moguls. Followup political payback donations go into the PAC pockets of the pols of both parties.

What we have here is a government-endorsed license to steal money from our schools. Worse, it robs teachers of critical classroom time-on-task for teaching and learning.

Could it be even worse, you ask? The answer is, "Yes!"

Let me explain.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote the following blog on student grading:


To grade or not to grade, that is the question!

What's the answer?

How did you feel the first time you had a grade attached to you? You know...a letter C, maybe with a + or a -. Or maybe a number, like 82 or 69?

Suppose you had a good grade way back when; did you deserve it? Or, how about a bad grade in 3rd grade? Was your performance really that bad? Well, the teacher must have thought so.

How did it affect your view of yourself? Were you the better or the worse because of it?


No way can we grade another human being this way. No simple number, no single letter and no standardized test score adequately describes human performance. We are far too complex.

So, if it doesn't make sense to label a student with a letter or a number or a profile of numbers, why would you consider grading a teacher using a student's test score? That's now what some districts are doing.

Yes, it can be helpful to teachers to have a checklist of needed skills, to assess their performance using video or visits from other experienced teachers. It makes no sense to include measures that are not their own.

Here's some recent history:

Since NCLB and other standardized tests were little help to individual learners, they were then used to grade our schools. If enough students in a school had low scores, the school was labeled "F" for failing.

Next an onslaught of fixers would come forward to fix the school. Never mind it rarely worked, by then many parents moved their children elsewhere. Charter schools emerged as an alternative. Most schools never improved.

Then emerged the idea of using the meaningless test scores to measure teachers. If we can measure a plant manager by the number of widgets he gets out the door each day, why not do the same with teachers? Teachers can be graded too, just like butter and milk.

Folks, our kids are not widgets. They bring a unique blend of talents and needs to each classroom. Regrettably, they are largely grouped together by how old they are, and not by what they need to know or the resources they must have.

A teacher may find 30 kids in her room at the end of the school year, completely different from the 30 she had the previous September. Many students can't or won't come to school on any given day, so the lesson given was a lesson lost. Some students have parents who care, and others who don't. Some work hard in school and see it as an opportunity to improve their lives; others clearly do not.

Each of these children yield a test score which can be accumulated to grade their teacher. Of course, we can also use it to grade the principals. Just because we can, should we?

Permit me to ask a simple, rhetorical question:

Is this use of student test scores a valid measure of a teacher's performance? Should we assign a grade to a teacher using those irrelevant scores?

These are very important questions and they need an answer.

Test-makers and pols and policy-moguls say yes.

What's YOUR answer?

Speak up! We need to be heard!

Twitter. Email. Facebook. Write your legislators. Contact President Obama. Letter your Editors.

Those many good teachers out there would be grateful for you spreading your answers for them.