Thursday, December 31, 2009

Race to the Top.... What does it all mean?

Last summer the US Department of Education announced that it would release $4.3 billion to states through competitive grants as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Known as Race to the Top, this program essentially is phase two of the federal stimulus monies for public education. There are strings attached to this money, as states applying for the monies must met a very defined set of eligibility and selection criteria. Some of these criteria must already be in place and the applying states must demonstrate they have reform plans in place. The four criteria areas are the following:

1. Standards and Assessments: States must design and implement a set of "internationally benchmarked common standards and assessments that build toward college and career readiness." Massachusetts' well-established Curriculum Frameworks and MCAS system as well as its participation in the national Common Core State Standards Initiative positions the state well in this area.

2. Data Systems to Support Instruction: States must design and implement a comprehensive data system that details student achievement data over time (showing growth, etc.), can communicate with higher education data systems, and can match individual students with teachers. Massachusetts has done a lot of work in this area by establishing the Educational Data Warehouse and its new Student Growth Percentile reporting, but the next step, starting in 2011, will be to match student achievement data (e.g., MCAS results) to individual teachers. This data, according to the RTTT Grant, must be made easily accessible to all stakeholders, including parents, teachers, students, principals, and all district and union leaders.

3. Great Teachers and Leaders: States must provide alternate routes to teacher certification, ones other than traditional teacher prep programs. They must also come up with a plan where teachers and principals are evaluated annually and differentiated by effectiveness, using student achievement data as at least one measure of effectiveness. Data on teacher and principal effectiveness should be used for the purposes of evaluation, compensation and promotion, granting of tenure, and dismissal. Teacher evaluation should be based upon distinct standards of performance and should utilize a multiple rating scale. Additionally, states must have plans in place to increase the number of highly effective teachers in high-need schools (e.g., urban districts) and in shortage subject areas (e.g., math and science). Finally, state plans should also use student data to drive teacher and principal supports such as professional development and common planning time.

4. Turning Around Struggling Schools: States must already have the legal authority to intervene in persistently low-performing schools or districts and also have a statutory framework that is supportive of high-quality charter schools (e.g., no cap on new charters, etc.). States must also develop a plan where superintendents/local educational agencies (LEAs) should have the authority to turn around the state's lowest 5% of schools by using one of three options: 1) reconstitution of the school's leadership and/or professional staff; 2) handover of the school to a charter school or other educational management organization; or 3) outright closing of the school.

There obviously is a lot new here in the RTTT requirements. As it is estimated that Massachusetts' share (if funded) of the RTTT funds is approximately $250 million over the next four years, the state has made some efforts to create plans to support the above reforms. Most notable is the Education Reform Act of 2009, which the MA Senate passsed on November 17 and the House will be debating starting next week (for a summary of this bill, click here). The bill is meant to strengthen the state's RTTT application, as it provides for more authority and autonomy for superintendents to intervene in in underperforming and chronically underperforming schools, lifts the cap on new charter schools, enabling school committees in underperforming districts to establish them, and allows communities to establish "innovation schools," which have increase autonomy and flexibility in all phases of operation. Seeing that the RTTT application is due to the feds by January 19, the bill in some form will likely pass in the House in the next two weeks.

Also to bolster the state's application, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has sent out a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to all 299 of the state's districts. The MOU states that the district is committed to implementing the four above reform areas of RTTT and will support the state's plans to implement the reforms. DESE is asking that each district's superintendent, school committee chair, and teachers' union president sign this MOU and return it by January 13. If a district does not return the MOU, then it will not be eligible for any of the Massachusetts RTTT funds.

It should be noted that 50% of the RTTT funds will be dispersed based upon how much Title I (which is based upon poverty) a district receives. This does not bode well for Mansfield, as our Title I funding is relatively minor.

So much of this represents change- and with that will come a great deal of controversy. I personally believe that there's a great deal of positive reforms in RTTT, such as increased use of data, requirement of benchmarked, teacher-generated assessments, annual evaluations based upon professional teaching standards, and the possibility of rewarding the best teachers through differentiated compensation. These ideas will no doubt cause great dialogue, and their merits should be debated. Educators may love or hate these reforms, but they are here to stay.

The reality of the situation is simple: RTTT has strings attached, and in the worst economic times since the Great Depression, most, if not all districts are cash strapped and need the RTTT funds. The reforms of RTTT are clearly the agenda of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration. They are not leaving us for anytime soon. The way I see it is that we can go "kicking and screaming," or hop on the train, so to speak. My hope is that educators can embrace many of these reforms and shape what they actually look in practice so that kids ultimately benefit.

Monday, December 21, 2009

An Alternative View: "My Lazy American Students"

I read the following in this morning's Boston Globe. This opinion piece, by Babson College History Professor Kara Miller, is the antithesis of the point that cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch is making (as shown in my post of yesterday).

My lazy American students - The Boston Globe

Posted using ShareThis

There is probably a lot of truth in what Ms. Miller is bemoaning. But, I would love to see a snaphot of what is happening in Ms. Miller's classroom. Why are her students checking their e-mail during her class? Why are they sleeping?? What is she doing to actively engage them in their learning?? I don't think this is strictly a cultural phenomenon as she is suggesting!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Future of Communication

Michael Wesch, a 2009 National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, has produced several short videos (the most notable being Web 2.0 - The Machine is Us/ing Us) that have been viewed millions of times on YouTube. His commentary on communication, education, and technology are definitely thought provoking. One of his latest, The Future of Communication, is no different. At 16:49, it is a little lengthy, but I urge you to stick with it as the payoff is great!

Wesch teaches with college students, but all of the points he makes are equally applicable to high school students. As he says, we live in a world where there is ubiquitous information on ubiquitous networks that do ubiquitous computing anywhere about everything at anytime, anyplace at unlimited speed on unlimited devices. Any parent with a teenager with a computer and a smart phone could testify to that fact!

When our students are put in the traditional classroom, frequently it is a completely different paradigm. The questions asked are far too often not ones around genuine curiosity and learning, but rather ones around outputs such as, "How long does this paper have to be?" and "What do I have to do to get an A?" Wesch calls this the "getting by and getting the grade game." He considers much of the current state of affairs in many classrooms to be a crisis of significance.

Wesch's premise is that we have to harness the current reality of ubiquitous technology so learning is significant and relevant to all students. Students thirst to be empowered to access information and engage with it, to collaborate, to problem solve, and to create. These skills also happen to be known as "21st century learning skills," but they are also tied to a new literacy- digital literacy. Yes, our students know how to access their Facebook pages, but can they apply that same savvy to the use of technology in creating a great piece of writing? Or great art? Music? How do we as teachers enable this to happen?

It is little wonder that Wesch was named as the Carnegie Foundation's 2008 Outstanding and Doctoral Universities Professor of the Year for his innovative teaching strategies.

His message strongly resonates with me.... What do you think?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What Is Success??

I shared these thoughts during my brief comments during last Thursday night's annual Gridiron Club banquet. It is quite a huge event, as over 400 MHS football players, cheerleaders, their families and friends, and coaches/support staff attend each year.

In the past year and a half I have faithfully read the work of Mike Hardman, who chronicles the ups and downs of Mansfield HS sports in the weekly Mansfield News. I really like his columns and articles, as he enthusiastically writes about our student athletes and frequently gives our school great publicity.

In his column entitled, "Something was Missing" of December 4, Hardman reflected on the football team's 36-0 dismantling of rival Foxboro on Thanksgiving day. Though it was a great victory, Hardman postulated that there was something hollow about it, as there was no possibility for a Hockomock championship or post-season play for the Hornets. He wrote:

"... this is Mansfield where seasons are rated on whether you won the
Super bowl or not.... Still, 9-2, which the Hornets finished at, is not
good enough to earn a postseason birth. With the way it is now, it's
basically perfection or bust. That's why on the perfect Thanksgiving,
there was something missing."

I took from this piece two main ideas: 1) that the current MIAA playoff system demands that a football team have a nearly perfect season since there is only one representative from the highly competitive Hockomock League, and 2) due to the unprecedented accomplishments the football team has enjoyed in recent years, the bar for measuring success is extremely high in Mansfield.

True, wins and losses on the playing field are important. However, they pale in comparison to the bigger picture of the successes that students enjoy just from the experience of playing a sport and being part of the team. I think of the approximately 150 young men who gained immeasurably from the tutelage of Coach Mike Redding and his assistant coaches this year. These students have learned skills such as: time management, balancing academics and athletics (as evidenced by typically 75% of the team achieving honor roll status), respect of self and others, camaraderie, perseverance, resiliency, sportsmanship, fair play, and winning and losing with class. These are all life-long lessons that will serve our students well beyond their four years at MHS. The true success of the MHS football program is not the many Hockmock and Super Bowl championships, but rather how well the above traits have been instilled in our student athletes. The same can be said for many other fine sports programs at MHS that have dedicated coaching staffs.

I believe we live in a sports-crazy society, where winning at all costs is often the bottom line. We have enjoyed much success in athletics at MHS, but making the postseason tournament is not what it's all about. True success may be measured by the qualities that our young men and women now possess as a result of competing. That's what our focus should and must be...