Friday, December 26, 2014

My Hopes for Education in Hawaii - 2015

I just read a short EduWeek blog about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Edu-Predictions for 2015.   It got me thinking about what I would want to see happen in education in Hawaii in 2015.

First, as an early childhood education major, I strongly believe in making preschool accessible for all 4-year-olds in Hawaii.  Universal preschool is not a new idea; it's been around since the 1980s with The Berman Report and the 1990's with the Cayetano Task Force. It's taking far too long - over 25 years - for our State to make a commitment to ensure that ALL 4-year-olds have an opportunity to attend a quality pre-kindergarten program.  Until we make that commitment, we will have an opportunity gap that turns into an achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots.   Our children and their future are too important; we need to stop making excuses about the lack of funds to support universal preschool.

Second, with our Superintendent signing the Future Ready pledge, it is my hope that more support will be provided to schools to ensure that our teachers and students are able to personalize teaching and learning through the use of technology to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and create. Our school has been on a journey to create our own curriculum and to address the Common Core State Standards through interdisciplinary units and project-based or problem-based learning. I am hopeful that the State will allow us flexibility in implementation and will allow us to apply for funding through the Future Ready program to provide continued professional development for our teachers as well as to purchase devices for our students.   Recently, over 85 billion students worldwide participated in the second annual Hour of  Code. To prepare our students for their future, we need to introduce coding in every school in Hawaii and it should count as a math or science credit towards high school graduation. We would also like to pilot Bring Your Own Technology with some of our older students. In this day and age, students need to understand that their smartphones or mobile devices are computers that can be used for more than just texting, social media, or playing music or games.

Third, most of our schools were built for a different kind of educational system. Hale Kula, built in 1959, is really fortunate to have received funding from the Department of Defense and the State of Hawaii to transform our school where 21st century teaching and learning will be supported. This whole project has made me realize how important buildings are to a school. We need to invest in upgrading our schools; most of our schools in Hawaii were built for a different era with the factory model that was prevalent in education at that time. Our construction project has made me realize how our teachers were doing their best to give our students 21st century learning experiences without the proper infrastructure.  Educators are creative and do their best to make things work, but they shouldn't have to do so.  It is my hope that policymakers will truly make education a priority by being creative and figuring out a way to fund 21st century buildings at our schools. The Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs conducted a study in 2012 that outlines a long-term plan to address the need to transform outdated and aging schools.  Perhaps this plan should be re-examined and shared with all stakeholders.

Finally, I hope our Department will engage our schools in discussions about the Smarter Balanced Assessments. I've shared my thoughts in two earlier blogs so I won't repeat myself. I believe that we need to examine other ways of determining how students are doing in school, perhaps by having them keep an electronic portfolio of their best work from the time they enter our school system until they graduate. Part of the requirement for this portfolio is to have students reflect on why they chose those pieces and what they learned.  This is a powerful individualized process that holds students accountable and is highly personalized, and when the appropriate support is provided, even kindergarten students can self-reflect on what they want to keep as evidences of their learning and why. It is true that an electronic portfolio doesn't have the capacity to compare students through a common assessment, but I doubt that a test score is the best predictor of success in life.  We need to re-examine whether the amount of money we spend on testing could be better utilized to improve teaching and learning at our schools.

As a lifelong educator who remains passionate about improving education in Hawaii, I believe it takes the commitment of everyone to engage in a discussion to ensure that our children are prepared for their future through a quality public education system. Let's make that commitment together.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Commitment to Our School

As I look back on my experiences at our school for the past 11+ years, I am amazed at my journey and my growth as a leader. I have the same passion and vision for leadership, but I have learned so much about what it takes to lead a school.  I am not the same person I was back when I was first hired. Indeed, I was a bit naive to think that the job would get easier the longer I stayed at our school!

Before becoming a principal, I had opportunities to hone my leadership philosophy as a teacher-leader and a coach, president, and tournament chairperson for different youth sports groups. My core beliefs about leadership have not changed much. I still believe that a leader earns respect; it is not given. I believe in teamwork; one person alone cannot accomplish what a team of people can. I believe that an idea worth trying can be better when the leader is open to discussion.  And I believe that a leader needs to make time to sometimes "get away" from the job and to re-energize.

Much has changed in education since I first became a principal. Technology has changed the way we teach and learn, not just for students, but for teachers and school leaders as well.  Brain research provides information on how students learn, and in this digital age, it is definitely through active learning and hands-on projects rather than paper/pencil worksheets. We know that teamwork and collaboration are integral; the strength of the group is greater than the individual, and everyone has something to contribute to the team. We know that not everyone learns in the same way, and it is important to present information in multiple ways to address the needs of the learners. (This is true for adults as well as children.)

Although I could be considered a seasoned principal, I continue to learn much from those around me. As I visit classrooms, I marvel at how comfortable our students are when collaborating on a document or presentation in Google Drive. I listen to their discussions and their ideas, and I am proud of how they listen to each other, respect other's ideas, and are willing to try different strategies to solve problems. I watch them in a Google Hangout, asking higher-level questions so confidently, and I know that instruction in the classroom focuses on critical thinking and not just regurgitating information. I look at student projects and listen to them share what they did and I admire their creativity in using different tools to share their learning. Our teachers have taught me as well. They attend classes, conferences, and workshops and come back, eager to share what they have learned. They willingly try new ideas and discuss how to apply what they learned with their colleagues. They take on challenges such as chairing Focus Groups for our accreditation, presenting at a conference, guiding students through a media or coding project, or coaching a team; all of these extra tasks require them to put in time, something that is in short supply for all educators.

Through my journey as a school leader, I have come to realize what kind of a leader I strive to be. A leader with a strong vision for what education can and should be.  A leader who knows that it takes a team to implement that vision. A leader who understands that our work is never done, that the road to excellence never ends. A leader who learns from experiences and strives to do better the next time. A leader who trusts the members of our team to do their best. A leader who uses the power of technology to communicate and to keep up-to-date personally and professionally.  A leader with the strength to advocate for our school, to ensure that our students and teachers benefit from decisions made by policy-makers.

As we approach the end of 2014 and enter a new year, I commit to continue to learn and improve so I can effectively lead our school to new heights.  Imua!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What are We Doing to Our Kids? Part II

Earlier, I published a blog that shared my concerns regarding the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA) titled "What are We Doing to Our Kids?". Since then, I've had the opportunity to delve deeper into the requirements to administer the SBA and I believe even more strongly that we are headed down the wrong path if we think that these assessments will measure whether our students will ultimately be successful in life.

My major concern is that these assessments are not the way students should be demonstrating their learning.  Young children learn by making sense of information, by asking questions, exploring and discovering their own answers by using available resources. They learn collaboratively by working with others and building on their strengths as well as addressing any challenges to their learning. Children learn by making mistakes, by trying their ideas and then working to make improvements. Expecting students as young as eight years old to sit for long periods of time to complete an extended assignment on a topic that may have little relevance and no real meaning for that child is a recipe for failure. Children are more than test scores.  Those test scores do not define who the child is, what they are good at, and why we value them as important members of our school and classroom community.

Another major concern for me is the amount of resources it will take to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessments. I question the amount of money being spent on developing, implementing, and scoring these assessments  I question the value to the school or the teacher when results for students will not be available until long after the year is over. I question the amount of time being spent on preparing for the test and on taking the test, time that could and should be spent on student-centered, active learning.  I worry that technology issues will impact the entire school when testing becomes the priority and all other computer activities come to a halt during Smarter Balanced Assessment administration. This is a real concern for our school where we use technology at all grade levels to collaborate, communicate, think critically, create, and connect with others globally.

Most concerning to me, though, is the negative impact on our students and the unnecessary stress we place on them. Is there a test for students who may be gifted in art or music? What about a student who has great interpersonal skills, who has advanced physical motor skills, or who may have creative out-of-the-box ideas but struggles with reading or writing? A test score does not define a student, and our responsibility as educators is to guide and support students and to expose them to many different activities so they can find what they are passionate about.

An article by Diane Ravitch, "The Myth of Chinese Super Schools" is a must-read for everyone. The article is based on Dr. Yong Zhao's book, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon:  Why China Has the Best (and the Worst) Education System in the World.  Dr. Zhao dreams of a world where students are encouraged to be "confident, curious, and creative." As Diane Ravitch states in her article, "Until we break free of standardized testing, this ideal will remain out of reach."

It is time for us to speak up if we are concerned.

Students are learning to code using available computers and devices at the school.  These activities could be halted for several months while 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders take the Smarter Balanced Assessments on-line.

Activities like art, music, physical education, dance, and drama are as important to children's development as reading, writing, and math.  Yet schools are eliminating these programs and focusing primarily on language arts and math because they are measured on tests like the Smarter Balanced Assessments. 

@Diane Ravitch