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Archive for September, 2011

Students went back to school in September with a controversy over Technology in Schools swirling in the halls and inside the 21st century classroom. Canada’s largest public school board, the Toronto District Board, accepted the ever-present reality of students armed with smartphones and relaxed its ban on most hand-held technology devices. That move signaled the beginning of a profound shift, opening the door to the digital classroom.

Most junior and senior school students in Canada and the United States are already sneaking their phones and iPods into class in backpacks, so the move was likely inevitable. “Teachers just can’t sit at the front with the chalkboard anymore,” IT consultant Todd Sniezek conceded,” because that won’t engage them and we have to engage them using their tools.” http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/primary-to-secondary/back-to-school-for-smartphones-toronto-loosens-ban-on-devices/article2156008/?service=mobile

Allowing more open access to IT in the classroom came amidst fresh controversy over the questionable impact of hi-tech on student learning and performance. A New York Times series “Grading the Digital School” led off with IT reporter Matt Richtel’s September 3, 2011 feature story reporting on stagnating test scores in schools championing the technology-centric classroom. After analyzing the Kyrene School District, reputed to be a model high-tech school district, Richtel came to a startling conclusion: student test scores were still languishing.

Across the United States, where nearly $2 billion is now being poured into IT software alone, Richtel sounded an alarm bell. “Schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay-off teachers,” he declared, “with little proof that this approach is improving learning.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/technology/technology-in-schools-faces-questions-on-value.html?pagewanted=all

Promoters of the headlong rush to digitize our schools got a jolt. There was, Larry Cuban told Richtel, “insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period.” Cuban also “pooh-poohed” the “student engagement” argument for computers. “There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he contended.

Brave critiques of 21st century digital orthodoxy, such as Richtel’s feature article and Nicholas G. Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows, perform a vital role in alerting us to the spell cast by the Net and to the perils of giving it free rein in our schools.

What should we make of the recent revelation? A Senior Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Peter Meyer, provided the best and most insightful answer. While Richtel covers most of the essential bases, he simply doesn’t grasp the significance of good, sound curriculum. In Educaton Gadfly, Meyer pointed out that Richtel – like the IT zealots–is slow to recognize the most critical element in education — the importance of knowledge.

The central question, What should kids know?, still eludes education technologists and far too many education reporters.

Meyer offers these words of wisdom: “It can be done. When Ron Packard was starting his pioneering internet school, K12 Inc., in the late 1990s*, one of the first things he did was to convince Bill Bennett, the education “czar” under Ronald Reagan and co-author (with Checker Finn) of The Educated Child, to join him. This was 1999 and a major coup, in no small part because Bennett and Finn had written that there was “no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning.” …. Equally important – though less publicized – was Packard’s next move: hiring John Holdren, who had overseen E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge K-8 Curriculum Sequence, to design K12’s curriculum. What Packard appreciated, and too many education technologists still don’t get, is that content counts.” http://www.educationgadfly.net/flypaper/2011/09/wakeup-call-for-the-digital-revolution/

Computers are here to stay and so is IT in schools. Simply providing the latest IT gadgets and providing open access to the Web is, and never will be, enough to fully engage students in guided learning. That master “Word Processor” Nicholas G. Carr describes well how increasing numbers of “digital citizens” now report that “the Web has scattered their attention, parched their memory, and turned them into compulsive nibblers of info-snacks.” (The Shallows(2011), p. 226)

Will recent Wake-up Calls for the Digital Revolution in education register where it counts, in Departments of Education and among education policy-makers? With all the high-tech gadgets in our hands, are Tony Wagner’s “21st century skills” apostles leading us astray? Why do we tend to ignore the essential fact that knowledge and good teaching still matter most? Will the low technology of good teaching and sound curriculum eventually win the day?

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American educational blogger Tom Whitby, initiator of #EdChat, recently posted a thought-provoking commentary (August 17-18, 2011) on the intriguing topic of “Leadership Accountability” in public education. In the immediate aftermath of the Save Our Schools Rally in Washington, D.C., Tom began asking why so many were inclined to blame the perceived “failure” of the whole education system on regular teachers. Without the media attention garnered by “Super Matt” Damon, he suspected the entire event might have gone unnoticed. “Teachers,” he wrote,” are in a no-win situation with targets painted on their backs.” Most significantly, the only recognizable national educational leader visible at the SOS Rally was Diane Ravitch, a recent convert to the cause. http://edupln.ning.com/profiles/blogs/leadership-accountability

Educational progressives like Tom Whitby are beginning to ask the right questions. If the North American educational systems are faltering, the responsibility should not be borne solely by the teachers. Just because the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now fixated on “Teacher Quality” reform doesn’t mean that improving teacher effectiveness is some kind of silver bullet for what ails the system. Surely the current and past educational leadership had some role in aiding or possibly abetting the slide of public education. http://www.sunypress.edu/p-3730-educational-leadership-in-an-ag.aspx

Who’s raising the critical issue of educational leadership at a time when public education is under fire? American and Canadian teacher union bosses seem to be the only ones defending teachers and their legitimacy. It’s been left to Tom Whitby to ask the critical questions: “Where are our local educational leaders in this? What responsibility are the superintendents, assistant superintendents, directors, principals, and assistant principals taking for the ‘demise’ of our education system?”

Educational leadership has become a perilous venture, but much of the research is self-serving, futuristic in orientation, and reflecting short-term memory. Since the early 2000s, the American education bible Education Week and the ADCD’s magazine Educational Leadership have both reflected the reigning confusion over how to respond to ever-increasing demands for public accountability in education. Craig Jerald’s “Beyond the Rock and a Hard Place” (Educational Leadership, November 2003) recognized the problem and urged aspiring leaders to “stop lamenting the challenges of accountability and start making improvements.” Most educational administrators, on career tracks, safely ignored his early warnings about the dangers inherent in “an unveven hodgepodge of instructional aims,” “a scattershot curriculum,” and “unequal expectations.”

One of the first to clean-up his act was Michael Fullan, the school change theorist, then Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Education. The renowned School Change wizard and one of his OISE allies, Ken Leithwood, responded to the rising tensions with an ingenious but ultimately diversionary strategy.

A Toronto protege of the Fullanites, former Superintendent Bev Freedman, summarized the essential conundrum in December 2004: “The stakes are high, as schools and school systems are increasingly held responsible for increasing student achievement. Educators face competing interests and competing agendas: accountability, standards, teacher testing, high-stakes assessments as well as decentralization: distributed leadership, relational trust, and the development of learning teams.” http://www.aare.edu.au/04pap/fre041066.pdf

Forward-thinking Canadian educational experts, like Fullan and Freedman, attempted to turn the educational ship around by catching the “accountability wave” and turning it to new purposes. New research from the International Academy of Education confirmed their analysis that “Accountability in Education” would not blow over. Indeed, the whole concept of accountability based upon “compliance with regulations” and “adherence to professional norms” was being challenged by “results-driven” initiatives. Some accountability for “student learning” could no longer be ignored and may have some residual benefits. http://www.iaoed.org/files/Edpol1.pdf

Central to the Fullanite strategy was the friendly takeover of the Ontario student assessment agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office, (EQAO) created in 1994, originally to restore standardized testing. From 2002 onward, Fullan started preaching a born-again message that “school improvement” now required “accountability and capacity building” and Fullanites sought to “reframe the principal’s role” as an “instructional leader” rather than a “neo-manager.” Millions of public dollars were generated in 2002 and 2003 for comprehensive training and “resource packages” to assist principals in “instructional leadership” focused on preparing students in Ontario K to 3 for the reading, writing, and mathematics tests. http://www.aare.edu.au/04pap/fre041066.pdf

The Ontario Instructional Leadership initiative was, at best, a mixed success, but it did stave-off further calls for genuine public accountability and immunized principals against the appeals of the Society for Quality Education and other smaller school reform groups. In the United States, the initial response was more feeble even though the system was demonstrably in crisis. Much of the school reform drive was focused on introducing charter schools, so public school accountability efforts essentially mimicked the No Child Left Behind agenda. Margaret Grogan and Daniel L. Duke’s 2003 book Educational Leadership in an Age of Accountability focused on the Virginia experience and documented its purported successes and pitfalls.

Public education is still, by and large, not a field that welcomes either public scrutiny or accountability for results. School reformers calling for “Teacher Quality” assessments or an end to LIFO tenure rules are routinely dismissed as “teacher bashers” and anyone like Tom Whitby calling school administrators to account does run the risk of being labelled an “Admin. basher.” That’s a shame because Tom is actually a genuine “reflective practitioner” and an experienced educator well attuned to the major trends in American school reform. Like Roland Barth before him, he recognizes that geniune, meaningful educational change “comes from within.” http://edupln.ning.com/profiles/blogs/leadership-accountability

Most of Canada’s teacher unions remain on a completely different wavelength. While claiming to be educational progressives, they continue to be the spear-carriers for the status quo. Some of the most politically active unionists, based in the BC Teachers Federation, are even attempting to blunt school accountability by totally redefining it. They are promoting an “opportunities to learn” model of accountability focusing instead on the same old message – “maximizing students’ opportunities to learn.” http://bctf.ca/IssuesInEducation.aspx?id=5724 That’s the same song sung by Canada’s official voice for administrative leaders, the Canadian Education Association.

Few of today’s leaders in the public or the private sector are prepared to accept responsibility for the impact of their decisions and actions. What does true leadership accountability look like? American leadership guru, Michael Hyatt, puts it bluntly: ” First and foremost, it means that you accept responsibility for the outcomes expected of you—both good and bad. You don’t blame others. And you don’t blame the external environment. There are always things you could have done—or still can do—to change the outcome. Until you take responsibility, you are a victim….Leaders are active. They take initiative to influence the outcome.” http://michaelhyatt.com/leadership-and-accountability.html

Does today’s public education system face an underlying problem of leadership accountability? When the Canadian and American systems of education are under fire, why does it fall to the most outspoken teacher unionists to defend teachers and fend -off the legion of critics? Where are the school administrators when it comes to accountability? To what extent are the leading administrators playing both sides of the fence? Does careerism and respecting the pecking order still rule in the so-called “age of accountability”?

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