NOT Giving Up on Education

Goyal_Cover_final_small1-400x600

Over the summer, the book One Size Does Not Fit All by Nikhil Goyal caught my eye. It crept up on a few different occasions before I bought it. It wasn’t the title that first sparked a curiosity; instead, it was the age of it’s author– 17 years old, yes, 17. I did not read the book when I purchased it. Rather, it sat in my to-read pile for months. When I returned to school, the title of our principal’s professional development workshop was “One Size Does Not Fit All.” I assumed that he’d read the book, but he never mentioned it in his lecture/power point which focused on differentiated instruction. One of his primary messages was to provide students the opportunities to do-over their work until they reach a comprehensive understanding. I walked away from the workshop thoughtful about his messages.

I recall, as a young teacher– some twenty-ish years ago, I was like a sponge at workshops like this, soaking in all of the information I could. Over the last four – eight years, let’s say I’ve become somewhat jaded, if not skeptical, because I don’t readily “buy” the information put in front of me. I’m confident and experienced enough to question when I don’t think something is right– especially where it concerns my passion which is educating young people– the doers and thinkers and leaders of our future.

On a cold January night, I recalled Goyal’s book, sitting in my to-read pile, so I cozied up on the couch and began to read. I found myself connecting to so many of his assertions in the book. How we are dumbing down education and not focusing on the right things. How education, today, is more about political agendas (such as ‘No Child Left Behind’ and ‘Race to the Top’) and financial interests. I was encouraged by his proposals regarding how to engage kids in today’s society. He inspired me to want to DO something as a result of reading this book, which I read cover to cover in just two hours.

We, teachers, have been so entrenched in data-driven instruction, common assessment, common formative assessment, national testing. For God’s sake, we are now administering the P.S.A.T.s during school. As both a parent and a teacher, I find no relevance for the P.S.A.T.s (which is touted as a practice S.A.T.); it certainly was not an indicator of how my children scored on the S.A.T.s. It’s a money maker for College Board is what it is, as are all of the mandated tests, in my opinion. Furthermore, we are moving in the direction of Common Core, a new educational movement to streamline all education. In my discipline, at least, it seeks to move away from teaching classical literature to non-fiction. While I do believe there is a place for non-fiction in our English classrooms, I don’t believe in sacrificing the history of the body of canonical classics that have both reflected and shaped our society. It is in knowing what has come before us that helps us understand what lies ahead of us. The classics teach us to become literate people. I mean literate in the sense that we share a common language of race, segregation, feminism, religion, freedom, success, civil rights, war, coming of age… and the list goes on an on. My stance is not about not wanting to change. I am a huge proponent of change, most recently infusing technology in the classroom. I believe in making education relevant for our youth; moreover, I strongly believe that in making it relevant is where true learning occurs. Students don’t want to be taught a novel, for instance, in isolation. It’s in the way a student can connect it to his/her own life that matters.

But with all of this… minutia… that we are required to address, what truly shapes our students into educated, self-advocating, creative, community-minded, life-long learners is getting lost. Goyal quotes Robin Hanson, when he says “Our schools are creating less creative people.” Why?? Because in order to measure data, one needs to teach measurable information– that is the black & white, right or wrong information of old. It’s in the grey areas where ideas and creativity emerge. To support this, Goyal refers to studies that have found, as noted on Edutopia, submitted by Brigid Barron and Linda Darling-Hammond who conclude:

1. Students learn more deeply when they can apply classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems, and when they take part in projects that require sustained engagement and collaboration.

2. Active-learning practices have a more significant impact on student     performance than any other variable, including student background and             prior achievement.

3. Students are most successful when they are taught how to learn as well as what to learn.

Time and time again, I have referred to Ken Robinson’s TED talk asserting that only through developing creativity in students are we doing our jobs in preparing them for the future.

In my experience, the complex group projects which present a problem to solve or a task to accomplish without providing step-by-step directions are the ones students learn the most from. Through these projects, they acquire life skills in working as part of a team, creating a product, figuring out how to create the product, researching, reaching dead-ends, problem solving, goal setting, working towards one’s strengths, overcoming obstacles, time management… the list goes on and on. Skills such as these will long take precedence over the content knowledge they’ve gained. I receive letters from alumni, who had whined through these kinds of  projects, stating something like, “Just tell us what you want,” who come to thank me for the knowledge they’ve acquired as a result, something that puts them one step ahead of their college peers.

Goyal states, “The purpose of school is to create lifelong learners. Period.” Students who need to learn only to pass a test, learn what they need to in order to pass the test, then forget about it the very next day. Further, Goyal asserts that assessment shouldn’t be a paper trail of who met the goals we set out for them; instead, it should be a conversation. He suggests we allow students to question and critique other students. This reminds me of the way I structure writing workshops. Students are provided with others’ writings, given time to comment in writing and, then, they do so orally in a round-table, workshop fashion. It becomes of conversation of what is and is not working in the pieces. Students come away from this experience asking when we can do it again because they learned so much from hearing the critiques of their peers. If we are asking students to write essays and norm their responses,  how are we honoring their individuality as writers and communicators?

I scarily envision the goals education in the future to create little clones of all the successful models who have come before them. For we will have a precise model if we study the data accurately enough, won’t we?

education wordle

What I respect about Goyal’s work is how well researched it was– he covered such a wide platform of issues that have arisen in education, speaking with leaders in education– those immersed in the field of education. Moreover, he provides plausible recommendations for how to make education better for the future.

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Creative Thinking
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Curiosity
  6. Risk-taking
  7. Overcoming Failure

He proposes that we re-think education. We change our mindset about failure, realizing that one needs to fail many times before one meets with success. Instead of coddling students with a false sense of accomplishment, we should herald failure when it’s an honest attempt to succeed. Goyal further proposes we allow students a  voice in where the path of their education goes– allowing them to work to their strengths and interests– because people are happier and more productive when they enjoy what they do.

If teachers become so sidetracked through all of the hoops we need to jump through for state-mandates and funds, the real business of education becomes lost. The creators and thinkers and entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow will be the victims.

I urge you to read this book if you are an educator, a parent, a student, a supporter of education. I purchased one for each of my administrators, hoping Goyal’s message resonates with them, so they could pass it on.

Speak Up

I BELIEVE IN THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the first rally I’ve ever attended in protest of a bill I believe will detrimentally effect education forever. It was an overcast evening at the state capitol in Hartford; it started to rain, then a rainbow emerged, and a second rainbow about it. I was inspired. The energy was amazing– very positive. It felt good to be part of something– a just cause. Before I attended the rally, and just last night, I wrote two letters to my legislators which I’d like to share if for no other reason than inspire those reading this to believe in something for the greater good, to take action and to let your voice be heard.

Letter 1: I begin to speak.

Dear Legislator ,

I am extremely opposed to Governor Malloy’s SB #24 Bill and urge you to vote against it or recommend for a significant revision of it.

Having been a teacher inConnecticutfor 22 years, I have experienced the polarities of working with at-risk youths and  high school drop outs for 11 years inHamdenandNew Havenin addition to my current position as an English teacher of 11 years in the upper, middle-class community ofCheshireatCheshireHigh School.

I am a dedicated, passionate professional not only carrying out my responsibilities as an educator in the classroom, but also as an advisor of a number of after school activities, serving as a member of a variety of committees aimed at improving the quality of education, mentoring student teachers and those in their initial years as educators, in addition to facilitating authentic learning for students such as leading educational tours bi-annually, domestic and abroad, over break. In taking pride in what I do and continuing to maintain relevance to ensure my students are fully engaged, I am continually taking courses and seeking professional development opportunities (apart from those offered by the school) to enrich my teaching in the classroom.

I have not in 22 years been so disheartened by the state of education as I have from the ramifications of No Child Left Behind, which, I believe, Governor Malloy’s bill is a direct result of. While I agree we need to do something to work towards eliminating the achievement gap, there are so many factors for which teachers can not be held accountable (for instance, poverty, abuse, neglect, hormones…). The fact that  45% of teacher evaluations are tied to the gains of their students is unreasonable and punitive. There are factors that weigh far more heavily on the lives of some students, that educational performance is inevitably hindered.  I can rattle off a host of stories about students who endured such hardships that it was absolutely prohibitive of their advancement of their education; not the best teacher could rectify issues that we are talking about.

Moreover, data-driven instruction will be the downfall of education. In order for data driven instruction to be accurate, it needs to measure measureable (right or wrong) outcomes which totally discount higher order thinking. In today’s global and technological  society, students can find rote information; instead they need to be able to become problem solvers, entrepreneurs, collaborators, critical thinkers.

In Daniel Pink’s Drive, he talks about intrinsic learning being the new learning & motivating factor to learning in the 21st Century. No more can we dangle a carrot (test scores) over our students to get them to WANT to learn– because let’s face it, students need to want to learn in order to be successful. We need to design educational opportunities for them to use their multiple intelligences (both sides of the brain) in order for them to embrace education and be successful. Giving teachers the tasks of common assessments, common formative assessments, CAPT testing (and the like) will not produce students who welcome education– it will turn them off to education, setting students and teachers up for failure. The more we emphasize teaching to a test, the less authentic learning will take place.

In addition to data-driven instruction being problematic and directly connected to the evaluations of teachers, the new certification scale is absolutely punitive and under the guise of making better teachers. Do we need better teachers? Absolutely. Are there tenured teachers who should not have been tenured? Absolutely. So let’s address these issues specifically and not put a blanket policy in place when I personally know far more dedicated, effective professionals than I know ineffective ones. This sliding scale of certification that Governor Malloy proposes is unfair and degrades the education and professional development experience teachers of today really have; moreover, it discounts all of the education we’ve already accrued under the current policy.

There are too many variables that are not delineated in this bill which puts decision making in the hands of those more concerned about cost/funding than education. I fear upper level administration will be forced to lean toward decision making that is more fiscally driven than it is in the best interest of children and their education.

I was disillusioned when I began teaching in Cheshire11 years ago. Early on, I described it as the Shangri-La of teaching– a more affluent community meaning students who are invested in their education and parents who care (attributes that are virutally non-existent teaching at risk youth and high school drop-outs). What I have found instead is a local political government who undervalues their teachers, parents who manipulate the education system because they are so desperate for their children to get scholarships to college, and an administration who tries to balance the demands of town leaders (who are only interested in not raising taxes) with threats of being sued by parents. Why do I continue teaching?: I’m guessing you are wondering. I teach because I love working with students. I love the unexpected teachable moments and those carefully planned units that are met with success. I love making a difference in a student’s day, and in the lives of students everyday. I love that when my students return after they’ve graduated, they thank me and tell me how well prepared they were for the future. I fear with out the ability to meaningfully engage my students in authentic learning as much as possible, the love of learning and education I share with my students will be compromised.

What I feel needs to be addressed are ways to engage underprivileged, poverty-stricken children to become more engaged in learning (certainly more counseling & out reach services need to be part of this), ways to deal with ineffective teachers, more meaningful professional development for teachers that speaks specifically to instruction versus fulfilling administrative agendas.

I predict the effects of this bill will be unengaged students, teachers who are put in the position of fearing the loss of their jobs and compromising their ethics as a result, a decrease in quality teachers, towns imposing unfair requests upon their teachers.

In closing, I implore you reject this bill. Urge the governor to take the time to visit schools acrossConnecticut(of varying demographics), talk to teachers, talk to students and parents. While we do need to be fiscally responsible, if we are not putting students first, this education reform will fail.

Sincerely,

A VERY concerned teacher

Letter 2: One last effort

Dear Legislator,

I urge you to vote AGAINST Governor Malloy’s SB24 bill.

I have been a teacher in the Cheshire Public School System since 2001, and before that I worked in Adult Education, in bothHamdenandNew Haven, for eleven years with high school drop outs and at-risk youths. I know both ends of the spectrum. I have also taught as an adjunct at Southern Connecticut State University– so I also know the incoming  expectations of students’ abilities at the college level.

Moreover, I a parent of two high school-aged children at Cheshire High School and one who has graduated who is attending college.

I come from a position of experience and knowledge. This bill will adversely change the face of education and have severe ramifications for years to come. It is a drastic reaction to our current financial crisis, the tenure track and binding arbitration.

Governor Malloy claims we are a state that is in need of drastic modifications to our educational system, citing a decline in the graduation rate, a performance gap, and a tenure system that is not working. Do changes need to be made? Yes, but not this drastically, not this quickly, and not without the input of teachers who this will directly affect.

Governor Malloy’s claims are flawed. If we are an education system in such dire straights, why has U.S. News named Connecticutas the #1 state for performance in high schools (http://education.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/education/high-schools/articles/2009/12/09/americas-best-high-schools-state-by-state-statistics) ? We are a state in which 80% of all high school students graduate, up 5% from 2001, and among the top graduation rates in the country (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/high-school-graduation-rates-states-lag-behind-152514652.html); so, why does Malloy in his television ads say that graduation rates are plummeting? He characterizes ours as a state lagging behind; I strongly disagree.

We need time to bring teachers together with legislators to discuss how to improve inner-city education (the education gap), true; we need time to bring teachers together with the unions and legislators to discuss the matter of tenure for teachers who are undeserving, true; we need time to bring legislators together with union officials and administrators to discuss how to be more fiscally responsible, true. We NEED TIME.

I hope on May 9th, you will consider these points when you decide to vote against Governor Malloy’s proposed SB24 bill. I have a personal, parental, professional and financial investment in this decision which I hope you will represent.

Sincerely,

Donna Norman Carbone

Crossing my fingers, that my voice has been heard!

Occupy Education

I was on Facebook the other day & saw this:
Photobucket

Often, I’m prone to finding cartoons about education, most of which I post on my classroom door, because through all of the ridiculousness (and that is a polite word), we need find the humor in life [education] to move us through it.

Attached to this cartoon was the group who posted it, and their plea read…
Photobucket

So here it is, my stand on the current state of education from the point of view of a mom & an English teacher (high school, primarily grades 11 & 12) who lives & teaches in a predominantly white, upper middle-class town in Connecticut(school population of about 2,000)… who, at the beginning of her career (the first 11 years) worked at the other end of the spectrum, in adult education, teaching high school drop outs and at-risk youths. I’ve seen both sides.

Ever since No Child Left Behind was instituted (thank you, George double-ya. NOT), I have personally witnessed a decline in education unlike any I’d ever observed in my 22 years of teaching. While I don’t think the premise was a bad idea, which in my mind was to improve the education in at-risk areas in order to provide equal opportunity for every student, the process of instituting this backwards policy is just downright ridiculous. Let’s improve education by imposing stricter guidelines for receiving funding that are based on test scores and performance by providing funds to those areas w/ the highest gains in test scores. Sounds like not a bad thing, right?? WRONG. One of the biggest problems with education are these blanket policies that NON-educators (a.k.a. politicians w/ political agendas) cast over the whole educational system.

By refusing to look at the whole state of education in America and by making it a numbers game, we (society) are forced to lose sight of the QUALITY of education, by being forced to focus on QUANTITIES, that is being provided to our youth.

While I don’t get caught up in the numbers game of education, I do see the direct effects of this policy in my school and in my classroom:

Funding has been cut tremendously simply because we are a school system that is working, consistently achieving among the highest test scores in the state as well as moving among the greatest population of students on to post secondary education (and a large # to some highly competitive, prestigious schools). We are a school system that wasn’t broken; therefore, because our performance rate is already well above average those in the powers-that-be do not see huge gains, we are forced to cut & cut & cut budgets. This means larger classes, fewer teachers, less money going to materials & technology.

Time has been impacted because we are seeing more and more mandatory assessments, due to data-driven instruction, which are required to be given to the students; this detracts from meaningful and authentic teaching time in the classroom. Another effect this is having is the need to “teach” to the tests to show gains which decreases the time allotted for some of the more meaningful content in our curriculum. Moreover, teachers are having to correct multitudes of tests, more, which takes away from providing meaningful feedback on the other work the students produce.

Professional development time has been geared towards convincing educators that DATA DRIVEN INSTRUCTION is the way of the future and we need to climb on board the data train. I call it brainwashing, and I will resist this thinking at all costs. Hence, meaningful preparation, planning, and development from a teaching perspective has been cast aside, so we can find ways to analyze the data and come up w/ more assessments.

The individuality of instruction has been hindered because not only do we need to test MORE but these tests have to be exactly the same so the data is accurate. In essence, the powers-that-be are asking teachers to become robots in order to produce robots who all possess exactly the same data base upon the conclusion of their public high school experience.

Let’s consider a few things. When you test students, you must choose measurable content to test them on in order to provide accurate data. In other words, we need to be comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. There needs to be a right & a wrong answer in order to get measurable date. LIFE and EDUCATION is not about black & white. More of it is about how to manipulate the grey areas, and in the grey areas you find critical thinking. Critical thinking cannot be measured by ONLY demonstrating right and wrong. There needs to be BALANCE in education (which No Child Left Behind is forcing educators to leave behind in their teaching). In this ever changing, global, technologically advanced world, our children NEED critical thinking skills to move forward. It is our responsibility as educators and as a society to prepare them to cope for this world. How do we do that? By producing students who are highly motivated , self-disciplined, collaborative, resourceful, high-level critical thinkers.

In reading Daniel Pink’s Drive, he talks about intrinsic learning being the new learning & motivating factor to learning in the 21st century. No more can we dangle a carrot (test scores) over our students to get them to WANT to learn — because let’s face it, if students don’t want to learn, they will not be productive. We need to design educational opportunities for them to use their multiple intelligences (both sides of the brain) in order for them to embrace education and be successful. Rote learning & memorization (teaching to the test) is a thing of the past, and unless we move past it, our country will continue to decline in the global community. Education NEEDS to be meaningful and authentic in order for students to acquire knowledge and call it their own.

Just the other day, a student in my class was asked to call upon knowledge she’d acquired earlier in the course to apply to a current lesson we were working on. Her response was, “Oh … you mean that. I forgot that. Once I’m tested on something, I forget it because I don’t need it anymore.” My reply was, “Well, take out your notes and use them because in order for you to be successful on this assignment, you need that knowledge.” I’d be willing to hedge a bet that by asking her to recall this information for it’s application to this new content, she won’t be inclined to forget it this time.

Furthermore, in addition to providing students w/ content that is diversified, we need to provide them experience that is diversified. In promoting commonality (teach common materials, use common methods & assessments…) we are robbing our youth of becoming the well-rounded, multi-faceted individuals we want them to become. It’s just as important to provide a balance of experiences in promoting individuality. So those math & science classes, which ask students to primarily use their left brain, should be balanced w/ the arts, so they can equally use their right brains. And even w/in a common course, education cannot require teachers to teach completely in sync (while I do believe the goals should be the same) the methodology and content should be varied to provide the students w/ the best experience, w/in each given course, they could acquire. It’s called modelling and the absence of it falls under the guise of do as I say, not as I do. Individuality is a necessity, both on the part of the teacher delivering instruction and on the part of each learner being asked to develop their individuality. In my school, we were asked to voluntarily take part in a program called Learning Walks, something I volunteered for. I was assigned a student to shadow for a day, to go w/ her to each class in order to observe the whole of her day. OH MY GOD, the insight I gained from that day. What I saw was a variety of teachers, topics, methods, styles, reactions, interactions: balance. A good blend of balance that afforded me to step outside my role as teacher and back into my role of mother (for my children aged, then 17, 15 & 13) who were benefiting from this multi-faceted array of experience and realize how grateful I am on their behalf. This learning walk took place prior to the thrust of No Child Left Behind. I believe my experience would be a very different one today.

It’s about balance. I’m not saying testing is a wrong kind of assessment. What I am saying is that it needs not to be the only kind. I’m not saying commonality in the goals/standards we set for students is wrong. What I’m saying is they need to create a better balance. And w/ the ever increasing focus on data and data-driven instruction (apples to apples and oranges to oranges), we are robbing our youth of the ability to apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate information.

And for the at-risk schools, the powers-that-be need to institute different ways of reaching these students, call upon their intrinsic needs & goals as individuals (think about the teacher Erin Gruwell, whose impact on education at an at-risk school in Long Beach, California was captured in the book and film Freedom Writers) in order for them to achieve success in school. This doesn’t mean more testing. It means finding better, more creative ways to invest in educating our teachers and, ultimately, our youth… the future of our country.

Public education is dictated by the pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other based on the political agendas of time. It swings to the extreme right until effects of given movement are found to be not working. Then in an effort to fix what was broken from the last movement, it swings all the way to the left. When will society learn that it’s somewhere in the grey area (the place of balance) that true success in education will be achieved?

In conclusion, I agree w/ the Facebook post which calls for us to OCCUPY EDUCATION before it’s too late.