Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

Archive for the month “April, 2014”

My Comments on the NPR Interview with Neal and White

Today’s NPR interview/podcast by Claudio Sanchez (click here to read/listen) with Mike Neal of the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Jenni White of Restore Oklahoma Public Education, and the comments posted online about it, highlight an aspect of the Common Core controversy that is being overlooked in the media. Mr. Neal uses the term ‘fringe groups” to describe the movement in Oklahoma, of which Jenni is one, but only one, of the leaders. Neal claims that groups like ROPE, perhaps even ROPE itself, have threatened Republican legislators with election-time retribution. I’m sure Mrs. White can only wish she had that much power!

Many of those who are active in the movement to “Stop Common Core” are indeed believers in traditional, classical education, as is Mrs. White. But to attempt to write the movement off as a fringe group of conservative, religious fanatics overlooks reality. What has been amazing about this movement is that it runs the gamut of the political as well as the philosophical and religious continuum.

Last month’s first annual conference of the Network for Public Education was attended by teachers and educational leaders from all points on the continuum. Left and right, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, progressive and traditionalist, all took an active part. The focus of the conference was decidedly anti-Common Core and anti-testing. Even the most ardent Common Core supporters agree that testing is the sine-qua-non of the Common Core Initiative, and it is in fact the testing requirements that result in Common Core becoming a curriculum that teachers must teach, despite protestations to the contrary. What is tested is what is taught. Call that a scheme or not; it is a clear reality. I’ve been an educator long enough to know that.

No one has been able to present a convincing argument, including Mr. Neal, as to how the Common Core Standards are better than the PASS Oklahoma abandoned in 2010. Even the Fordham Institute, a patently pro-Common Core think-tank, reviewed PASS and found them at least as good as Common Core. Mr. Neal makes the statement that at that time “no one had a problem with [the Common Core Standards].” What Mr. Neal neglects to point out is that no one knew what was in the standards when they were approved by the legislature; certainly no teachers, administrators, or teacher educators in universities even knew what was in them. We were caught totally by surprise. It is only as we have been able to study the 500-page standards in some detail over the last two to three years that we have been able to see how inappropriate they are, especially at the early childhood levels. Sorry, Mr. Neal, that argument simply won’t hold water.

Neal says dumping Common Core would be an expensive mistake because so many Oklahoma high school graduates require remediation to move into post-secondary education or be hired for jobs. He is absolutely correct that an embarrassing amount of money has been spent on the implementation of Common Core and the related tests, with not a lot to show for it. My dad used to tell me it wasn’t wise to throw good money after bad. If the Common Core Standards are not what we need, how is spending even more money—and no one yet knows how much—going to make weak standards any better? The only thing that could justify that is if Oklahoma had the authority to revise the standards, but it doesn’t because the CC Standards themselves are copyrighted and not subject to Oklahoma “tampering.” If attempts are made by Oklahoma authorities to copy and paste parts of the Standards into “its own” standards, that would clearly be against the law.

Sanchez concludes his report by saying that business leaders are concerned that repealing Common Core would take Oklahoma “back to square one, with no guarantees that Oklahoma will end up with standards as good as Common Core.” Since we know that our old standards are at least as good as Common Core, how is that a bad thing? If Common Core is no better than PASS, how will it lead to the more “college-and-career-ready” students Neal and his fellow business leaders crave?

I do think Jenni White is right about this: “…the Chamber of Commerce…isn’t for parents. They’re for businesses.”


EdCamp Tulsa: A PD Rush

This past weekend I attended my first unconference, and I hope it won’t be my last. It was a one-day professional development meeting called EdCamp Tulsa, attended by about 150 public school educators from some 50 school districts in 4 states. This is not the first edcamp ever held, but it represents a little known but growing movement with a purpose to encourage teachers to take charge of their own professional development.

As a teacher educator and university professor, I confess I felt a bit like a fifth wheel. It wasn’t that I wasn’t welcome—I was—but I haven’t functioned in the perspective of most of the attendees for some time. This was one of the reasons I wanted to go; I think it’s important for those of us in colleges of education to leave the “ivory tower” and mingle with the folks in the trenches to keep abreast of what’s going on in schools. I think this is the only way to keep my own instruction fresh. I learned about edcamps through Twitter posts from a previous edcamp in Oklahoma City. The excitement of the participants literally radiated from those tweets, and I knew I had to go to EdCamp Tulsa when it was announced.

So you are probably asking, “What is an unconference?” And I can’t wait to tell you. It starts with a group of people who decide to organize it. They locate a site, not necessarily a large one, and invite teachers and others who want to come for a day of teacher-led learning. Attendance is totally free. Perhaps I should repeat that—it’s free! The organizers can offer it for free because there is very little overhead. They arrange to have required supplies donated, usually for a PR plug in a tweet or on the back of a t-shirt. There are also no expensive speakers for plenary sessions, as is obligatory at regular conferences. (Remember, this is an unconference.) The organizers do not set up sessions ahead of time, so there is no cumbersome and lengthy proposal process. Instead, the participants come with an idea about something they would like to learn more about or discuss with colleagues. Others come with ideas and topics they want to share and discuss. In the opening session, both groups fill out cards indicating what they came to do. The organizers then review the cards, set up the sessions, and provide a room for each. The schedule is posted on a large easel, where attendees, whipping out their cell phones, take pictures of it to use to guide their choices of sessions to attend. The rest of the day is spent in interactive sharing and discussion in individual sessions. The session “leader” may start things off but definitely doesn’t do all the talking. It is totally informal, and if a session is not meeting your needs or expectations, you can get up and walk to another and no one gets offended. Wow!

I don’t know a great deal yet about the history of the unconference movement, but it has been developing over the last couple of years. A great deal of research has been done on traditional professional development (PD), and the top-down procedures involved have been found wanting and typically ineffective. Generally speaking, when a district or an administrator (or some authority higher up) determines that teachers need to be changed (that, after all, is the real purpose of traditional PD—changing teacher behavior), they organize a “training” to introduce it to teachers and expect them to fall in line with their clearly superior ideas about how teaching should be done. It’s no surprise that teachers are typically skeptical and unengaged through these sessions, and rarely is there real change in teacher behavior, despite the thousands of dollars spent. Part of the problem is the top-down approach. No one likes to be told how they have to change, even if it’s done with peaches and cream and pretty please!

Creating professional learning communities has been offered as an alternative to traditional PD. These are small groups of teachers who meet to discuss solutions to particular problems. Unfortunately, few schools have been able to keep such communities viable and useful, and they either die out, or are taken over by an authority figure who returns them to the top-down approach.

Most teachers know full well that they need help and support, and need to continue learning more about teaching, but they’d really like to pursue it on their terms. That seems to be the genius of the unconference. The teachers are totally in charge. The teachers decide what they need to learn. The teachers take an active role in creating a learning opportunity. The teachers share with one another what they are learning and learn from one another. Vygotsky clearly explained years ago that real learning is social in nature. Rather than sitting quietly while they are talked to, the teachers at an unconference are driving the conversation—and learning from one another. They may not make a total transformation in their teaching at one unconference, but that’s an unreasonable expectation of PD anyway. Most change comes incrementally, and teachers need the freedom to make change at a speed they are comfortable with.

I did my dissertation on professional development, and I learned that changing teacher’s teaching is a very complicated—dare I say, ticklish?—process. Much like the watched pot, it can’t be hurried. And teachers need the autonomy to make their own decisions about it. In fact, as professionals, teachers should be accorded that privilege. Certainly doctors, lawyers, CPAs, and other professionals are allowed to choose their own continuing education.

At EdCamp Tulsa I saw teachers who were excited to be learning together, animated to share their ideas and hear those of others. Everywhere I went I heard people exclaiming, “Oh, I’m so glad to meet you! I follow you on Twitter!” because that’s another great place for teachers to take charge of their own PD. If what I observed this weekend is any indication, I think the future of unconferences may be very bright. I’m certainly looking forward to my next one!

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