Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Way Things Are Going To Be

Legend has it that within five days of the telegraph being invented the Pony Express was out of business. Now I don't know if it took five days or not, but there is no question this invention brought about the demise of the Express. I suppose it is a good thing that famous riders like William Cody (Buffalo Bill) didn't count on delivering mail messages via horseback as a career. Indeed, the telegraph too was quickly cast aside as even greater advances in communication technology made this obsolete. It would be pretty absurd to communicate using a telegraph today (let alone a rider on horseback) when you can fire of an email or text message to anyone around the world in seconds!

How about the electric light bulb? It may not have been so much about the light bulb as it was the infrastructure that ended up becoming the modern electrical grid. After all, thanks to oil tycoon John Rockefeller, it wasn't all that expensive to light a home using kerosene lanterns. As the light bulb became more and more popular, Rockefeller tried awful hard to squash the invention and maintain his dominance on home lighting. He thought that it would most certainly spell doom for a business that relied in large part on supplying kerosene for lamps [which of course it did]. Luckily he soon found a niche refining gasoline for Henry Ford's new invention. Had he not had the entrepreneurial spirit, who knows what may have happened. I wonder what would have happened to John Rockefeller had he not realized the world was changing around him and there was no need for kerosene lamps in homes. What if he lived his life in the past and refused to believe that electricity was going to be such a big deal?

The other day I saw a great tweet that encapsulates this idea and brings us to the point where we are in our school district. It goes like this: "Stop talking about how things USED to be and START talking about how things WILL be." We are just a couple of short weeks away from a major instructional transformation in our school district. When folks ask me about why we are going 1 to 1 my answer is simple. I hold a pencil in my hand and say something like, "Because this is obsolete". The telegraph is to the Pony Express as the pencil is to the computer. That is the simple answer, but of course it is much more than that! In my daily work life, I rely on the use of 21st Century tools to do my job. Rarely do I use something so antiquated as a pencil, a textbook, a dictionary--and I can not even think of the last time that I actually used an encyclopedia. I am convinced that sometime during my career we are going to see the demise of traditional print textbook companies. Why on earth would we ask our students to interface using learning modes that they will never use once they leave our institution?

On January 7th we are going to flip the classroom and make what I believe is the most significant instructional change for this generation of students. The reality is that I do believe we are on the precipice of the greatest transformation in the American education system since the one room school house was the preferred method of delivering 'schooling' out on the prairie. The facts are that there are many things that have changed since you and I attended public school. It just isn't the same as it was when we attended. We can say things like, "Well, when I was in school we did it this way." But if we choose to spend our time talking about how thing used to be, we may end up like the Pony Express.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Don't be Fooled by PISA

Last week results from the 2012 Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) were released, and basically stated students in the United States scored average in the areas of math, science, and reading. Well, we don't 'do average' in the United States, and calls from some education 'advocacy groups' started up again about how our country is slipping. Furthermore (they stated) these tests clearly demonstrate a system of education in the United States in decline. Even the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talked about the "stagnation of student achievement" in the United States. Yep, last week it really was quite the circus when these results came out. 

The real fact is that students in the United States have never done well on international tests. According to Yong Zhao, a leading educational researcher from the University of Oregon, in the 1960s students in the United States scored near the bottom in virtually all categories when the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS) was conducted! So, for the last half century the scores have basically remained less than impressive. 

If students' scores on international measures have remained stagnant for the last fifty or so years (or even dropped as some might suggest), shouldn't we see some sign of that decline in the fabric of American society? The truth is that despite this fact, America continues to be the sole Superpower. Our country has the largest economy in the world and is among the wealthiest. And again according to Zhao, in 2008 the United States ranked first in the number of patents with 14,399, compared to 473 from China.

Perhaps the reality of the tests is that they either really don't matter, or that they are measuring the wrong things. Wonder which countries ranked among the top in creativity? Sweden was number one, and the United States was number 2. Here is another interesting tidbit of information that Diane Ravitch explains in a recent blog post while discussing an article published by education researcher Keith Baker. "The higher a nation's test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth....".

So I think we need to consider whether or not we want American students to score better on these tests, and if they really matter. If the answer to that question is yes, then we probably [do] need to seriously rethink how we do schooling in this country. A greater emphasis on math and science is probably in order, and all the other stuff is unnecessary. Are we ready to jettison those programs that encourage creativity, collaboration, and teamwork? That would probably mean no more art, music, or sports (after all, in many of these countries programs like this do not exist within the confines of the normal school day). We are probably also going to need to spend more time having students take tests. You know practice makes perfect. If you want kids to be good at taking tests, then they should practice taking them. Perhaps we need to be more selective about who actually takes the test as well, after all a study done by the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals found that when controlling for poverty, the United States scored among the highest on the PISA. Maybe a better approach would be to present only selected data, as Time magazine pointed out in an article dated December 3rd. According to the report, Chinese students are outperforming the rest of the world. But, the data is not representative of China. It is representative of Shanghai and Hong Kong. This article points out the very interesting fact that in Shanghai 84% of students go on to college, compared to only 24% nationally.

The following day, an article in the Huffington Post had this quote from a leading scholar in Shanghai:
'"This should not be considered a pride for us, because overall it still measures one's test-taking ability. You can have the best answer for a theoretical model, but can you build a factory on a test paper?" asked Xiong Binqu, a Shanghai-based scholar on education.
The fact is that while we are busy trying to emulate countries like Finland and other Asian countries, some of those other countries are trying to figure out what it is about the American system of education that makes us so successful. That's right, while we are busy studying how to be more like Finland, China is trying to figure out how to be more like America.

At the end of the day, the PISA results most certainly provide an opportunity for a discussion of the status of the American education system. But they must be looked at in context of what they really represent and what they really mean. There is no mistaking the fact that there is room for improvement. In spite of the success, patents, accumulation of wealth and global influence in our country, we should continue to look for ways to make our system better. To rest on our laurels would no doubt be a national disaster in the making. However, to use the PISA results as an argument that we are in decline is just dead wrong. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Communication and Involvement in Your Child's Education

Regardless of whether you are a member of the Booster Club, Board of Education, or read to your child every night, one of the critical variables in the academic success of your child is parental involvement. While students are with us from 8:00-3:00 Monday through Friday, the rest of the time they are with you. At Hudson Schools we value your work as parent and view this relationship as an important component in the overall growth of your child. Involvement can take many forms and all should be honored! 

There are countless ways in which to take an active part in your child's education either formally or informally here at Hudson. I am proud of the good work of all our parents, and encourage you to become more involved in this joint endeavor. Becoming involved can be as simple as calling your child's teacher or principal to ask a question. A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about our new math curriculum. This article was posted in direct response to questions from parents. If there is something that you would like to have more information about, please ask! Earlier in the school year we sent a letter home that indicated proficiency levels of students that had not reached the 'No Child Left Behind' benchmark. This letter prompted phone calls from parents to teachers and principals alike. These are great ways to become involved, and only help your child to do better in school. The other day I had a phone call from someone about our building security procedures and how they had recently changed due to an incident in the elementary school. While one could argue this phone call really didn't have much to do with parental involvement in their child's education, I don't think it is too much of a stretch to see the correlation.

We view communication as a two way street and a way to share valuable information that offers insight and perspective. Our teachers and principals don't always know your point of view. I am quite certain that you know your child better than we do and may have information that could be helpful to the teacher. I would also venture to guess that you don't always understand how a decision was reached in the school district, be it new security protocols or curriculum. That is why it is so important to ask questions and try to understand the perspective of each other. Let me give you a quick example.

Last week I was in Cedar Falls at a stoplight getting ready to make a left hand turn. I got the green arrow and hesitated before making my turn. During my hesitation the car behind me blasted the horn. I am quite certain the driver was angry that I was stalling. Know what happened next? A car coming from the opposite direction ran the light. Had I not waited, there would most certainly have been an accident. Because of my position in the cue, I could see that oncoming traffic was not prepared to stop-so I did the safe thing and waited for the intersection to clear. Obviously the driver behind me did not share my perspective. Had they, I doubt they would have blared their horn. Had our positions been reversed, I probably would have been the one blaring my horn at the driver in front-because again I would not have had that perspective.

So the kind of involvement that I am talking about is transparent communication. The point of this blog is to foster and encourage this communication. Sometimes I do okay, while other times I probably miss the mark. I think it is important that you hear from me weekly about whatever may be happening in the school district. One week I may discuss a topic that has recently made headlines in the local or national news while another week we may be discussing the roll out of our Connected Learning Initiative (formerly known as the 1 to 1 Project-more on this later). Hopefully this provides you with valuable information and perspective about how some of the decisions are made in the school district. If you have a topic that you would like to have me cover in this blog, please let me know. I am always looking for ideas!