Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Myths & Lies" about Education

During the school year, my personalized professional development consists mainly of reading blogs that are posted on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook primarily because they're shorter and with all the expectations of a school administrator, finding the time to complete a book can be a challenge.  Now that it's summer, though, I thought I'd read a book that was recommended by someone I follow on Twitter.  It's called, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools. (Click on the link to read an interview with the authors.)

As someone who tries to keep up with the trends in public education, I found the book to be validating as well as somewhat discouraging because there are so many misconceptions about public education and the answers provided by conservative think tanks, policy makers, or large publishing companies are not what will make a difference for our students.

My major takeaway from the book is this: our public education system is not broken.  There are lots of great things happening in our public schools, but if we don't solve America's inequity problems, we will always have a large group of students who will struggle with learning.  It's not their fault.

It's not enough, though, to wring our hands and justify that there will always be students who fall through the cracks or who are born into situations where struggling in school is a very realistic possibility. The question then is, "What can we do about it?"  The authors of 50 Myths & Lies offer some solutions in the interview: mixed housing areas so all low-income people are not in the same area; higher taxes on the wealthy and some corporations to fund teachers, police officers, firefighters, the military, and other service positions; dual language schools; and more money in education budgets to fund quality early childhood education programs or after-school or summer enrichment and tutoring programs.  These are great ideas for policy makers to consider, but I don't hold out much hope that action will be taken anytime soon.

Those of us who are in the schools do our best with what we're given. I can think of lots of ways to spend the money if we had more funding for schools, but the reality is that we shouldn't count on getting more. When the Governor and the Legislature are obligated to balance the budget, it is assumed that the extras will be cut out of the Department's request especially during lean years. So what are schools supposed to do?

That's the big question schools are grappling with, and I know that like every other school, we're not waiting. Schools don't wait; we act because we know that our school communities trust that we will do the best for our students. So despite the fact that funding is inadequate to address the needs of our individual schools, we find funding through grants or partnerships to ensure that our students continue to grow as learners.  Or teachers volunteer their services because they know it will help their kids.

A book like 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools does not seem to have the same impact as the movie, Waiting for Superman.  John Q. Public loves to bash our public schools but they offer no viable solutions on how to "fix" our problems.  Educators in public schools take the heat from the public without fighting back and continue to do our best for our students and our school communities. But maybe it is time for us to be more vocal - not necessarily to fight back against the "myths and lies" --  but to share the positive things going on in public schools today.  Public schools deserve to be supported!

Follow the Hawaii Department of Education on Facebook. You'll be amazed at all the GREAT things happening in our Hawaii public schools!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Confession

I've blogged about my concerns with the Smarter Balanced Assessments earlier in a blog titled, "What's Wrong with this Picture?" so I won't repeat my concerns.  Our 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders took the assessments beginning in April and ending sometime in May when the last students submitted their results.  It was a challenge for many, especially those students who aren't at grade level yet.

We started getting results in mid-May, a few at a time.  Our scores are not looking great.  We were prepared for lower scores than previous statewide assessment results; after all, this is a new test, and our students are not used to that format.

Before the school year ended, I was having a conversation with a teacher I really respect. She co-taught in an inclusion classroom and many of her students struggled academically.  Several of them had special needs or English was not their primary language. However, no one would know that when they observed in this classroom and saw the students collaborating on projects, sharing presentations, asking questions of each other to clarify what was shared, or working in groups to solve a complex math problem. "They have come a long way since the beginning of the year," this teacher shared, "but they still struggle with academic language.  They need that opportunity to discuss with their peers first. Then they can communicate their ideas but writing will still be a challenge for them."

So knowing that the SBAC results may not reflect our students' true potential, why do I keep checking several times a day to see if any more results are posted and if our percentage of students with a score of 3 or 4 has gone up? I wish I could care less, but hard as I try, I find myself looking at the scores and feeling somewhat disappointed.

After all, I know that the public uses test scores to judge our schools.  We see headlines in the paper comparing schools by test scores, and we see magazines use the State Strive-Hi results to give our public schools a letter grade.  There are winners and losers when the media opts to grade schools on a bell curve.  My heart tells me not to worry about test scores, but my head wonders if there's more we can do to help our students be more successful on these kinds of assessments.

As the principal of our school, I was conflicted.  As I reflected on this quandary, I remembered a fable titled, "The Animal School" written by George Reavis back in the 1940's.  This fable reminded me that our job as educators is to see the possibilities in every child and to help every student achieve to their fullest potential.  That is what is important, and that is why I have been an educator for over four decades.

Will I continue to check the SBAC results every day? Probably, but I will look at the results as just one piece of data and definitely not the most important one for our students.