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Dr. John Merrow: October 2011 Archives

October 2011 Archives

Honoring Teachers -- Again?

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John's book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book's official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

Would you believe that tomorrow we are expected to put aside our own important work and honor teachers? That's right, we're supposed to drop everything and pay homage to those lazy, overpaid, spoiled, money-grubbing, summer-vacationing, 'we've-got-tenure-and-you-don't' incompetents.

That's because Wednesday, October 5th, is "World Teachers' Day," an occasion recognized by more than 100 countries around the world. But it's also "Teacher Day" on Thursday, October 6th, the following day, in Sri Lanka.

In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that every day of the year is "Teacher Day" somewhere in the world.

Teachers have October locked up, that's for sure. Beside this Wednesday's celebration for those 100 countries and Sri Lanka's on Thursday, Australia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Brazil, Poland, Chile, Ukraine and New Zealand all have chosen an October day to celebrate their teachers. In Ukraine, students give their teachers chocolate! (You and I work hard. Does anyone give us chocolate?)

Here in the USA we have at least two Teacher Days and an entire Teacher Week. The first full week of May is "Teacher Appreciation Week," with that particular Tuesday being designated as "Teacher Appreciation Day." This official celebration is apparently the result of hard work by the National Education Association and the National PTA. Massachusetts celebrates its own "Teachers' Day," the first Sunday in June.

February 28th is a good day for teachers in the Middle East. That's when 12 countries celebrate: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman.

Because we were asleep at the switch, we have already missed India's "Teacher Day" (September 5), China's and Hong Kong's (September 10th), Brunei's celebration on September 23, Taiwan's (September 28) and Singapore's (first Friday of the month). India makes a teacher's cushy job even easier because on that day senior students take over the responsibility for teaching.

The only month that does NOT have a "Teachers Day" to call its own is, predictably, August. June has four (Bolivia, El Salvador, Hungary, and Guatemala), March has five (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Albania, Lebanon, and Iraq), but the merry month of May tops them both, with six country celebrations: Iran, Bhutan, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mexico, and Colombia.

Teachers really live the life of Riley in Vietnam. November 20th is set aside to allow students "to express their respect to their teacher. Students begin preparing a week in advance, and many classes usually prepare literature and art to welcome teachers' day, while other students prepare foods and flowers for the parties held at their schools. Students usually visit their teachers at their homes to offer flowers and small gifts, or organize trips with their teachers and classmates. Former students also pay respect to their former teachers on this day."

To be serious for a moment, what are we to make of all these celebrations honoring teachers? While I am all for honoring those men and women, I hope the respect neither begins nor ends on that particular day. Somehow I keep thinking of Jon Stewart's wry comment at the end of February when he noted that, now that Black History Month was over, we could get back to White History Year.

I have a modest proposal. In addition to the celebrations, how about a concerted effort to end the dishonoring of teachers and teaching? I'm talking about the Fox News commentators who rattle on about overpaid teachers; those school principals who treat teachers as interchangeable parts; union reps who bargain for rigid and bizarre work rules that hamstring dedicated teachers and administrators alike; curriculum designers who labor to create 'teacher-proof' curricula; education school leaders with low standards and undemanding programs; cheap-shot politicians and so on. I am sure that there are a few million teachers who would like to see any of them try to do for just one day what teachers do every day of the school year.

Me, I would give anything to capture that on film. We could call the ensuing television program "Real Hypocrites in Classroom 203" or maybe "America's Got Bozos."

Thanks, teachers. Enjoy the day -- and the career.

Follow John Merrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/john_merrow

*****Originally posted in the Huffinton Post on October 4, 2011
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This isn't a fully-formed blog post per se, but I would like to draw your attention to an editorial I co-authored in last Sunday's Sacramento Bee; the co-author was the wonderful Esther Wojcicki, Chair of the Learning Matters Board and a successful high school journalism teacher in the northern California area.

The basic premise of the editorial (link is above) is that an expression Ronald Reagan used in relation to the Soviet Union -- "Trust, but verify" -- can be the cornerstone of a plan to save the American education system, which is currently on life support.

A segue: this week over at the Learning Matters website, we organized a discussion on cheating in schools -- how best to prevent it, mostly. This followed up a previous post about the future of charter schools and, of course, a PBS Newshour report we did on cheating in Atlanta.

Thanks for reading some of the above -- next Wednesday (Oct. 5) is World Teachers' Day, and if you come on over to the Learning Matters homepage, we'll be honoring teachers in a variety of ways. (And hey, if you're interested in the value of teachers, as we all should be, check out my latest book.)

Have a great weekend, all.

Follow John Merrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/john_merrow

*****Originally posted in the Huffington Post on September 29, 2011
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Some Thoughts on Education Nation

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As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon; you can also check out a Sacramento Bee editorial he co-authored with Esther Wojcicki, the Learning Matters Board Chair.

Although I left before the final event -- an appearance by former President Bill Clinton -- I was on hand for almost everything else, and I am comfortable declaring Education Nation 2011 a success, a 180-degree turn from last year's disappointment.

Last year, education wonks will remember that Education Nation was badly tilted in favor of charter schools and against unions and the 'bad teachers' they protect. It was as if everyone running the show drank the Kool-Aid poured by "Waiting for 'Superman'", Davis Guggenheim's well-made but fundamentally-flawed movie.

Not this year. Balance was the order of the day. Both union presidents and lots of regular public school teachers got ample stage time. Because NBC's talent pool is deep, lots of good questions were asked.

For me, the absolute hit of the two days was the 65 minutes on Monday morning devoted to "Brain Power: Why Early Learning Matters." We were treated to four snappy, insightful and short presentations by professors from the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and Harvard, after which NBC's chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, presided over a lively discussion about the educational implications of what we had just seen and experienced.

This hit home with many audience members because much of it was new and because the pedagogy modeled what all of us are arguing for in today's schools.

But there was other good stuff: Brian Williams herding a panel of ten (10!) governors, Tom Brokaw talking with Sal Khan and Arne Duncan, Williams again with an examination of inequality ("What's in a Zip Code?"), and David Gregory refereeing a debate between Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada.

Secretary Duncan was everywhere, taking questions gracefully and speaking earnestly about education as 'the civil rights issue of our time.'

At least 271 people labored to make Education Nation run seamlessly, which they did with a smile. Hats off to them.

And Education Nation is also a great opportunity to see and be seen. I had a dozen or more stimulating conversations and left with four or five really good story ideas for PBS NewsHour.

And so, I think it's fair to say that Education Nation is close to achieving that lofty 'must attend' status, no small feat for an enterprise that stumbled so badly out of the gate and is only two years old.

Is Education Nation all talk, or mostly talk, or will good things happen because of these conversations? I don't know, but in defense of education and Education Nation, I don't believe that comparable events are being held around health care, energy and transportation, to name just three other issues of great importance.

Now to the tough part -- and here I have a choice between being nice and being not-so-nice. For once, I choose the former. And so I am couching my critique in the form of a proposal for next year's Education Nation, instead of complaining about missed opportunities.

Next year, NBC's journalists must tackle two of the elephants in the room. One is the obstacles to innovation. The second is the problem inherent in overemphasizing 'innovation.'

Start with obstacles: In an early morning session on Monday, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation spoke eloquently about the possibilities of blended learning. Kids, she said, could now explore and advance at their own pace in many subjects. And she's right. We know that students using the Khan Academy math program (which I watched in action in a school in Mountain View, CA, last week) can move through three, four or five 'grade levels' in math without ever being aware of how rapidly they are moving -- because there are no "Stop, you have reached the end of 5th grade!" signs.

So far so good, but, unfortunately for those fast-moving kids, current 'seat time' and course credit rules mean that a student earns just one year of credit no matter how many levels he or she actually moves up. In fact, that kid's teacher is probably going to have to tell him to slow down, which is a terrible message to send.

But that issue wasn't addressed, and, until it is, lots of wonderful innovations are going to rust on the sidelines. I mentioned this to Tom Brokaw, and he got it right away, connecting it to the one-room school that his mother had attended. There, he said, the teacher had to let kids move at their own pace because she was responsible for six or seven grades. Perhaps that proves that there is no new thing under the sun. The point is learning can be 'customized' in theory, but it won't happen in practice until the system loosens its rules on 'seat time.'

A few educators told me that some schools and districts are experimenting with approaches that judge students based on competency, instead of weeks of seat time, and that's good news. Next year NBC ought to make this a centerpiece and show us how and where it's being done -- and what problems this new approach creates.

My second issue is deeper, and that's all the enthusiasm for 'innovation.' I say, "Enough already." Please give equal time to 'imitation.' We have lots of good schools and good programs and good teachers, stuff that can and should be copied.

Notice that I am not saying 'replicate' or 'go to scale.' Those fancy terms are part of the problem, frankly, because they scare away folks -- or they become an excuse for not doing anything. Educators can rationalize that they don't have support for 'innovation' and don't have the apparatus for 'going to scale' and 'replication,' and that's why they aren't doing anything out of the ordinary.

Sorry, those excuses don't cut it any longer. Just imitate. It's easy to do, and it doesn't have to be earth-shattering, headline-grabbing stuff. Here's an example: KIPP kindergarten teachers explain to their kids why they are going to walk in a line and why they are expected to be quiet in the halls. Lots of regular teachers just tell the kids to line up and be quiet. The first way is respectful and creates shared responsibility, while the second seems likely to create behavior problems down the road. 

Teachers who copy that are not 'endorsing' KIPP or sleeping with the enemy. They are just doing something that works.

I strongly believe that education needs a new narrative to replace the current one ('honor teachers'), which replaced last year's narrative ('charter schools are good, unions are bad').

I suggest a narrative that is tougher on schools but also closer to reality. It's this: "For as long as anyone can remember, there has been close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents were rich, poor or somewhere in between. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks.

"However, we know that's not true because we have in front of our eyes hundreds of examples of schools and teachers that do change lives.

"So do not be mad about schooling's failure to dramatically improve the lives of all 15 million children living in poverty. Instead, imitate the successful places, people and practices. Find out what's keeping educators from imitating success. Eliminate the obstacles and -- here's where you should get mad -- get rid of the educators who refuse to be copy-cats."

Congratulations, NBC, for sparking a national conversation that will be ongoing. I hope you will invite me back next year.
Follow John Merrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/john_merrow

*****Originally posted in the Huffington Post on September 28, 2011
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Get Out the Blender, Kids

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As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

I think I have just glimpsed the future, or at least what could be the future, of public education. I'm talking about the effective use of today's technology to enhance learning, or what insiders are calling 'blended education.' Michael Horn, a co-author of Disrupting Class, provided a definition: Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.

Some, including Michael Horn and his colleagues at Innosight, are predicting that by 2019 50% or more of high school classes will be delivered online, a staggering concept until you consider that in 2007 only one million students were taking courses online, and today four million are. 'Virtual classes' qualify as blended learning, because most of those kids are enrolled in traditional high schools.

That's a growth industry: Just a few years ago only eight states allowed virtual courses or schools; today, nearly 40 states allow it -- and a few require students to take at least one virtual class. The best-known virtual school, Florida's Virtual High School, now enrolls over 100,000 students.

I spent Tuesday watching and listening, first at a school in Mountain View, California, where sixth graders were using iPads to work through mathematical lessons, a curriculum created by Sal Khan and his colleagues at the Khan Academy. Some were working together, some were online, some were doing paper-and-pencil problems, while the teacher monitored their progress on her own iPad or helped kids who asked for assistance. These teachers did not seem to be either 'the sage on the sage' or 'the guide on the side', as the jargon has it. In fact, one teacher likened herself to 'an education designer.' The image of a conductor came into my mind -- of an orchestra and a train.

Someone else compared teachers in blended learning situations to today's doctors, who do not sit by the side of their patients until they recover. Instead, much of the care is provided by nurses (classroom aides), and the doctor is called in only as needed.

Loaded onto the sixth graders' tablets was a curriculum that covers math well into high school, well over 200 'lessons' that the teacher admitted she herself had not completed. Think about that for a minute -- and contrast it with today's approach, where sixth graders and their teachers have a 'Sixth Grade Math Book' as their starting and stopping places.

This approach -- again, blended learning -- has no such borders or border guards, meaning that kids in 6th grade can move on up. (The curriculum includes lots of 'refresher' points, we were told, to insure against 'learning and forgetting.')

Later that day the group of about 30 journalists convened at Google to hear from school leaders about their own embrace of technology. Karen Cator, who is Education Secretary Arne Duncan's chief advisor on technology, told us that it was time for the US to 'ratchet up.'

"It's an inflection point," the former Apple executive said, because our children are digital natives, because most teachers are now using technology in the own personal lives, and because we all recognize that our schools are failing too many kids.

That said, Cator and others acknowledge that major obstacles stand in the way of widespread adoption of blended learning. One is textbooks, which are, as noted above, divided by grades. Textbooks reflect our slavish devotion to 'seat time' as the measure of accomplishment -- fifth graders have to spend one year doing fifth grade stuff, and so on. Another obstacle: school funding and graduation credit hours are based on 'seat time,' not competency -- except in Florida's Virtual School, where state funding only arrives after a student completes a course successfully. That means that schools don't have a strong incentive to allow kids to move along at their own pace.

This new educational world of 'high tech' will demand 'high teach,' former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise noted. Places that train teachers need a major overhaul, and that could be the weak link in the chain.

Today's bubble tests are a gigantic barrier, because they are 'dumbed down' and are not likely to reward those who move ahead. One school leader told us that, before his state tests, he had to 'ratchet back' his 9th graders, because most of them were doing 11th grade math. What a message to send to students!

It's an absurd situation, Michael Horn said.

"We spend about $10,000 a year on each student but trust evaluation to a $5 instrument." He spends $200-300 a year 'evaluating' his $15,000 car. When he said that, I saw heads nodding in agreement.

We also have a long tradition of using schools as a sorting mechanism to identify those who are 'college material' and weed out those who are not. That has to change.

And blended learning faces another challenge: because we all went to school, we are experts and know how school is 'supposed to be.'

Quite by chance, I had spent part of the previous day talking education with a friend who works in an entirely different field. When I told him about the next day's 'blended learning' agenda, he laughed. "My son did that 18 years ago," he said and proceeded to tell me the story of his 7th grader who, stuck with an uninspiring math teacher, signed up with a new program at Stanford, EPGY, for 'education program for gifted youth.' Via computer and with occasional meetings on the Stanford campus, the young man moved through math classes and levels at his own pace. By senior year in high school he was taking advanced calculus at Stanford. There is no new thing under the sun, it's fair to say, but today's students should not have to search outside the schools for opportunities to learn. It's time for them to step up -- or fade into obsolescence.


*****Originally posted in the Huffington Post on September 22, 2011
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Friends -- this isn't a full blog post per se, but more of a two-part announcement -- both pertaining to the future of charter schools.

Tomorrow night (Wednesday, September 21), I'll be appearing in conversation with Eva Moskowitz of Harlem Success Academy and Dave Levin of KIPP; you may have seen Dave mentioned extensively in the recent New York Times character education piece.

This conversation between me, Dave and Eva will be taking place in New York City, at the Manhattan JCC (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue). It starts at 7:30 p.m. and is $15 to non-members of the JCC.

The event hasn't sold out yet, but it's close -- so if you live near New York City, please try to attend. We'd all love to see you there. If you don't live near NYC, please feel free to forward along this info (or Tweet it, or share it, or anything else you see fit).

You can buy tickets at this link.

In advance of that appearance, my web team put together a great experts discussion on charter schools -- featuring Robin Lake, Dan Domenech, John Ayers and more.

You can check that out right here.

I hope this finds everyone well and I look forward to hopefully seeing you tomorrow night for a discussion on the future of the charter movement!

Follow John Merrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/john_merrow

*****Originally posted in the Huffington Post on September 20, 2011
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