30 January 2013

Education. Fixed. No wait. Now it's fixed. Now. Seriously this time.

Teachers are frustrated. Reformers are disgruntled. Parents are at their wits end. No one can find the elusive magic bullet that will solve all of our education problems. In our quest for that solution, society seems to be grasping at a number of different solutions. While I take issue with many of the proposed solutions, I think that the process of proposing, seriously, many dichotomous solutions is part of that problem.

Often in education, teachers will tell you that the left hand doesn't even know that the right hand exists, let alone what the right hand is doing. I could provide literally dozens of examples of this from my experience. 

Some of them are hilarious (a school firing it's literacy coaches before the meeting in which it declares its intention to participate in a "year of literacy"), some of them are sad (schools blocking websites that let kids learn by playing educational games simply because they are "games") and some of them make you shake your head (schools blocking programs they paid to buy).

I would attempt to blame the schools themselves, but that isn't fair. You see, they are simply reflecting the larger educational climate in America. That climate is, to put it kindly, scattered and divided. 

Most people in education agree that No Child Left Behind was a terrible law. Naturally, most states and the feds are still designing tests that are in line with the basic philosophy of NCLB. The vast majority of teachers will tell you that a larger class is harder to teach and that kids in larger classes tend to learn less. Nevertheless, class sizes continue to rise. 

Today, we revisit a topic near and dear to the BlazeBlog - teacher training. This topic is generally ignored by educational commentators, but recently there were two stories which both illustrated the basic differences in philosophy between educators and outsiders and were diametrically opposed to each other, which nicely illustrates how divided the nation is on questions of education.

In the last two days (editor's note: this was up to date in December of 2012, but we take a laizze faire kind of approach to deadlines here at the BlazeBlog, so the stories are more like "in the last two months" now), two different stories have come across my desk. They are both about what you have to do to become a teacher in this country. You almost certainly saw the first story.

In that story, the American Federation of Teachers calls for a more stringent national test for prospective teachers to take to determine their fitness for service as teachers.  They refer to it (in order to get more headlines) as a "bar exam" for teachers. This is hardly new. This very blog has called for an even more stringent system of teacher training (I thought about a link here, but I linked to it two paragraphs ago, so I'm not really interested in linking to it again).
If you're too lazy to read that post, the basic gist of it is that I don't think that teacher education is very good, and I want it to become not more like lawyering, but more like doctoring. While a stringent exam is a good idea, most states already have those. They go by names like the PRAXIS, PRAXIS II, and CBEST. The problem with those tests isn't that they aren't very good tests (they aren't), but rather that a multiple choice test is a pretty poor indicator of how a teacher will work in a classroom full of young people. In short, there is no " option C " to choose in front of a room of maniacal 12 year olds. That's why I have advocated, and will advocate again, a system much more like the internships of teaching hospitals, where student teachers will be given semi-autonomy but be under closer supervision than standard first-year teachers. 

So, that's hand number 1: make it harder to become a teacher

Hand number 2, naturally, calls for the exact opposite.

The day after that article was published, a story popped up in my facepagespace news feed about my home state of Indiana. Indiana, facing unemployment of recent college grads and a wave of teacher retirements, is looking to make it easier to become a teacher. Don't believe me? Fine, read it for yourself. I'm going to let you read that. Now, let's ask a compare and contrast question (studies show that C&C questions lead to a 22% increase in retention over straight rote memorization): What is different between the two articles?

Obviously Indiana has a problem, and they've proposed an innovative insulting solution. The basic outline makes the outrageous claim that a person who has a bachelor's degree and spends three years (probably getting observed 2 times a year) in a school with decent reviews can become a professionally licensed teacher. That's like telling me I can go practice law as long as I have 6 good evaluations from a lawyer who watches less than 1% of my time in trial. I'll just watch enough Law and Order and I'll be good to go. 

This basic idea is hardly new. Hell, it's the basis of Teach For America, a program I'm hardly in love with. (This is a subject for another day, so here's my argument in brief: TFA basically says that all of the pedagogy and content I spent 4 years learning can be mastered in a summer retreat. It also places teachers in intentionally temporary placements, which leads to higher teacher turn-over. If learning is all about relationships, which I think it is, then this undermines those relationships, especially at the high school level, where kids are savvy enough  to see that the young person they idolized (we hope) is now leaving for a higher paying gig. That sends a message to those students who we most need to reach that they aren't important enough to stick around for. Again, there is a full-length rant on TFA in my brain, I just haven't spewed it onto paper the Interwebs yet)

So you're going to take someone off the (college educated) street and put them in a classroom with minimal training. This proposal must have been made by someone who hasn't actually worked in a classroom. Obviously these people will have the content (actually, based on the writing of some college grads I know, I'm not even sure about that) knowledge to teach middle and high school. The problem with this is that only about 10% of a teacher's job involves content. The vast majority of this job is about managing kids. Convincing them that this material is important. Helping them grow. Fostering their maturation. 

These are not skills that are inherent. Ask anybody who works with kids. They'll tell you that it takes concerted effort to really work with kids. I suspect that these BA to 1st hour teachers will struggle and leave the profession quickly. High teacher turn-over doesn't solve any problems. 

So, to summarize: AFT thinks we need to make it much harder to become a teacher. States like Indiana want to make it much easier. Obviously they're both right. Or wrong. No, right. Wrong. Whatever they are, they send a confusing message. Do teachers need more training or less? 

I suppose we could look at these two stories as being isolated ideas on the fringes. However, both of them are serious proposals from people in education today. It really is the perfect picture of why we're struggling as a system. We can't agree on the most basic things, like how to put the best people in front of a class; let alone the complicated things, like how to teach that class effectively. 

In the end, I suppose it doesn't matter, because at the end of the day, no one is ever happy with the solution, so we shouldn't even attempt to make anybody happy.   

02 January 2013

On school safety

I think it's safe to say that I haven't written here on the Blaze of Competence nearly recently enough. I would make excuses (job, baby, sleep) but if I won't take excuses from students for late work, I won't offer them to you. (feel free to enjoy this at 70% of your normal enjoyment, since I did turn it in late, and that's the penalty for complete late work that I impose)

It isn't that I haven't had anything to say. In fact, looking in the "drafts" folder, I have plenty of started posts, talking about NCLB, Race to the Top (RTTT), principals, testing, and the glory of AP classes. All of them get to about this point (the end of a moderately related and entertaining introduction) , and then they turn into an outline of other things I'd like to talk about. I just can't seem to get focused.

However, I'm on Christmahanakwanzaka break, so I thought I'd grab some time while the baby naps to hop onto the BlazeBlog and knock out some content. This is hardly unprecedented. Two years ago I squandered my October Break writing a list of 12 things that were wrong with schools. (It's still an entertaining read, if I do say so myself.) This year I'm not going to be nearly as ambitious. Instead, it'll be catch as catch can, but anticipate me posting more often than I have (which is to say, more than once every two months.)

Obviously, the major reporting on schools as we left for break was the Sandy Hook massacre. There were facebook and twitter comments by the millions. There were teachers who were heroes, giving themselves up to the gunman to save the lives of their students. We swore we would, in the cliched words of our generation, "never forget". Memorial stickers were applied to sports uniforms to show support, whatever that meant.

Yet here we are, not even a month later, and we basically have forgotten. My timeline and twitter feed show no mentions of the shooting, and calls for gun control have been surpassed by the need to pose and posture over the fiscal cliff. The timing of the shooting, combined with our increasingly short attention spans have moved it out of the consciousness of the nation. Really, why shouldn't it? School massacres are a terrifyingly common part of our existence.

However, this time, our good friends at the National Rifle Association took the opportunity to say that this wasn't about guns (a position I find somewhat laughable, since guns (yes, yes, yes operated by people) have been at the center of the vast majority of those shootings), but rather this was about school security. The NRA wants to implement something it calls the "school shield" program, where retired military and police would serve as armed guards at schools.

Never mind that proposal (actually, parenthetically, mind it. It won't work. For about eleventy-million reasons, but most of all because even in schools with active law enforcement (see High School, Columbine) on duty in the school, shooters will still have free reign, if only because they intend to kill, and a guard must hesitate before shooting, and therefore will be the first to die. Also, because the last thing we want to do is to make school feel MORE like a prison, which is precisely what having an armed guard or two on campus will do) because it will never happen, but let's talk about how we can make schools safer.

(Just so we're clear on this, I don't pretend to be a school safety expert. However, I've been in classrooms for a decade, in 6 different schools, 2 of which were in Colorado and built post-Columbine, and the current one in which a student was found in possession of a weapon during school hours during finals, and no one was hurt; so I probably have as much experience as an expert, but I don't call myself an expert.)

I think there are two ways you can make schools safer. One of them people will latch onto because it's easy to implement and track, one of them would be much more effective, but people won't latch onto it, because like good teaching techniques the world over, it's hard to measure.

1. Secure Campuses

Schools have been designed to be easy to get into and out of. This is for a very practical reason: the kids all come and go at the same time. Therefore, schools have lots of doors. In fact, in California, schools are mostly sprawling outdoor campuses, where every single classroom has at least one door that opens to the out doors, if not more.  Campuses need to be secured. In my last Colorado school, visitors could only enter through one door after the tardy bell rang. Inside that door they were in a "fish-bowl" of glass, and had to move through a second door to enter the school proper. That's good security (although if you have a really determined shooter it won't matter), but that's the most recent school design you can imagine. Most schools in this country are much older than that. Retrofitting them with one-in systems could require significant redesigns of the very architecture of the school. This could cost literally billions of dollars nation-wide. I'm not saying it wouldn't be worth it, but that money could really do more good paying for more teachers and smaller classes.

2. Build a culture of trust

The day before Christmas Break, a knucklehead at my school brought a gun to school. It was a handgun, and (evidently) 50 rounds for said weapon. He was found not because he brandished the weapon, or because he was searched by an armed guard, but because his peers reported him to a district program which students can use to report dangerous situations. Students are only willing to report things like this, and avert crisis, when they feel that they are important, valued, and that their tips will be acted upon.

Further, many dangerous situations have indicators that the people who should see them miss, and yet we seem to often see interviews where peers of a shooter say that they had concerns. With the pervasiveness of social media, often many people can see these warnings. If we build a culture of trust with students, they will be willing to share their concerns about things they see and hear, and schools and authorities can act to get those who are disturbed the help they so desperately need.

This culture represents a shift. For a long time, schools have dictated to students and students were expected to act as sponges for those dictations. However, as we move into a new world of constant change, students need to become partners in learning. We as teachers need to move away from the model where we were all knowing (although we still need to be the smartest person in the room) and shift to a model where we are partners with students, teaching them not just content, but also evaluate the information they are receiving and to create new ways of looking at that information.

If students are partners in learning, then there is a relationship, not of friendship, per se, but a relationship of learning. That involves trust, and if it is done right, students will confide in teachers, and share threats, and those can be dealt with in a calm and deliberate manner. 

I, for one, would prefer calmness to crisis any day.