Sunday, May 01, 2016

Goals Gone Wild

Back in February my school district changed platforms for our websites. As a result, we had to make all the usual design decisions, figure out workflow, and move content over. As part of that process, I realized that we did not have a link to our Unified Improvement Plan (UIP), an annual improvement plan required by the Colorado Department of Education. I then asked for a copy and posted it on our website (pdf). And then I read it.

Our UIP has two goals (Priority Performance Challenges), and I thought it might be worthwhile to look at each one individually.

Goal 1: To improve writing skills building-wide
At first blush, this is a goal I can strongly support. I think writing is critically important for our students. It allows them to express and communicate ideas, interact with others and their ideas, and refine their own thinking through the writing process. I also appreciate how it says "building-wide", which implies that the adults in the building will be working on this as well.

Now, while I strongly support this, that doesn't mean I don't have suggestions on how to improve it. As much as I support "writing", I think that's way too limiting of a concept. As Dr. Richard Miller, the English Department Chair at Rutgers University says,
To compose, and compose successfully in the 21st century, you have to not only excel at verbal expression, at written expression, you have to also excel in the use and manipulation of images. That's what it means to compose.
So I think a significant improvement in this goal would be to replace the word "writing" with "composition." It's not enough for our students to improve their "writing", but they have to be able to "consume and produce in the media forms of the day" (Jason Ohler - 1, 2, 3). Writing (in the traditional "text" sense), is still a hugely important component of that, and the writing process is also critical. But it's not enough. For students to communicate ideas, express opinions, interact with others and their ideas, and even refine their own thinking in 2016 (and beyond), they need not only text, but images, and sound, and video, and hyperlinks, and infographics, and storify's, and . . .well, you get the idea.

So while I like the idea of improving our students' (and staff's) abilities in this area, I think we are missing the boat when we limit it to simply "writing." But as I read further in the UIP, I was dismayed to see the "Action Steps" we were going to take to try to achieve this goal.

While these are all well-intentioned, I have serious concerns about our conception of what "good writing" (or I would prefer "good composition") looks like. In the first section, I think it's great that we're making sure all students have technology (of course I would), that we will utilize PLC time to discuss writing strategies, and that we will "imbed" (sic) writing more frequently (although I'm not sure that's actually happening in many of our classes). But the emphasis on "Data Days" and working on "skills missed in common assessments" is a bit worrisome. That seems to place more emphasis on how we're doing as a school and on specific, school-defined "skills" as measured by common assessments, and less emphasis on developing each student as a writer. (Those don't have to be mutually exclusive, but I worry about the focus there.)

I also really like some of the ideas in the second section focused on Mindset, but the implementation of that third item, "alter grading practices," seems to be lacking. While some individual teachers have certainly done this, our grading practices across the faculty are very much not aligned with a growth mindset (1, 2)

It's the third section that really, really concerns me. While "SLO" has the word "Student" in there, I think that again the emphasis here is on "results" as viewed from the school perspective. The use of "common assessments" and "MAP data" almost necessitates a narrow focus on "academic" writing skills and less of an emphasis on the actual purpose of writing for our students. Again, these are not mutually exclusive, but where is the student, their ideas, and their reason for writing in any of this? If our students were writing for a purpose, about things they care about, with audiences that matter, then those "academic" aspects could help achieve their goals. But when we focus on the "academic" aspects and ignore the reason and purpose for writing, I don't think it works at all. It actually turns off and discourages our students from writing for themselves. It focuses on the "performance" of writing for an assignment, instead of the "purpose" of writing for oneself (and others).

Plus, by focusing on "common assessments" and "MAP data", we ignore something else Miller had to say,
That's writing in the 21st century. It's multiply authored, it's multiply produced, and that's where English is going.
Multiply authored. Multiply produced. We, of course, would call that cheating on a common assessment or on MAP testing.

Finally, I would point out that none of these implementation strategies seem to involve developing the adults in the building as better writers (composers).  There appears to be no effort to ask staff to compose on a regular basis, or participate in any "writing in the 21st century" as Miller puts it, or to improve their skills and abilities in this area. If we don't model for our students, then we are not only missing an opportunity, but are pretty darn hypocritical.

Goal 2: To decrease the number of students that opt out of testing
Okay, read that again.

Yep, that's what it says. 50% of our goals as a school for how to help our students learn and grow focuses on getting more of them to take state-mandated tests. This totally flabbergasts me. In fact, I hesitated to write this post because this goal reflects so poorly on my school (and, selfishly, on me). This is not only not a worthy goal, it's flat-out embarrassing.

And then there's the way we are going to achieve this goal:
More "Data Days." More class time practicing standardized test items. More time spent trying to convince our students and their parents that these tests (and "test-taking practice) are helpful to them. Less time spent actually helping our students to learn and grow. (As a side note, because of a new state law, district's were required to formalize the opt-out procedure. Our district did so (pdf), but note the attempt to coerce the parents by making them feel guilty. Even worse, when parents did opt-out, we sent them a follow-up letter trying to make them feel guilty again and encouraging them to change their minds.)

I think our UIP is a pretty good demonstration of "Goals Gone Wild":
  • The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.
  • Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.
  • The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
  • In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.
  • Managers should ask specific questions to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.
It also is a pretty good example of Campbell's Law:
The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Even when Campbell's Law doesn't rise to the extremes that we saw in the cheating scandals in DC, Atlanta (and who got punished 1, 2) and elsewhere, it has a truly corrosive effect on the culture of learning (1, 2) in our schools.

I'm not questioning whether the folks who wrote our UIP were well-intentioned - they were. Or even whether they thought these goals would be good for kids - they did. But if we're going to be required to take the time to complete this plan, I think we should spend a lot more time thinking about this from our students' perspectives, about what it means to be a good writer (composer), about whether participation rates in state-mandated tests are a metric that is useful for our individual students, and about what it really means to be educated and literate in 2016 and beyond (1, 2, 3).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The True Cost of Testing: Part 2

My last post on The True Cost of Testing generated a couple of follow-up questions I thought I might address.

One of those questions was what would we do to replace final exams? Don't we need some kind of assessment at the end of a semester/year? Maybe, maybe not, but if you do believe we need some kind of assessment at that point, I suggest an alternative. I wrote about this a while back, I think we should replace final exams with conferencing with students. Meeting with them individually and actually talking with them to see what they know, what they are still struggling with, and what they would like to do next would be much more valuable for the student than a final exam.

Another question focused on what should we do with that freed up time? We have about 175 instructional days with students but, as discussed in the last post, we lose about 17 or so to testing, which means we really have something more like 158. So one possibility is simply to give those days back to instruction. That effectively adds 11% (17/158) more days to our school year without actually increasing the number of days or spending any more money. That's an idea that everyone from Bernie to Donald could presumably support.

Alternatively, we could stick with 158 days. That would save us about 10% of our current budget, so that means we could hire 10% more teachers. At my school, that equates to about 11 more teachers, which could either translate to lower class sizes or additional offerings (or both). Which is better for students, 17 days of testing, or 158 days of instruction with 11 more teachers in the building?

Or perhaps we don't spend that saved money on additional teachers. Since we currently have 158 days of instruction that we're clearly satisfied with, then perhaps we use those 17 days differently. I'd suggest that the 2,150 students and 150 staff members participate in various forms of community service. Think what we could accomplish in our community with 2300 people, 17 days, and $2 million. Think also what the students could learn.

This undoubtedly would take many, many forms, some of them costing no money just donated time, and others taking both time and some money, but let me give just one example. What if we worked with Habitat For Humanity? With $2 million, 17 days, and that many volunteers, I think we could easily build 10 houses for families in need in our community. That's per year. Just from my school. Now only would it provide desperately needed affordable housing, but think of all the students would learn in that process. It could very much be an apprenticeship model, with students doing good while learning.

Even with 10 simultaneous houses going up, and even if students and teachers were split into 3 shifts a day at 6 hours each, that still wouldn't take all 2300 of us, so there still would be plenty of other volunteer opportunities going on at the same time for those 17 days. Maybe reading with students in elementary schools, maybe tending a community garden, maybe visiting seniors living in assisted living. And, obviously, we're only limited by our imagination in terms of finding activities that benefit the community while simultaneously teaching our students valuable skills. Part of the learning process would presumably be the students researching what the best use of that time might be.

So, once again, what would be the impact on the culture of learning in our schools? What would be the message we send to students (and teachers) of what we value and who we are serving?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The True Cost of Testing

Next week my school is giving the state-mandated testing to our freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Colorado, like many states, has made some changes this year, and they are definitely an improvement. The overall amount of testing is decreased somewhat, and sophomores will no longer be taking the PARCC exam but instead will be taking the PSAT. While I'm not a fan of PSAT and SAT either, they are at least somewhat useful to some students.

When the news was announced in December, the focus was primarily on three things: the reduced amount of testing, the switch from the ACT to the SAT, and the timing of the announcement. What was missing was much discussion of the merits of testing in general and the cost (both direct and indirect) of the testing. For this post, I'm going to just focus on cost.

I've so far been unable to find anywhere on the Colorado Department of Education site the cost to the state of these state-mandated tests. (I'm sure it's there somewhere, I just haven't found it yet.)  This article seems to indicate that the current ACT for juniors costs about $2.1 million a year, and they are budgeting $1.8 million for the sophomore exam, plus an additional $432,000 for juniors who want to take the writing portion. The cost for PARCC/CMAS (9th graders and 11th graders in science) is harder to figure out, but this article from about a year ago shows the state will pay Pearson about $27 million for PARCC and CMAS. If we assume that the high school portion of that is about 10% (very rough estimate), then add in another $2.7 million. So, somewhere around $7 million in direct costs to the state. That figure, of course, doesn't include the indirect costs of staffing, materials, time, etc., nor does it include the same types of indirect costs to school districts.

But even what little focus there has been on that really quite large sum of money then ignores the opportunity costs that are ultimately paid by school districts (and kids). Let's look at my building as one example. Next week we will spend three days on state-mandated testing. While we run an abbreviated schedule in the afternoons, most folks will acknowledge that the classes held during that time are not optimal for learning. The students who took the tests in the morning are tired, and some students who do not have to take the tests in any given morning choose not to come to school just for the classes in the afternoon (definite surge in our absentee rate). Given all that, many teachers make the reasonable decision to limit their instruction during this time to less critical matters. Not that we don't try to make the time worthwhile, we definitely do, but it's tough to try to reach the same level of learning as in a typical day. So, for me, I consider those three days pretty much lost for instruction. (If you disagree, you can pro-rate the numbers I'm about to share accordingly.)

So what does this "cost"? Well, according to district budget documents, we spend $9597 per student per year (that's including federal, state, and local funds; the amount directly from the state is less than that). We have about 175 days of "instruction" (theoretically), so $9597 divided by 175 works out to just under $55 per day per student. Since we have roughly 2150 students at Arapahoe, a single day of instruction costs roughly $118,000. That means that for each and every day of instruction we choose to "give up," we are "forfeiting" that money. So each day of testing is costing us $118,000, or roughly $354,000 for the three days of state-mandated testing. (Keep in mind that does not include the pro-rated cost of the $7 million the state is directly paying, or the indirect costs to the state and especially the districts that I'm sure adds several million more.)

But, sticking to just the lost instructional time, we're now at $350,000 (just at my school). But there's more, of course. We currently choose to take a day of instruction in the fall to give the PSAT to all Juniors. (Yes, despite the fact that we're now going to be giving it to all sophomores in April, we are still going to turn around and give it to all of them again in October when they're Juniors. Why? National Merit.) So that choice means we're deciding to spend another $118,000 on testing. We're now up to $472,000 (just at my school).

But, of course, there's still more if you don't limit it to state-mandated testing. What other types of testing do we have at my school? Well, we give MAP testing in language arts and mathematics to our students. That's a bit harder to quantify in terms of cost, since we don't devote parts of entire school days to it. Instead, students are tested in their language arts and math classes (twice a year in 9th and 10th grade, just once a year in 11th I think). Making a very rough estimate again, I'll say that equates to about half a day per year per student, so $59,000. We're now up to $531,000 (just at my school).

We also have many students who take AP exams at the end of the school year. When students take an AP exam, they not only miss the 3 or so hours they are writing the exam, but they often miss the entire school day as they are pretty exhausted. There are certainly many arguments in favor of the usefulness, importance and value of AP Exams, but there are also arguments against. No matter which side you fall on, certainly those days are not available for instruction for those students. (And even for those students who are not taking an AP exam, teachers adjust what they are doing in class because so many students are missing due to the AP exams). I don't really have the data to completely quantify this, but our students write close to 900 AP exams in a given year, so if we take 900 times $55 per day per student, that adds $49,500. We're now up to $580,500 (just at my school).

My school also requires final exams each semester. We devote four days each semester exclusively to final exams, so eight days throughout the school year. While there are certainly some folks who will argue that final exams are useful, necessary and important, there are also arguments that they are not. Whichever you believe, they certainly don't much resemble instruction. So eight days times $118,000 adds another $944,000, so we're up to $1,524,500 (just at my school). Since many teachers also take at least one day to review for the final exams, you could perhaps add in more here (although that review has some instructional value, so I'll leave that out for now).

Then you add in the individual tests that teachers give. This is even murkier territory, since I do believe assessment - when it is done well - is very valuable, and how teachers give these assessments varies tremendously. But certainly there are a fair number of teachers who give "unit" tests multiple times a year that take an entire class period. That's time that is no longer available for instruction, so there is an opportunity cost associated with it. Let's make a conservative estimate and say that each students loses 4 days a year cumulatively to these tests. That adds another $472,000, so we're up to $1,996,500.

Now, that's waaaaay too many digits of precision, so let's just say $2 million as a rough estimate. We spend $2 million dollars a year on testing . . . just at my school.
Two. Million. Dollars.
We can debate my estimates and I'll freely admit that I'm just ballparking all of this, but at least it gives us a place to start the discussion. If we ignore the $7 million the state spends in direct costs, and if we ignore the additional millions the state and school districts spend in indirect costs, and just focus on what my high school spends on testing each year, $2 million is a good number to work with.

That's the cost of testing.

Yet even that isn't the true cost of testing, or at least not the total true cost of testing. My daughter is a sophomore this year, and in her language arts and math classes they have been doing some practice PSAT items. They are not spending a lot of time on this, but they are spending some. And just because they are practicing for the PSAT doesn't automatically make it a poor use of time, the skills they are practicing may (or may not) be valuable.

But I think we have to acknowledge that in addition to the actual time spent testing, we are impacting what we do in our schools. Even if you believe those practice items are valuable, keep in mind that those items change each year as the tests change. We used to do CSAP practice items, then TCAP, then PARCC, then ACT, and now PSAT and SAT. While those are certainly related, each time the test changes we change the prep we do. I think it's awfully hard to argue the high ground here about how valuable these items are when they keep changing based on which test we're giving.

And it doesn't just influence those test prep items. We change what we do in our classes based on these tests. From major changes like adjusting the entire curriculum, to more minor changes like materials selection and the emphasis we place on different topics within that curriculum, the current test ends up driving a lot of what we do (even if we don't want to admit it). Again, that doesn't necessarily mean that the things we are doing are bad, but I think we need to be honest and acknowledge why we are doing them. The question we need to ask is what would we choose to do with our students in the absence of those tests? Instead of trying to do things better, we should do better things.

It's not just the time (and dollars) spent on actual testing, it's the impact on the culture of learning in our schools. It's the message we send to students (and teachers) of what we value and who we are serving.

That's the true cost of testing.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Deadlines Are For Kids

Anyone else remember "Trix are for kids"? Well, I'm becoming more and more convinced that, today, deadlines are for kids.

I hear endless discussions about deadlines and due dates. About how we need to teach kids responsibility. And how they need to have "consequences" when they don't turn in their assignment on time. (Never mind that both the assignment and the deadline are often pretty arbitrary, but I digress.)

So, let me share just a few examples from the last couple of weeks in my neck of the woods.
  1. My school district is implementing a new unified password system. As part of that, staff members have to answer 5 challenge questions in advance so that, if they need to change their password in the future, they can do it themselves via a web interface. The district sent out very detailed instructions for how to do this, a process that takes less than 4 minutes. A couple of weeks later 40% of staff still hadn't done it, so they sent me a reminder to send out to my staff, which I did. The "due date" was March 18th. Two weeks later (including a week off for spring break), and I've had multiple staff members come up to me and say, "Sorry, I didn't get to that, can I still do that?"

  2. We're 12 weeks into the semester. In one particular class there are 3 grades in the grade book: Week 1 participation, Week 2 participation, and a grade from January 15th.

  3. In another class, they took a test on March 18th. No grade (and, more importantly, no feedback, as of yet). Also three quizzes from before that that still aren't in the grade book.

  4. In yet another class, last grade is from February 28th.

    With all three of these classes the problem isn't so much the lack of grades (although that is still problematic when students are held accountable for their grade), but the lack of feedback. How can students learn from their work if they don't get timely feedback?

  5. We have a monthly newsletter for parents with articles that our submitted by many different staff members that is created in Publisher, then converted to PDF, and posted on our website. (I know, I know. Monthly. PDF. But this is progress, keep in mind that until two years ago we printed and mailed 2400+ copies of this 15-20 page newsletter each month.) I'm not sure the newsletter has ever been done on time. And, pretty much every month, there are at least two or three corrections that have to be posted because of mistakes (typos, incorrect information, etc.).

  6. We're trying to get some new computer science courses approved in my district. Part of the process is to present the info to a committee in my building. The week before the meeting I sent all the information to them. Admittedly, there was a lot of information so, anticipating that might be too much, I specifically pointed them to the one (page-and-a-half) document they should definitely look at which summarized the courses, and then they could drill deeper if they really wanted to. I get to the meeting and it appears as though none of them have looked at it. They ask me to write the courses on the white board so they can see them.
Do I ever miss, or stretch, or forget about deadlines? Sure, of course I do. But I also don't enforce (often arbitrary) deadlines for students, then scold and punish them (including docking their grade) when they don't meet them. That's not to say that I don't think deadlines can have meaning or importance, but it means that I think we need to keep in mind the bigger picture of what we're doing here.

So my question is, for all the teachers who are represented in numbers 1-6 above, what are you going to do the next time a student misses a deadline?

Tuesday, January 05, 2016


I think sometimes we use words assuming they mean one thing when they actually mean another. Much like accountability, I think "tradition" is sometimes one of those words.

When schools use the word "tradition" they usually mean it in the sense of school pride, a kind of institutional memory of the things the school has done well and wants to continue to do well. But I worry that - in practice - our use of tradition ends up meaning something quite different from that.

Here's how Merriam-Webster defines tradition:
  1. a: an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom)

    b: a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable
  2. the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction
  3. cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions
  4. characteristic manner, method, or style
While there's nothing here that particularly conflicts with how schools define tradition, there's also much here that the school-ey definition ignores. Words like "inherited", "customary", "cultural continuity",  and "customs" all share a common element: they are accepted without thought. It doesn't matter whether the idea is good, bad, or in-between, because it's "tradition" it's what we do. Too often tradition ends up being - in practice - translated into "because we've always done it this way."

I know that folks who like using the word tradition would protest that that's not what they mean. What they mean is all the "good" traditions that we have, all the things we're proud of and that we think define us. But the problem is that tradition is more than that. If there are certain traditions that we are referring to, we should be specific and enumerate them, because otherwise we are endorsing all the traditions that we have.

For example, my school is (justifiably) proud of our relationship with the Arapaho Nation. Since 1993, we have had on-going dialogue and interaction with the Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, including taking a busload of our students up to the reservation, and a large contingent of Arapaho coming to our school for an assembly and to visit our classes. But we should also acknowledge that our "tradition" includes the 29 years prior to that when we didn't have the relationship, when our mascot was a caricature of an Indian (Native American) that we found out from the Arapaho in 1993 was actually closer to a Pawnee, and which (in addition to it being offensive in and of itself), we used in offensive ways (like putting it on the floor of the gym, offensive chants, etc.). What if in 1993 we had argued that "tradition" supported keeping our original mascot? (Which is the argument that many others are currently making, from high schools across the country to the professional football team in Washington D.C.)

To be clear, we have many great traditions at my school and we have done many things well in the past. But that was the past; we should be asking ourselves what we should be doing for our students today, and tomorrow, and for what the world is going to look like when they are our age. As John Dewey famously said,
If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.
That doesn't mean we just "throw everything out" or that we "don't respect our traditions". But it does mean that we can't blithely use the word tradition to unthinkingly continue on the way we've been going. It brings to mind the song from Fiddler on the Roof:
Hodel, oh Hodel, have I made a match for you.
He's handsome! He's young! All right, he's 62.
But he's a nice man, a good catch. True? True!
I promise you'll be happy. And even if you're not,
There's more to life than that. Don't ask me what!

(italics mine)
Don't ask me what. Don't question. Don't think about it for yourself. Don't spend the time to figure out what you truly value. Just do it because it's tradition.

We can do better.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Student and Parent Evaluations of Me

We began offering an Intro to Computer Science class this fall for the first time in a long time, and I had the, ahem, "opportunity" to teach it. (We are hopefully going to be hiring a teacher for the next school year who is a bit more qualified, but just didn't have the FTE to do that this year as we got it off the ground.)

As when I taught Algebra, I asked both the students and parents for feedback via a google form at the end of the semester. I think it's always good to ask for this feedback, even though sometimes you're not sure how honest and accurate it is. Even so, I learn something from it each time.

I also think it's important to be transparent, so here are the links to their responses. These responses are verbatim, except for some slight editing where personal information was included. Both students and parents could choose to leave their name if they wished (totally optional), and some of the parent comments including their student's name - I edited all of that out.

Student Feedback (36 out of 45 completed the survey)

Parent Feedback (12 responses to the survey)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

We Have Met The Enemy

There's plenty of blame to spread around for what ills education. You can blame politicians, school board members, district and building administrators, parents. But, regrettably, I was again reminded today of the one principal obstacle standing in the way of meaningful education change. Teachers. (And, yes, I include myself.)

And that makes me incredibly sad.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Mixed Messages

There's a sexting "scandal" in a local school that is getting a lot of media play. This is no doubt a serious issue and one that we should address with our students, but I also think there is a bit of puritanical reaction to anything related to sex and teenagers. I think it's also often a hypocritical one.

When I go to that story on the Denver Post's site, it of course generates some ads on the page that change each time. Interestingly, however, the ads often have quite a few things in common. For example, here are two screenshots from two separate visits to that page.

Notice anything? Even ignoring the prominent Marijuana ads (Marijuana and the Broncos seem to be the primary revenue generators for the Post), every time I visit the page I get several prominent pictures of scantily clad women. 

Thankfully, it does seem that law enforcement is proceeding carefully and is only planning on charging any students who perhaps coerced or bullied other students into sexting (as opposed to making any student who participated register as a sex offender, which the law does allow). But I certainly think we need to be careful of saying things like,
we've got a lot of work to do to get them to the moral and ethic level we think they should have
If the flagship newspaper of our state is willing to put those types of ads on their site, then I think it's pretty hard to go after the "moral and ethic level" of our students. It's not just the Post, of course, take a look at the ads during the Broncos' game today (or your favorite NFL team). Or some of the shots of the cheerleaders that the networks like to include. Not to mention the new Hooters restaurant that opened nearby.

I'm certainly not defending sexting, but I think we need to acknowledge that teenagers are reacting to the culture we've created and promoted. At best we're sending mixed messages, so why are we surprised when our students respond to them in kind?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Student Centered . . . Or Not

There have been some interesting discussions going on recently at my high school. I think they are a result of a number of things, including a book study of Mindset (and now extending that to the community), starting an Advisory program for the first time, discussing our Mission and Vision, and having a once-a-month, drop-in "Warrior Talk" time when administration makes itself available to any staff who want to show up and discuss what's on their mind.

All of these things, plus probably some others I'm forgetting at the moment, have really centered around the idea of student growth, not just in the narrow sense of academic achievement (although that is certainly a big part of it), but also in terms of personal and emotional growth. I've heard more teachers having more discussions about students, and what they need (as opposed to conversations simply about curriculum or standards - although those are of course still happening as well), in the last month or so than I have in a long time. If I had to give an overall label to the discussions, it would have to be "student-centered." We really are talking about trying to make our school, our classrooms, our selves more student-centered.

Which is why it was so incredibly disappointing to hear what apparently happened at our Department Chair meeting this week ("apparently" because I am not a Department Chair so was not there). (Department Chair is a group of all of our Department Chairs that meets every other week with an agenda set by administration.) This week the idea was suggested that before we schedule for next year, we perhaps should do a pre-registration with students to gauge their interest in certain courses. That's easy enough to do, just have students enter in their requests online and then look at the results, the idea being that we could perhaps tweak our Master Schedule a bit based on student interest.

This suggestion was apparently met with tremendous resistance and immediately crushed. The concern seemed to be that if we ask the students what they want, they might tell us. Perhaps that's not a fair characterization, but from what I've heard that's seems like what it boils down to.
"What if students request 10 sections-worth of ?"
Well, what if? It's amazing how much this parallels the discussions I've participated in with Seniors in Government class about school and education, and are there any ways to improve the system we have. They always start out agreeing that school should be about learning and that they think we do a pretty good job at this, but a significant number of them end up agreeing that much of our system is actually not designed with learning - or their specific needs - in mind. Almost always, partway through the discussion, a student will say something like, "Well, if we let kids choose their own classes, they'd take the "easy" way out and take a bunch of Art classes." (To be fair, sometimes it's "PE".) After much discussion about what "easy" and "important" and "core" mean, and then pointing out that if we didn't have grades how would they determine what "easy" meant, the discussion starts to get really going. (And then the bell rings. But I digress.)

Now, let me be clear, I'm not suggesting that my school should immediately ditch all of our course offerings and just let the students do whatever they want. (However, to be just as clear, my "big ideas" series this summer shows that I don't think that's an entirely bad idea, just not what I'm suggesting we as a school do right now.) What I am suggesting is that perhaps we should at least consider our students' interests before building our master schedule, and we can perhaps make some small adjustments that would at least nudge us in a more student-centered direction, even if we still have a fairly rigid curriculum with many required classes. If a bunch of students indicate an interest in a particular Art class, or Law, or Woods, or even Computer Science (hey, a guy can dream), shouldn't we at least consider meeting them part way?

This doesn't mean getting rid of Algebra, Biology or American Lit. (Although, again, I think that's worth some discussion - after all, we teach students subjects, not just subjects). But it does mean acknowledging that our students are real, live human beings, with real, live interests, preferences and needs, and that they should have some say over what they get to learn. More say then simply getting to choose from a pre-determined set of courses and electives that are offered at pre-determined times, meaning they may or may not be able to get in to their top choices, and those from a list of choices they didn't even help create.

I think it comes down to this. We are either going to be student-centered, or we're not. We can't say in one context that we want to be more student-centered, but in another context (one that perhaps challenges our view of what school looks like as well as challenging what we "like" to teach) say, "Nah, just kidding." That doesn't mean throwing everything out and letting it be a free-for-all, but it does mean being open-minded enough to listen to our students, carefully consider what they have to say, and then making a well-thought-out decision about any changes we might want to make.

Perhaps as a building we need to go back and review our own mindsets to see if we truly are willing to grow. If we want to be more student-centered, we're going to have to let go of some of our own teacher-centered beliefs.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A New Mission

A little while back I wrote about my frustrations with my school's mission and vision statements. As I said then, I doubted that very many (if any) of our students - or our staff - could tell you what our mission statement said, much less our vision statement.
That doesn't mean I don't generally like what's in our mission statement (and, for that matter, our longer vision statement). You can read them here (pdf). I do want students to achieve their potential, collaborate and be life-long learners, and contribute to society. The problem is that when you have a mission statement that no one knows, and that has generic statements like that, it ends up being pretty meaningless.
In other words, it's mission impossible.

On our in-service day on Thursday we broke up into small groups to discuss our mission and vision statement, with the purpose of identifying things we wanted to keep, things we wanted to get rid of, or things we wanted to add/modify. Each group worked on that for a while and then submitted a summary of their thinking to administration, who will review it and then . . . well, I'm not sure what exactly the next step is, but I think the intent is to come up with a new (well, modified) mission and vision statement that would be applicable in 2020 (our current one was created in 2007).

In my small group we had a great discussion and we all generally agreed with the sentiments I expressed in my previous post, that while there isn't really anything we disagreed with in our current mission and vision, it was pretty meaningless because it was way too wordy and tried to be all things to all people. We reached consensus that our mission needs to be something that is succinct and meaningful, and that all students and staff should not only know, but should refer to it often.

I shared Science Leadership Academy's mission and vision as an example of the direction I would like to see us head. I suggested that framing our mission and vision around a few (maybe 2-5) essential questions and a few (maybe 3-6) core values was a good way to really hone is on what it is we're about at Arapahoe High School. What we're trying to achieve, what we value, what's important enough to put up on the walls of every single classroom and refer to every single day.

We had a great discussion around that, and my group was generally receptive, although I'm not sure they are necessarily as enamored of this approach as I am. The summary we turned in (on paper . . . sigh) included these ideas (although not the hyperlink to SLA's mission and vision). We'll see where it goes, and it will be interesting to see what other groups come up with (although I'm not sure we will see that, just the "results").

I think it's sometimes tough for folks to get their minds around a mission and vision that is not exhaustive like our current one is. Because we think lots of things are important (and they are), we want to make sure they are all represented in the mission and vision so that nothing (and no one) gets "left out." But I think that really misses the mark on what a mission and vision should be. Our mission should really be our core purpose and our core values, and to be "core" they can't include everything. And our vision, while it should be aspirational and can certainly be a bit longer, still needs to be at a relatively "high" conceptual level.

As in my "big ideas" series of posts last summer, I thought I would take a stab at writing a mission statement for AHS. To be clear, I am not suggesting that this should be the mission statement for AHS (although I think it would be a good one :-), but I think it's helpful for folks to see one particular example of how it could look in order to help foster discussion. So here we go.

Essential Questions (PPSL)
  1. What does it mean to be literate?
  2. How do you define "success"?
  3. What is your passion and what is your purpose?
What does it mean to be literate?
This is a question that I have frequently asked during my speaking engagements. I talk about it a bit here, but I want to be clear that I'm not referring to "literate" in the traditional sense of "just" reading and writing (although even in those areas I think this is vastly more complicated than we assumed it was when I was growing up and going through K-12). This includes mathematical literacy (sometimes referred to as numeracy), scientific literacy, artistic literacy, emotional literacy, and a whole bunch of other literacies (as NCTE says, "many literacies" that are "dynamic and malleable.")

At its heart, this is really a question about what it means to be competent, capable and empowered in a certain area. I also think a key component of this is how do you know that something you've created is good, not just by some external measure (although that can be informative), but how do you yourself know that it's a quality product? Some folks might prefer to reword this as "what does it mean to be educated?", and I think that would be okay, but I decided to stay away from that phrasing because I think it has too much baggage. By focusing on a new way of looking at the word "literate," I think it frees us up to really consider a broader array of skills and habits of mind.

How do you define "success"?
We talk a lot about helping students be "successful," both in school and then in their lives after they leave school. Every school, every government official, every education reform group, every parent, and even every student will talk about needing to prepare students so that they can be successful, and who can argue with that? Well, I can. Because we never take the time to define "success." And if we don't agree on an operational definition of "success," then all those statements about preparing students to be successful are essentially meaningless.

We just assume we all know and agree on what "success" is. I think that's not only incorrect, I think it's dangerous. First, it assumes that success looks the same for every single student, that each and every individual student should have the same goals and same metrics to measure what they accomplish. I think that's ludicrous, and I think that anyone who stops to think for even a minute about this would agree, yet that's the assumption baked in to so many of our statements about what students should be learning in order to "prepare" them for their future.

Second, it assumes that success is defined by society, or at the very least by some combination of government, business, family and educators. Shouldn't success be defined by each student, for themselves? Certainly government, business and educators, as well as friends and family, will help shape and form each student's ideas around what success is but, ultimately, isn't that up to each student to decide? How often in K-12 do we allow students to define their own success? How much opportunity do we provide them to think about this ultimate issue of their lives? People scoff at "what's the meaning of life" discussions, often ridiculing it as idealistic and naive, something that only happens in late-night discussions during college. I think this is exactly wrong. I think this is the most important discussion our students could be having.

Finally, I think this is really dangerous. When we assume we all know and agree what success it, we then start making a series of decisions around students' educations that might be completely and utterly wrong if our first principle of what success is is incorrect. It's like chaos theory, where small changes in initial conditions can have drastic changes in end results. What if our initial condition assumptions about success, which are really also assumptions about the purpose of education, are slightly (or not so slightly) off? Then all those subsequent dependent decisions we've made around education are a giant house of cards, propped up on a faulty foundation. We can do better.

What is your passion and what is your purpose?
This one relates closely to the previous one about success. I think there's a fundamental decision we have to make about school - is it designed to meet the needs of our students, or is it designed to meet the needs of adult society? I would agree with those that say this isn't necessarily an either/or question, but I still think it's important for us to decide which takes precedence. It probably won't surprise regular readers that I fall on the side that school should be to meet the needs of students. I feel if we truly meet the needs of each student, then ultimately we will also meet the needs of society. (I strongly believe that the inverse, however, is not true.)

If we can agree (which is a big if) that we should meet the needs of students, then I think the issues of passion and purpose are critical. What is each student's passion in life? What do they want their purpose to be? How do we help them pursue those passions and achieve that purpose? Can they have more than one and/or can they change throughout their lives? I think so, but I think that's also part of the education of each student, helping them decide that for themselves.

As a parent, I think I feel the conflict that most parents feel, that we want our child to make their own way in the world, yet we really, really, really want our child to also conform to our morals, principles, and ideas of success. I think school is that conflict writ large; that we say we want our students to become independent and critical thinkers, yet we really, really, really want them to independently come to the same conclusions we have. If we truly want them to be independent and critical thinkers, we have to give up some control.

Core Values (C3P3)
  1. Curiosity
  2. Compassion
  3. Community
  4. Perseverance
  5. Passion
  6. Purpose
I think curiosity is the touchstone of learning, and therefore should be perhaps the principal core value of our school.

The unifying phrase of my school is "Warriors, Always Take Care of One Another." If we believe that, we need to live that, and that is going to involve intentionally focusing on both compassion and empathy.

While I emphasize the individual a lot in this post, I think that meeting each student's need ultimately includes helping them form and build community. The reason we come together as a society, as communities, is to make life better for all of us, so this must be included in our core values.

I want to be clear that I'm not jumping on the "grit" bandwagon here. Like many, I have concerns with some of the assumptions and implications that some folks include in their grit narrative. Having said that, I think the idea of perseverance is still a fundamental one. I think where I differ from some of the thinking around grit is the idea that I value perseverance toward achieving one's own goals, not someone else's perhaps arbitrary ones. I want our students to pursue their passion and their purpose with perseverance, so it's a core value I think we need to explore with our students.

Passion gets a bad name. Critics make fun of passion by either linking it with romantic passion or with students being passionate about something the critics feel is meaningless while living in their parent's basement. I think that there are some "puritan ethics" lurking in this conversation (at least in the U.S.), and I think this goes back to our societely-assumed definitions of success. Perhaps I'm too idealistic, but I think a life driven by passion is likely to be a key part of most people's ultimate definition of success. If we pursue something we feel is passionately worth pursuing, then it's a life well-lived.

I go back and forth on whether passion and purpose are two items or two sides of the same item. At the moment, I'm keeping them separate, because I do believe you can have some passions that perhaps do not rise to the level of purpose. Much has been written about living with purpose, so I don't have a lot to add here, other than the observation that we again tend to shy away from helping our students discover and determine their own purpose. A core value, a core purpose, of our school should be to help students do this.

Again, I'm not suggesting this should be "the" mission for AHS - this needs to be a school-wide (and community-wide) discussion, but I thought laying our one possible vision of what it could look like might be helpful. So this would be what we put on posters all around AHS, to be referred to daily and for students and teachers to hold themselves accountable to (the only form of accountability I think really matters.)

Arapahoe High School Mission

Essential Questions:
  • What does it mean to be literate?
  • How do you define "success"?
  • What is your passion and what is your purpose?

Core Values:
  • Curiosity
  • Compassion
  • Community
  • Perseverance
  • Passion
  • Purpose