My Day in Region 8

I was fortunate enough this past week to be asked to speak at the Education Service Center in Region 8 in Mount Pleasant, TX. I had a great time with a very receptive audience. One of the attendees was even in my university program during my bachelors. It was great to see her again.

My goal with this day was to show them how White Oak ISD uses our web presence to make our classrooms and district transparent in many ways and allow our community to become a part of the school day. We use blogs from our WordPress MU server, a redesigned Joomla site, our Apple podcast server, and other web based tools like Delicious to let everyone see just what we are trying to accomplish in our students’ education.

There were a few things that struck me during the day:

  • I had several in attendance who told me during breaks that they had not heard of any of the tools I mentioned. While as a presenter that is good for me, it bothers me a bit as an educator. These have been around for awhile, so I thought I might be extending the knowledge on a few of these tools, not introducing them, per se.
  • I was struck at the statement made metaphorically by starting with the two videos that I did. While I did not intend it that way, it came across that way to the attendees. The Introduction of the Book showed early issues with lack of knowledge of its use. The latter video of Chris Lehmann’s students discussing, toungue in cheek, the lack of functionality of the book does much the same in a 21st Century context. It was cool to see they got that out of the videos.
  • Schools spend a lot of money on commercial tools when many times the opensource versions can provide more even if you have to find paid support. I will be helping one district start to rebuild their wbesite away from a paid, very limited service to Joomla. (Disclosure: I am not getting paid to help them. It is just nice to help when they have a staff member so willing to jump in on his own as well. I will be more of a guide.)
  • ESC 8 ROCKS! They either filter a LOT less than other ESCs or they opened up the lab I was in knowing I would be using several resources normally blocked. While they did not block, they did block Edublogs. I bet they get that resolved, though. They are sure to have several school districts requesting it, anyway.

My takeaway from this is that we all still have a lot to share with each other. While I shared tools that some might have even heard of before, several heard new uses for them for their own schools.

You will find below the Google Presentation version of what I presented to them. There are a few videos embedded for a point as well as just for fun. We did some hands-on work at different times, so the presentation might seem abrupt at times. If the embed below acts up, you can find the presentation here:

Feel free to leave your comments as well as questions below. I am more than happy to reply.

Hiring the Right Staff…Or Not

Photo Credits: Me

With NECC coming up sooner than it seems, and Malcolm Gladwell being the keynote speaker, I decided I had to make a move to learn a little more about this guy. 

I finally had some time to read through Malcom Gladwell‘s article in the New Yorker titled “Most Likely to Succeed.” I was excited about the possibilities after reading the tag line “How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?” My hope that I would finally learn the secrets to hiring the right staff was short lived as I read through the article, though.

Once you get through the overly done metaphor of scouting a quarterback being compared to finding the right teacher, you find that Gladwell builds on a number of misguided beliefs bantered around already far too much in political circles as foundations of good education.

First of all, Gladwell jumps right into the fire by saying that “one of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is ‘value added’ analysis.” As he says, it uses standardized tests to determine the connection between a student’s test scores and a classroom teacher’s performance. More specifically, he uses a class average as the comparison between two third grade teachers. Not only does he not take into consideration the different make-up of student needs, he goes so far as to name the kids “Janes, Lucys, Johns, and Roberts.” That extends his description of the students as average with the use of average names.  When was the last time any teacher walked into a classroom full of kids with names like that?

I give Gladwell credit for the admission, “It’s only a crude measurement. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test.” Yet, he jumps right back into the poor side of the argument using the term “nonetheless.” Why nonetheless? Why not, “Standardized tests just don’t cut it.” Nope. He decides that it is just okay to base teacher performance on student tests. We will find out whether a teacher is “good or poor” based on one test on one day.

He then extends that argument even more giving it credence by sharing input given by an economist who talks about ranking our kids against other countries. That again? When other countries test their kids, ALL of their kids, like we do (or vice versa) then we can have this discussion. Until then, it is an apples and oranges comparison and not worthy of more print. I prefer to not create a nation of standardized test takers anyway.

As an added bonus, the economist shares that we can increase test scores by replacing the bottom six to ten percent of our teachers with teachers of “average quality.” Would this argument not continue through infinity? It’s like saying we need to bring up those below average. Won’t half the population always be below average?

After some more drivel about scouting, he gets back to some real research about what makes a good teacher. “Withitness.” Now, as stupid as that sounds, it is pretty accurate. It might be the teacher who allows the little kids at reading time to get excited about the book and lean in toward the book even though it might be against normal class procedure. She is identifying a level of engagement and running with it. It might also be the teacher who stops one of the kids as he/she heads out the door to make sure everything is okay after noticing odd behavior in the classroom. Or it might be the teacher who mentions student names and specific honors seen over the weekend at the academic event or ball field.  Or it might be all of the above and then some, which is far more likely, but that is withitness. 

I had the opportunity to testify before an Interim Select Committee on Accountability in Austin, Texas, last spring. Near the end of my testimony, the chairman of the committee asked me a simple question: “What makes a teacher a good teacher?” My answer was just as simple, but not really: “I know it when I see it.” While it may seem an odd answer, those of us in education realize that it is VERY difficult to vocalize what a good teacher is doing that makes a good teacher. Sure, we can do checklists all day long. What is missing is what that truly looks like in a good teacher. A poor teacher can get through a checklist. It takes experience to know the difference.

This is where Gladwell allows some good ideas to come through even if he did not extend them to logical possibilities. He is absolutely correct that our government is too busy trying to certify every Tom, Dick, and Mary that wants to be called a teacher. Then they complain that teacher quality is low. Gladwell brings in an example of financial advisers and training and yada, yada, yada. Basically, the financial companies spend about $150,000 over three or four years to train up each finalist for financial adviser positions with mentors working with them, yet they still have a lower than expected success rate. He even admits that it is a tough sell for schools to pull that off. I have several issues with this model.

For one thing, the poor kids in those classrooms will suffer. Consider that the “teacher” just cannot cut it. He/she has ruined three or four years worth of kids in that subject. Obviously, not all of the kids would suffer, but for the sake of argument, we can all agree they got cheated in some form or fashion. And, on top of that, schools do not have that type of money to waste on a bet like that.

So why would I hammer Gladwell over trying to get schools to do an internship/apprenticeship like this? Well, it seems as though he suggests that we do this AFTER college. I don’t get that. Why would we not “cull the herd,” if you will, BEFORE they get to the classroom?

I happened to go through a program just like that, and cull they did. In a program at the University of Texas at Tyler that limited entry to thirty students, our graduating class only had eleven left. The program had us in classrooms in Title 1 campuses from the second semester on. Internships and apprenticeships are a part of that program. Well, were a part of that program. It was expensive to do. UTT did it for as long as they could before they did away with it and settled for a hybrid version for the entire education program. While that brought up the quality of the larger program, it dropped the quality compared to that which most of us experienced prior to the change. It was hard. It had rigor. It had high expectations. Most of all, it got respect. A graduate of that program, aptly called Professional Development School, from an experience standpoint was not considered a first year teacher once entering his or her own classroom. Mentors from both the university and the schools in which we worked during our program spent countless hours helping develop professionals and counseling those who had no business in the classroom.

That is the model we should be using. I am all for internships and apprenticeships in pre-service programs. I think it would be the best investment most universities could make in improving the quality of their programs and graduates, ultimately improving the quality of teachers overall. 

I also find Gladwell’s mention of the financial industries “Million Dollar Round Tables” out of place. The round table award is for successful financial advisors.  I am guessing he thinks there should be something similar in education. Wonderful. I’d love to see it.  If so, how do you determine the recipients? Please don’t tell me standardized test scores. There are too many issues with that thinking. The vast majority of kids in a state take the same test regardless of the fact that they are dyslexic, recent to the country, too low to qualify for special ed, mother died the week before, came to school sick as a dog, etc.  And even the university group that Gladwell discusses clearly shows how abstract good teacher qualities are with the term “withitness.” Standardized test that one for me.

Gladwell does end with a very profound statement before moving back into his football example:

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?

So my takeaways from this article are these:

  • We need to improve our higher ed programs in the area of pre-service teacher training. Interneships and apprenticeships are great ways to do just that due to the fact that mentors will get to see candidates in real world situations.
  • Internships and apprenticeships are expensive. The public is not willing to pay for schools to do it, and frankly, my personal opinion is that waiting that long is too late anyway. The state should be paying to develop these programs at the university level.
  • Regardless of the fact that companies make widgets and are profit machines to generate further advances in their field and schools are far different from that, we will continue to see folks making that comparison in order to sell books, generate high paying speaking engagements.
  • Upon reflection, I cannot believe that Gladwell offered this article up as any part of a solution. It was more of a conversation starter.

So, let’s get to the point of that conversation. We are here for student academic achievement. What is the best way to insure that that happens at the highest level? How do we get to that end through hiring staff? I’m not sure I got much out of this article to move us in that direction.

Ideas to Inspire

Nope. That’s not my title. It is the title of a site by Mark Warner (picked up via Kevin Jarrett). This is a great site to visit when you are trying to find ideas for instruction to engage your students.

Mark has done a nice job of categorizing the ideas by either subject area (core and elective areas) or possible Web 2.0 tool that you are considering using. He has also provided nice, shared Google Presentations to walk you through them. Each slide is an idea. This makes it easy to just keep adding more as they come in.

If you don’t find exactly what you are looking for, there are enough ideas there to inspire something new in your mind. Then you can go back and share your idea with him so it can be added and maybe help the next person looking. That is what the collaborative web is all about.

Visit Ideas to Inspire today. In the meantime, consider these science ideas: