Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thoughts on "Waiting for Superman"

This past week I had the opportunity to see the documentary Waiting for Superman, a thought-provoking film about the current state of American public education. The work, directed by David Guggenheim (of An Inconvenient Truth fame) has received a considerable amount of press. The title is a metaphor for where we seemingly are: waiting for a powerful solution, a "Superman," to rescue us by improving outcomes in our schools, as by all national and international measures, student achievement has been flat for the past 35 years.

The film portrays the stories of elementary and middle school-aged children from New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC who are in so-so to poor schools. Their prospects are poor at best, as they will be soon transitioning to middle or high schools that Guggenheim terms as "failure factories," schools that are rife with chaos and disengagement. Thus, each of the children's parents enroll their student in a lottery for various charter schools, ones portrayed as remarkable schools where they can beat the odds of failure. Unfortunately there are very few openings versus applications, and as the film climaxes, the viewer knows that very few of these children will actually get into these charter schools.

At least half of the film is dedicated to charter schools that have posted impressive gains in student achievement, most notably the Harlem Promise Academy and the KIPP Academy in New York City. These amazing schools have visionary founders like Geoffrey Canada, a committed educator and reformer who passionately believes that it's great teachers that make all the difference. In fact, the film repeatedly stresses this fact... and eventually segues into an indictment of the systems and structures that impede the removal of ineffective teachers. Here is where the educational bureaucracy and teachers unions take their shots, as Guggenheim shares the most over-the-top stories of adult entitlement and protection of the incompetent.

Being a former charter school director, by no means do I believe that they are a panacea. Trust me, there are plenty of bad charter schools out there. (Guggenheim glosses over very quickly that only 1 in 5 have results superior to traditional public schools.) However, the beauty of their existence is that they offer a new way of doing business- and specifically innovation- for our neediest kids. I have been at charter school lotteries for schools such as Providence's Times2 Academy, where just like the ones in the film, being selected as a student is often a 1 in 50 proposition. When it happens, the students and parents cry tears of joy, as if they have won millions of dollars in an actual state lottery. This is truly bittersweet to observe.

It should be pointed out that successful schools like the Harlem Promise Academy and KIPP are true labors of love, where the staff are deeply committed, going well beyond the parameters of what we typically expect in a school. Students in these schools attend for 8-10 hours per day, and many of their social services needs are tended to. I have personally known teachers at similar schools, and their accessibility to students and their families is great, as contact at home during the evenings and weekends is the norm. In some cases, staff act as parent figures, as they are the most meaningful adults in their students' lives. It is apropos that one of the children featured in Waiting for Superman is attempting to get into Washington DC's The SEED School. The SEED School is a public charter boarding school, as a 24-hour education in academic, life skills, and enrichment is delivered to inner city youth. Like the other schools portrayed in the film, staff at the SEED School are committed to doing what ever it takes so all of their kids may learn at the highest levels.

Am I suggesting that all schools must take such measures? Hardly. However, we must change how we do business- and the film does a great job in driving that point home. So many of our structures in public education are relics of the past, as they were created in the late 1800's or early 1900's, designed to educate children of the industrial age. These children were well-prepared to find jobs in the manufacturing and service industries, with a select few going on to college. This system will no longer work today, where students need to go to college to be competitive in our economy.

Like the featured charter schools, we must always do "whatever it takes." We must be innovative- and use research-based practices that improve student results. We can longer expect that a 180 day, 6 hr. school model will let us be competitive with our global counterparts. We can no longer have a "one size fits all" approach to teaching and learning.

During the film's closing minutes, several tag lines are interspersed with the credits. One reads, "Our education system is broken." Another reads "We know what works in schools."

After a fade to black, it is followed by "We must do it."


Sunday, October 17, 2010

The (Dis)Connected Generation?

"Jumping off the gw bridge sorry"

These disturbing words were the last status update that Tyler Clementi, 18, a Rutgers University freshman, posted to his Facebook page hours before taking his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. As I am sure you have heard of this tragic story recently in the press, Clementi was distraught after being cyberbullied by his roommate and the roommate's friend.

There are also recent reports of four teenage suicides in the past two years, all of the teens being students at Mentor High School in Mentor, OH. According to several accounts, these students experienced extreme cases of bullying where they were hate was constantly spewed at them verbally and online due to their nationality, appearance, dress, likes, and sexual orientation. To same that these students were dehumanized by the bullies would be an understatement.

Therefore, I read an article in this morning's Boston Globe entitled, "The Empathy Deficit" with great interest. The author, Keith O'Brien, makes the point that today's youth are connected to one another more than ever (vis-a-vis cell phones, texting, IM, social networking, etc.), however, recent research from the University of Michigan shows that college students today are 40% less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the sharpest decline occurring in the last 10 years. Additionally they note that more college aged students tend to be narcissistic. The researchers find plenty of ironies here, as student-to-student communication and access to one another has never been better. Nonetheless, many admit that “other people’s misfortunes” usually don’t disturb them. In other words, they might be constantly aware of their friends’ whereabouts, but all that connectedness doesn’t seem to be translating to genuine concern for the world and one another.

Think about the role empathy plays in our lives... and the quality that it brings to all of our social/emotional interactions. Now think of a world where fewer and fewer people understand social norms, etiquette, and downright human decency because empathy was somehow not properly instilled. Is this recent spate of bullying to tragic consequences- where victims are dehumanized- part of the larger trend of lack of empathy?

Like most problems in the world, you probably cannot blame only one factor for this apparent problem. As O'Brien writes in the article:

These students...would have been born in the 1980s, raised in the ’90s on video games, 24-hour cable television, and widespread divorce, and sent off to college with laptops and cellphones — the young pioneers of the digital age. Perhaps, some suggest, technology has connected them in one sense, but pushed them away from each other in another. “It’s very shallow, a lot of these connections,” said Jean Twenge, coauthor of “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.” “You don’t really have an emotional connection with someone on Facebook.”

Perhaps, others argue, the problem is the advent of 24-hour cable and Internet news; young people today have been inundated with news to the point that they cannot care anymore. The oil spill in Louisiana this week, the flood in Pakistan next week — the tragedies all run together, making it harder to care in any sort of sustained way. Parenting could also be at fault, Konrath speculated. Perhaps today’s less empathetic children were raised by more narcissistic parents. Or the problem could be a hypercompetitive world in which everyone is trying to get into the best schools, get ahead, get more.

The ideas in the above quote very much resonate with me, as I see it everyday. It didn't surprise to read a recent study by the Pew Research Center that found that today's teens text more than they talk. I can think of many times I have picked up my teenage daughter from a social gathering, and as I see her sitting with her friends, they are all feverishly texting (each other??), often having multiple text conversations simultaneously. Seeing this depresses me.... what ever happened to good ol' conversation??

No one believes in the limitless possibilities of technology to improve teaching and learning more than me. However, I see the dark side of technology as well, as I fear that for some, it has replaced the foundation of what makes us human. Nothing is more important than the ability to engage, to communicate, to relate.... face to face. Without that ability, there can be no empathy.

Today's youth need a world not only with empathy- but one with compassion, wisdom, and patience as well. This comes only from quality relationships with adults who have invested in their lives, not from a "friend" on a social networking site.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Get Spooked, Save a Pooch

It's wonderful to see a new cohort of MHS students pick up the Mansfield Haunted Hollows mantle. This annual event, which features a haunted house adventure in the woods off Oakland Street, has raised over $20,000 for the Mansfield Animal Shelter Building Fund since its inception in 2008. It was originally the brainchild of recent MHS alums Ben Yeransian, Tate Shephard, Tyler Schmidt, and Lauren Pilsbury. Since they all graduated, there was some question as to the fundraiser would continue. Lo' and behold, three Mansfield families, the Colberts, the McLoughlins, and the Roses, stepped up and provided leadership and guidance to the over 50 students who volunteer their time and efforts to tasks such as designing and building the attraction, soliciting local businesses for support, and the actual acting for the haunt. This great event provides a wonderful community service opportunity for our students, many of whom are active in the MHS Performing Arts Department.

More information about this year's Mansfield Haunted Hollows may be found on their website. The spooky event runs the next three Friday and Saturday nights: October 15, 16, 22, 23, 29, and 30 starting at 7:00 pm. Once again, all profits will go to support the Mansfield Animal Shelter. Please come out for a good scare and support a great cause!

Pictured above, From left to right: BJ Chancy, Gregory Rose, Colleen McQue, Marc Thomas, Mary Colbert, Matt Lambert, Mike McLoughlin, Matt Mederos, Sean Lambert, Megan Pilsbury, and Connor McLoughlin.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

If U Txt While U Drv U Dserv A Tckt

True Story:
The year was 1988, and then I was working as a pharmaceutical sales representative for the now defunct Upjohn Company. As my territory was the greater Hartford, CT area, I would spend a great deal of the day in my car, circumnavigating Routes 84 and 91, the two major highways that intersect in the capital city. One morning when the traffic on I-84 was particularly jammed, where cars were crawling along at a 5-10 mph clip for several miles, I glanced over at a car to my right. In the car was a guy who was professionally dressed in a suit and tie. However- no word of a lie- in his lap he had a tv tray that had a plate with his breakfast on it (scrambled eggs, pancakes, etc.). He was eating his breakfast and taking sips of his commuter-mug coffee in between bites. But best of all, with the same hand he was using to steer, he was also holding up a half-unfolded Hartford Courant against the steering wheel, reading its contents! I initially laughed out loud after seeing such a freakish sight, but the more I reflected upon it, I was disturbed. How could someone show such reckless abandon toward attentive driving? Never in my wildest dreams could I ever envision a scenario where such distraction would become commonplace.

Flash forward 22 years to last night. I was in my hometown, picking up some take out food for the family. I was parked on Main Street, and I needed to cross the street to get to the restaurant, thus I made my way to the crosswalk. As I started to cross in the walkway, a car sped by, not appropriately yielding, and it missed me by 5 or 6 feet. I looked at the driver and affixed to this young man's ear were his hand and cell phone as he was deep in conversation, seemingly oblivious to me on the well-lit road.

The sad reality is that this is definitely NOT the first time that this has happened to me, a member of my family, or a friend. The amount of distracted driving that occurs is downright staggering. There is not a single day that while I am heading home on Route 95 that I don't see a scene that looks like this:

It is common to see a driver with the cell phone nestled at the top of the steering wheel, so the driver can attempt to text and steer simultaneously. Others try (unsuccessfully) to be more clandestine, so they text with their phones on their laps, occasionally looking up to survey the road. I've seen this in all walks of life: teenagers, adults, truck drivers- you name it. Sadly, I'm sure all of you reading this posting can attest to the same.

So I believe it is welcoming news that Massachusetts became the 30th state this week to enact a law banning texting while driving. If caught by police texting and driving, the driver will face a fine of $100 for the first offense. If the driver is under 18, the ban is applicable to not only texting but also cell phone usage. For these 16 and 17 year old drivers, the first offense will result in not only a $100 fine, but also loss of license for 60 days and attendance at a mandatory retraining course.

It is a shame that we must legislate what should be common sense. With statistics like nearly 6,000 deaths resulting in the US and 400 crashes in Massachusetts in 2008 due to distracted driving, sometimes some folks need to be saved from themselves....