Friday, December 4, 2015

The Zuck Stops Here

By now, most people know Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of the-application-responsible-for-making-you-think-you-live-an-unfulfilling-life) and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, announced they're giving away roughly 99% of their wealth (about $45 billion) to charity. In their letter, they highlighted "personalized learning" as an initiative the charity will focus on. 

I've read and heard mixed opinions, which is a good thing, but what disappoints me are the overly reactionary and negative views some educators have written. We should not be so quick to judge the so-called "charity's" efforts - they haven't really even done anything yet. As a former high school teacher, I’m curious what the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will invest in and develop. If what they're investing in is anything like the software Facebook is piloting with Summit Schools, it could be a good thing people! 

Thank you, South Park.
To be 100% clear, I am skeptical of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's plans for education. All educators should be: Silicon Valley and its billionaire children haven't exactly had a record of success in education. The Gates Foundation can be credited for tying students' test scores to teacher evaluations. Imagine if we imported this practice into the medical world where patients' lifestyles (and their inherited genetics) were factored into doctors' ratings. If it sounds ridiculous to hold doctors accountable this way, it's the same for teachers and I cannot support that. 

However, Gates is just one example. As educators in a complex 21st century, we teach our students to avoid judging the many from the few. Perhaps we should take our own advice. I urge all active (and inactive) educators to approach the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to get in on what they have in store. Let us be a force for collaboration and guidance. We can't tell our students to be "life long learners" but then shut the door and put headphones on with the threat of change on the horizon. 

As all teachers are aware, teachers do more than just teach. They're role models, counselors, friends, advocates, coaches, and ultimately, subordinates to administrators. Teachers have two sets of audiences to please: students and administrators (and technically parents too, sadly depending on what zip code you teach in). Students and administrators have different (and often conflicting) needs. Administrators performing class observations may miss a completely engaged class and instead focus on a checklist of basic, low-impact chores: failing to update bulletin boards and data walls or failing to post an objective on the chalkboard. 

When I was teaching, I investigated technology that could've eased my burden by even by a little. I was always trying to be efficient. Why? Because I knew what the job wanted me to do and what I actually could do was in conflict. What if I actually had the time to make authentic, individual assessments for my students on a daily basis? That might’ve made me less jaded about this industry than I am today.

As former and current educators, we should set the example to be proactive (and not reactionary) when someone "invades" our turf. From what I’ve read and heard, Facebook’s team works directly with Summit's school teachers to learn about the colossal demands made upon them in our increasingly archaic system. Sometimes, it may take an outsider ten feet away to propose a remedy to an enduring headache. 

Critics of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have even starting knocking on Max's future education. Max is their newborn daughter, and while I admit writing an open letter to her to announce the Initiative was in poor taste, she's still an infant.
"She [Max] will likely get small classes and individualized attention..." 
Every student deserves small classes, individualized support, and love. I bet by the time Max is old enough to actually attend school, she'll be learning some lessons via video, submitting work online, and completing tasks remotely. I bet Max’s teacher will likely feel his/her job as a teacher is less Herculean and likely more manageable. Maybe because some aspects of the job will be remedied with technology. Perhaps Max's future teachers will have the luxury to try new approaches in the classroom to shake things up, something their predecessors may not have been able to do because their system simply wasn't built for them to do so. Nobody knows, so I was seriously disappointed to read such blatant clickbait written by the education world's most respected professionals. 

Yes, most public school students don’t have small classes and loving tutors. But let’s be real: that’s not the private sector’s fault: that’s our own education system’s fault for (1) failing to remedy a crumbling system and (2) continuing to burden educators with more and more responsibilities without providing added human capital or technology. The private sector sees the American outdated education system as an “opportunity” (as any company would in a capitalist society) and is stepping in due to the failure of our own education policies.

If we're unwilling to at least approach the companies willing to invest in our industry, then who do we have left? I would rather take help from a private company wiling to listen to my woes than from our legislators and governors, who are still flip-flopping on whether student test scores should impact teaching evaluations. These are also the same people who are about to pass the "Every Student Succeeds Act," which in essence, is Congress's way of giving us a shoulder shrug.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

ESSA Gets "Developing" on My Rubric

The final draft of the "No Child Left Behind" rewrite is heading to Congress for a vote. With another persuasive title, the "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA) takes one step forward from the two steps back taken with "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) and "Race to the Top" (RTTP).

I really think we should take some inspiration from IKEA for bill naming schemes. I'm just not sure every member of Congress read all 670 pages of NCLB. I wonder how many just looked at the title and thought, "This sounds emotionally compelling. I can't vote against this!" But I digress.

Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC BY 2.0
The ESSA hands over substantial authority from the federal government over to states and districts. It also sucker punches Arne Duncan's legacy by limiting the power and role of the U.S. education secretary. If the bill gets signed, the federal education secretary will no longer be able to "push" for a particular set of standards to be adopted (e.g. Common Core, NGSS) nationally. 

Tip of the hat: under ESSA, the federal government can no longer order states to "take drastic action" against schools with low test scores. They can't shut schools down and they can't transform public schools into charters. Sorry fans of the parent-trigger law, I can't support corporate-backed privatization under the guise of parent empowerment. The strategies supported to turn schools around in "trigger" legislation have no proof they work and are not evidence-based. "Good" ideas applied as a band-aid with no basis in research often fail very hard. I suggest advocates of the parent-trigger law instead come up with ways to bolster PTA participation and engage their respective communities before hastily wiping out entire institutions with rich histories.

Under the ESSA, there will still be standardized testing for students from 3rd to 8th grade and in high school. That's unfortunate and a damn shame. It's nearly 2016 and our policies still push for children to be assessed by age group versus skill level. Rather than prioritizing personalized learning, we're still asking for annual assessment data with no significant plan in-hand to act on said data. Our students are already getting tested by their respective teachers and by interim assessments administered by their schools and districts. Our policies today incentivize over-assessment, when they really should be written to incentivize educators to analyze and act on data in real-time.

To balance the standardized testing, one part of the ESSA might actually satisfy the opt-out movement: for states that allow it, parents have the right to opt their children out of these exams. Schools need to show a 95% test participation rate. For schools that don't, the state gets to "decide" what to do. And there's nothing in ESSA about stopping or limiting the opt-out movement growing nationally. Sounds deliberately vague.

As a former educator deeply invested in education, I think this bill is a short-term win for educators, parents, and students, but the hard work remains ahead. The opt-out grassroots campaign is gaining popularity. College students are no longer seeking teaching professions. Clearly, legislators are unofficially acknowledging there's an elephant in the room, and they'd rather deal with it after election season. Or maybe this would be significantly easier to address if a front-runner presidential candidate got serious and deliberate about their own education policy. One-off statements about equal access to quality education and the "original role" of charters don't count Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton. Let's hear a real plan.