9/15/12

A mom's wishful thinking list of prescription for how DCPS could be top education district in the world in 10 years....

In Washington, D.C., which has seen the same pattern,effective teachers now are leaving to teach in districts in which they feel more appreciated, to the detriment of the city's students."
                                                                    -Elaine Weiss, Huffington Post

                    I read this and thought, 'when will this madness of tests, stringent teacher evaluations and war against teachers end?'.  29,000 teachers marching, protesting this decade-old, new brand of education (D)eforms.  They are brave enough to ask for more, more for their children, more for their schools, more for our country's future. This statement above is so true and I know this because I left DCPS for a place I feel more 'appreciated'. The system in DC is broken, and as my 5 year-old daughter says every time she says something slightly hurtful, 'Sorry,but that is my opinion.'. As a parent in DCPS the argument to me is not about whether to keep schools closed or open anymore, to me the argument is whether or not as a whole the system  is set up to teach our children to be problem solvers and leaders of tomorrow. Sadly it is not. 

                   I have been wracking my brain for years now to find an easy way to explain to parents (and teachers sadly) why the testing culture hurts our kids, our future, our world. When people are reassured by schools and administrators within a testing culture, NO, in fact, they don't teach to the test, this is in essence a BIG fat lie. As an educator of 15 years, I have seen and experienced how the testing culture affects everything in education. When school cultures depend largely on testing scores to reward and punish teachers, one can't help to teach to the test, it's in the DNA of the system, it drives the system.  The testing culture's 'poison' gets into the cracks of everything we do as teachers, it affects our pace, our emotional availability to the kids, our ability to teach creatively, our ability to tap into what we know works best as professionals. In essence, teaching to the test is not so bad, but the fact that the test exists dictates so much of HOW we teach what we teach. Kids come out learning that there are right and wrong answers to everything, when in fact, in real life there are often many real answers. I liken it to being an experienced surgeon asked to operate on a heart with one hand tied behind her back. We have amazing teachers in DCPS and we ask them to be less, to teach in ways we don't believe and in essence rush our way through all of it in ways that sometimes lacks connection to the children and their lives. 
                    On the brighter side, a better way is very much possible in this generation. I am very hopeful that both teachers and parents will begin to finally speak up for what they KNOW is right and against what they know is wrong. Teaching children to be leaders and problem solvers is very much more affordable and as parents and teachers we need to continue to fight and speak up for genuine learning for our children. The kinds of learning that will truly prepare them for a very uncertain future. Below are my ramblings of what I think would fix DCPS and make us top in the world. I know, a tall order for sure, but after 15 years teaching, 2 masters in education and 2 kids of my own, I think I am way overqualified to give recommendations. We have much less experienced people than me leading whole districts across the country, so, emboldened by my fellow friends in Chicago I do dare speak!!
Here they are!! 

A DCPS mom's wishful thinking list of prescription for how DCPS could be top education district in the world in 10 years....

1. Hire Daniel Pink as consultant for DCPS when hiring the new Chancellor. This is a non-negotiable. We need a BIG picture person in this position. Someone who is not just another numbers-pusher, not just another Rhee-in-sheep's clothes. Mr. Pink will ensure that the top person in this position will be, as he calls in his book, the Type-I personality. (Too long to explain here, but read the book....will change your life). In fact, I'd let him sit in on interviews for all upper level staff positions, all principal positions, all vice principal positions.....for a decade maybe. We are lucky for he lives right here in DC and he won't even need to move here with his family to do his magic. The issue with DCPS top officials is their primary motivation has been control.  They don't necessarily need to be wise, inspirational, or experienced in education, or exceptionally dynamic, or have any common sense. No, to a teacher like me, their only job requirements now seems to be familiarity with the reward/punish system they have in place and to toe the line and follow the program. This is evidenced by the mere fact that downtown folks have their own 'downtown speech dialect'. If you've ever talked to someone from downtown (I mean the DCPS office) whose worked there for over a year or more you know what I mean. To have your own dialect, you have to be super exclusive, 'no outside thinkers allowed' is not the way to step into the future. 

2. Work with local and national colleges to hire only teachers who are highly adept at using classroom-based assessments to know where to go next with children. Ultimately, this is a very astute teacher who is willing to really get to know her students and have the internal tools to know what needs to happen to get them to the next level. 

3. End any form of reward/punish system and replace monetary rewards with RESPECT. Come on!! this is easy and free. As Daniel Pink explains, monetary rewards only make people think they are doing an undesirable task. Teachers love teaching, they do it because it's their calling. Pay them a fair amount and they won't ask for more. 

4. Of course, end all standardized tests. Don't worry, those excellent carreer teachers you have just hired that know how to asses their children in their own classrooms will make sure kids learn.  Oh, and what will we do with all that money? Valerie Strauss writes, 'In Texas, taxpayers will pay about $93 million this year to administer standardized tests to Texas students . . . or nearly ten times the cost of just nine years earlier.'  93 million in one year? How did this happen? To multiply ten times in nine years we all must have been asleep at the wheel. It's sad to me when I meet a parent, and especially a teacher, who is unaware of the policies affecting their children's education, and their own profession. We can no longer afford, literally, to keep our heads in the sand. This is absolute madness and WE are all paying for this as a society. Test scores only predict success in academics, the 21st century classroom needs to prepare kids to be leaders, outside the box problem solvers. A multiple choice test teaches kids that the answers are all out there, pre-packaged, neat and tidy. Kids today will not have neat and tidy solutions handed to them, they will need to BE the problem-solvers and come up with various answers, not one single answer! The tail is wagging the dog and we have not stopped to consider what the dog wants, what is the dog for? Testing as it exists today defines for us what education is all about, should't it be the other way around?

5. All curriculum should consists of kids solving problems. Not just any old problems, interesting ones, juicy ones, relevant ones....Ones that matter to them, problems in their own communities, problems at home, problems with friends, problems in society. Tomorrow's leaders are people who will in essence have the answers to unknown problems. Writing, math, social studies, science all come into play together and at the same time when we solve problems, they should not be taught as discreet subjects. Tomorrow's followers do best on filling in bubbles, but tomorrow's leaders do best at tackling interesting, personally relevant, local problems. School should be all about solving interesting problems, with 'interesting' being the key word here. 

6. Stop all hiring of short-term staff such as TFA. As a parent I want a teacher who finds teaching a calling, not a stepping-stone to something they consider 'better'. It's like a difference between a marriage and a one-night stand. Glaring huh? They both might be great and all, but one has promise, the other is short -lived. One was chosen with very little scrutiny, the other was chosen with lots of care. A system can't just open their teaching doors to any loosely-trained 'teachers', then rage about the quality of education those teachers provide within that system. The system as a whole needs to have a higher level of scrutiny of our teachers from the very beginning. 

7. Stop giving out bonuses. Pay teachers fairly, commensurate to other districts, but after that all the extra money does nothing for anyone. Not one teacher I know is changing what she's doing in her classroom in order to get a bonus, this is unheard of. All teachers are already doing their very best every day for that is the makeup of all teachers, the promise of doing it better tomorrow is in our blood. Pursuit of mastery is what being a great teacher is all about, you either have it or not. But you certainly can't 'carrot-and-sticks' your way into making it happen. All this ridiculous incentivizing does is create negative competition in a profession where collaboration amongst professionals should be first and foremost. 

8. Let's hear from experienced teachers when making policy that effects schools. The 'control' freaks have been making policy in DC for far too long and that is making education worse. Take the control out of the hands of these inexperienced-in-education, control-monger policymakers and hand over control to experienced teachers, who are experts at their field. If this phrase 'expert at their field' and the word 'teacher' do not sound right in your mind, it's because we have been taught to not think of teachers as experts. But yes, in fact, experienced teachers are experts at their field. When I have a child development question I go to my daughter's kindergarten teacher who has 25+ years experienced and I am sure to get a better answer than a less experienced teacher any day. Call it ageism, call it whatever you like, but every major culture in the world revere their elders for a reason, if not, we are just reinventing the wheel with each new generation. Sadly, In DCPS, experience,  is not respected, looked down up even. Younger teachers are openly given much more praise by the non-experienced policymakers, principals and leaders and consequently the whole system lacks general respect for the more experienced ones.  It's appalling to see and very sad to experience this phenomenon. 

9. Lower teacher to student ratios in areas affected by poverty. Yes, more teachers, more resources, more funding for poverty areas. Teachers are tired of being blamed for 'under-performing' schools deeply affected by poverty. I put 'underperforming' in quotes because in fact, there are amazing things that go on in these schools every single day, yet, we rarely get to hear these stories. The problem comes from the fact that policymakers think of poverty in very non-realistic terms. I have long believed that education policymakers must see poverty as sections of people who just have a lesser version of things wealthier people have. Perhaps they think people in poverty just have a lesser model of car, a smaller house, a less expensive phone than say a rich person might. In fact, the reality is much more grim than that. People in poverty don't just have lesser versions of what a rich people have, instead, they lack the very essentials that make living even possible. Some children lack food, some lack physical security, some lack emotional stability, medical care, dental care, family stability, child-friendly environments, child-friendly conversations, child-friendly entertainment and the list goes on. I have also long wondered why policymakers have not yet added more resources to impoverished areas? Perhaps, it's been easier (and cheaper) to blame teachers. 
            Where will the money come from you ask? From the money we saved from no longer testing our kids of course. 

10. Cultivate our teacher population.  Every year DCPS fires hundreds of teachers under the guise of making schools better, but in fact, schools are not getting better and their own data proves that. These fired teachers, victims of the 'manhunt', are people who want to help and work with children we need their energy and stability in our schools. Yes, there will always be teachers that were not cut out to be teachers, as there will always be doctors who were not cut out to be doctors, and cashiers who suck at what they do, as there will be unhelpful receptionists....and on and on and on. But to have a yearly system primarily run on this insane manhunt to identify and fire these supposedly ineffective teachers is a huge waste of energy and money. At what point will this firing pace begin to slow down? When will the system become more concerned with primarily cultivating the ones we have left? When will it begin to primarily focus its efforts in further inspiring our effective teachers to reach even higher? 

9/14/12

My dream job, Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

         What a wonderful few weeks it's been. I started a new job this month teaching visual arts in Spanish to young children in K, 2nd and 4th grades.  I am beyond happy with my new responsibilities and for once in my life I actually see myself staying in one place for the long-term. In trying to piece together that exactly makes this job so special I keep turning back to the ideas and words of Daniel Pink, author of Drive. Every word in his book is like a soothing balm, validating what I have always already known about optimal working environments and the human need for autonomy, mastery and purpose. 

            I have autonomy in the way I teach. I am given comprehensive and systemic support to help me meet my goals, but ultimately trusted and left alone to reach these common goals. I am treated like a professional by the mere fact that I am trusted to know her content and in that way I have a sense of autonomy as well. The school district I work for also drastically loosens the amounts of evaluations teachers get after the first 3 probational years; that alone communicates trust and respect for experience. 

            On Mastery. Daniel Pink writes about flow In flow, "people lived so deeply in the moment, and felt so utterly in control, that their sense of time, place, and even self melted away. They were autonomous, of course. But more than that, they were engaged.” I am in the flow all day long at my current work and it feels amazing to set and meet my own personally set goals towards my own idea of mastery. In previous jobs, there were constant systemic battles to undertake that it was next to impossible to experience flow for any amount of time. There would be scheduling issues, frustrating communication gaps, unequal distribution of labor, lack of transparency from Downtown, as well as absurd District decisions that would constantly take up mental realty. I got tired of fighting for common sense and chose a more pleasing road and I could not be more grateful being brave enough to wish for greener pastures. 

              Purpose. Daniel Pink also describes in his book how people that feel personally invested in their work describe their job environment using the pronoun, 'we', while people who do not see themselves as part of the system describe their work environment using the pronoun 'them'. I feel very deeply now that I have a sense of purpose here. I know I am an essential part of a larger picture and that feels spectacular.  

            In raising my own two children I hope to encourage them to seek fulfilling, soul replenishing work with people, groups and organizations that dole out plenty of autonomy, allow personally-set goals towards mastery and involve them in a sense of purpose.