Archives For Education reform

CT Stae flagThe other day, I made a scan of my teaching and administrative certificates and sent them to my school office in order to update my records. If you teach in the State of Connecticut, as I do, you are required to provide the necessary transcripts and payments to secure and maintain a teaching or administrative certificate. The Connecticut Department of Education (CT SDE) has always been one of those great equaling institutions: no paperwork=no certificate.

Until now. Until Paul Vallas, Interim Superintendent of Schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Vallas has served 17 months as Interim Superintendent of Schools for Bridgeport, Connecticut, a 21,000-student school system. Before coming to Connecticut, Vallas had served as the Superintendent of the Recovery School District of Louisiana; and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools and the School District of Philadelphia. Vallas, however, was ousted by a Connecticut Superior Court Judge Judge Barbara Bellis’s weeks ago because he lacked graduate coursework and that the “alternative program” created for Vallas by the State Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, fell far short. Pryor’s letter certifying Vallas’s credentials, according to Jacqueline Rabe Thomas writing (6/28/13) in the Connecticut Mirror, was not accepted by the judge who ruled:

“’There is no doubt that Vallas received preferential treatment,’ the judge wrote in her 27-page decision.The judge also noted that Vallas lacked the required prerequisites to enroll in the regular UConn [University of Connecticut] program in the first place, and that such an independent study hadn’t been approved for anyone else in the last decade. Additionally, the university’s governing board had never approved an independent study program.’Ultimately, the course standards were reduced,’ the judge wrote. ‘The court accepts Vallas’ testimony that the work, although done over the course of 10 weeks while fulfilling his employment as acting superintendent, could have been completed in a week.'”

Ultimately, the judge ruled that Vallas’s BS in Political Science/History and MA Political Science from Western Illinois University were not comparable for a certification in education according to Connecticut’s Department of Education (CT SDE). While his experience as the Executive Director of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, revenue director and budget director for the City of Chicago provided him the experience to deal with Bridgeport’s financial woes, he lacked training as an educator.

Vallas has a number of supporters on the Bridgeport Board of Education, and his ouster has received the attention from the state and national press. There are articles and editorials, mostly positive about his work in Bridgeport. The editorial headline from the Hartford Courant (7/25/13) was particularly sympathetic: Why Make It So Hard For Paul Vallas To Help Bridgeport Schools? Qualifications shouldn’t obstruct a promising superintendent

It would be a blow to the city of Bridgeport’s school system and its 21,000 students if Paul Vallas is not permitted to stay on as superintendent. Someone of Mr. Vallas’ experience and gravitas is just what the doctor ordered for the city’s ailing school system.

While I know little about Vallas’s efforts to improve the school system in Bridgeport, I was particularly attentive to several comments that followed this editorial discussing the role of the state’s colleges and university programs. These comments made clear that academic institutions should be concerned when their undergraduate and graduate education certificate programs are being discounted at the highest level.

Educators in the Constitution State spend time and money at state colleges and universities to meet the requirements for teacher and administrator certifications. Even the state-run Alternate Route to Certification (ARC) for those entering the profession with degrees other than education has been made more demanding. There are special graduate certificate programs offered at different institutions (Administrator-092, Literacy Specialist-097, Superintendent-093) each with requirements of extensive coursework of 30 credits or more.

In addition, CT SDE requires that educators provide all transcripts and results from subject area texts (PRAXIS II); these cost educators time and money. CT SDE website also states:

All prospective administrators enrolled in Connecticut administrator preparation programs seeking a recommendation for the Initial Educator Certification for Intermediate Administration or Supervision (#092) must pass the CAT (Connecticut Administrators Test) in order to be certified.

All administrators prepared outside of Connecticut with fewer than 3 years within the last 10 years of administration experience who apply for the Initial Educator Certification for Intermediate Administration or Supervision (#092) must pass the CAT. An applicant recommended by an out-of-state institution may be eligible for a one-year deferral of the CAT.

Paul Vallas did not meet these requirements.

The controversy has captured the opinions of state politicians, educators, and reached the federal level with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, siding with Vallas. They argue in the press over what Vallas has done for Bridgeport, or what he has accomplished outside of the state.

A more serious far reaching problem, however, is this example of the State of Connecticut’s unequal application of certification requirements to educators. If a certificate is not necessary for a high-profile educator to work as an administrator in the state, why have the requirement at all? If education course work is unnecessary, why should the state’s colleges and universities offer courses at all? And if there is no need for certificates or coursework, why have I paid money to the state to keep my teaching and administration certificates updated?

In Connecticut, the land of steady habits, inequalities in certification requirements make the state a little less steady.

Six years ago, the video “Shift Happens” (2007) was featured at our school’s professional development day. I clearly remember one take-away:

We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist using technologies that do not exist in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.

The video was created by Karl Fisch, and modified by Scott McLeod. The slides provided statistics on the rapid exponential growth in population and in information, highlighting the differences between the present and what was successful in the past, specifically England’s position on the world stage in 1900. Several slides are alarming in calling attention to the building tsunami of information available to students with examples such as ” there is more information in a week’s worth of the The New York Times than what an average person knew in the 1700s”. Since 2007, there have been several updated versions of “Shift Happens” uploaded to YouTube; there have also been many imitations.

I thought of this video this week when I drove past a sign on a large office building: Strategic Information Technologies.

“What does that mean?” I asked my friend Catherine, “Is the technology stategic because of geography? Strategic because of a choice of software or hardware?” I continued, “I don’t know what a ‘strategic information technologist’ does…Is this one of the unknown new jobs were are ‘preparing’ our 21st Century students to take?” I referenced the video.

“That’s ridiculous!” Catherine responded, “The people who ‘prepared’ us for the 21st Century were not worried about what new jobs would be available in our future. In fact,” she continued, “they taught us what they knew…what they thought we should know, and we are doing just fine.”

I was startled. Could a “Shift Happens” video place a misguided emphasis on adjusting skills and content in order to prepare students for the unidentified problems they don’t even know are problems yet?

“After all,” she continued, “We are the generation that created these new technologies that we didn’t know would exist today.”

When I reflect on her statement I think about how my favorite teachers in grades K-12  (Sister Ella, Mrs. Rowland, Miss Montessi) were not obsessed with preparing me for some unidentified job in the future. Instead, their collective obsession was to prepare me with basic skills and content so that I could be a productive member of society  I was taught to think, to read well, write well, speak well, know math, appreciate history, recognize science, and, since I attended Catholic school, recite my Catechism.

Perhaps, educators cannot predict the future for their students, but educators can address trends. For example, in 1957, the American public began to reconsider how the role of public education may contribute to winning the Space Race with the Soviets once Sputnik had been released. The investments in education made as a consequence resulted in increased scientific advancements and many spin-off technologies. In contrast, however, predictions such as those at the 1964 NY World’s Fair of a future with flying cars, jet packs, vacation trips to Mars and beyond, underwater cities, and robot laborers have never came to fruition.

Similarly, Karl Fisch’s video alerted educators to the rapid changes in education and the global implications in preparing students for the real world. He wrote:

“…it’s a different world out there. A world whereanyone’s ideas can quickly spread if they happen to strike a chord.”
This was certainly true of the “Shift Happens” video which had great success without “a large company or a huge public relations effort to make an impact.” Fisch continued:
This is just one of the reasons that I believe our schools need to change. They need to change to reflect this new world, this flatter world, this information-abundant, globally connected, rapidly changing, technology super-charged world that they are going to spend the rest of their lives in.

Fisch made no silly “predictions” like those at the NY World’s Fair. Instead, his video served to bring attention to trends that require an increase in the skills of  communication and sharing information.

In order to communicate and to share, students from grades K-12 must think, read well, write well, and speak well regardless as to what predictions are being made about new industries or technologies. In trying to anticipate the future, educators must not discount how the generations of students who learned these important skills became the graduates who are now responsible for evolving changes of the present.

Shift is not an entirely new enterprise on the world stage, for example,  the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution are all examples of global “shifts”. In the six short years since the “Shift Happens” video, Facebook has replaced MySpace as the world’s most formidable social network; Twitter has evolved into a powerful communication tool. The role of educators is not  to predict the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or company that will spawn new jobs or dominate an industry or the next “shift”. Instead, the role of educators must be to continue to teach those skills of thinking, reading, writing, and speaking well that contributed to the “shift” that is happening for our students.

There is no surprise that “Shift Happens”, and the students who are prepared to think, to read well, to write well, and to speak well will not be surprised either.

Educational reform is on the minds of many business leaders and several have weighed in with their concerns:

“We know we are facing a transition, and we must take this opportunity to provide today’s students with the tools and the thinking that is required for the future” ( John Chambers, Cisco Systems).

“….our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today,” (Bill Gates, Microsoft).

“The fact is, too many graduating seniors are unprepared for what will be required to succeed in college or in the workplace,” (William G. Jurgensen, CEO, Nationwide)

These business leaders have every right to express their interest in improving education for the nation. After all, their businesses will require an educated work force. However, too often business leaders speak about educational reform using a business model that is radically different from the public education model.

Funding-Private equity vs. Tax Dollar

A business is funded by an individual or a group of investors, and additional revenue for a business can be added through profits, loans, or the selling of additional shares. In contrast, public school education is funded by taxpayers at the local, state, and federal level; ultimately, politicians control the purse strings for school districts. This manner of funding can be grossly inequitable: On the blog CT, in 2011, Ansonia, Connecticut, spent $10,520 per student while the nearby district Region 9 (Easton/Redding) spent $18,426 per student that same year. Funding can often be capricious as tax revenues depend on the general economy and political agendas; funding can change annually with revenue that cannot be transfered year to year or invested. There are always political promises to reduce taxes despite rising operating and capital costs in educating our nation’s youth to develop 21st Century skills for our future workforce.

Business Loss-Cutting Poor Performers?

Another problem with using the business model for education is the business loss. A clear definition of a business loss is on

A business practice that seeks to detect, identify, investigate and prevent events that cause a drop in value of any of an organization’s revenues, assets and services. Loss-management improvements may involve changes in a business’s operating policies and business model in order to limit instances of accidental and/or intentional loss.

A business with a business loss must be flexible. A business may change operating policies (hours, locations, retail policies, purchasing policies, etc).  In contrast, a public school system that deals with a loss in funding or facilities or student enrollment cannot change hours, locations, or policy arbitrarily or with the speed that business has to react to changes in the market.  Furthermore, a business is free to drop a product line or drop poor performing employees. In contrast, schools cannot drop specific programs (core subjects of math, language arts, science, social studies) or poor performing students. Dropping poor performing students would certainly help test score results but that is not the purpose of public education. In this nation we  educate every student.

Competition-Winners vs. Losers

Business is built on competition and products and services go head to head for the public’s dollar. Economists believe that the market will crowd out inferior products and services using this competitive model. However, employing this model of competition in education would result in a tiered system of inequity. Education reform efforts to introduce competition have included choice through charter schools, but the results of these competitive efforts have not been any more successful than the efforts expended by the public schools. In the inital pilot study (2003) The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered  population differences and reported that “the mathematics performance of White, Black, and Hispanic fourth-graders in charter schools was not measurably different from the performance of fourth-graders with similar racial/ethnic backgrounds in other public schools.” The study also reported that, “In reading, there was no measurable difference in performance between charter school students in the fourth grade and their public school counterparts as a whole.” What this means is that competition with other schools is not a factor in school success. Furthermore, the students cannot be part of a competitive market with winners and losers if the goal is to educate every student. Every student must be a winner.

The Single Metric Test

A business with a single product is limited, so many businesses diversify.  Businesses measure success on products or services with monthly, quarterly, and annually produced data through a variety of measurements. Education in contrast is being forced to measure student achievement through standardized tests. Each standardized test “snapshot” is taken one day during a school year, and the results establish a school as being a success or failure. Reform efforts fron No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top exploit this one test metric. Judging a school with this system of measurement is like measuring retail business’s success by one day of sales. Many states are using these single metric tests for teacher evaluations. Would a company’s CEO be judged by one day’s stock price or a salesman by one day of sales? Additionally, the calls listed above ask for “tools and the thinking” that our business leaders want for their future workforce; an increased focus on single metric tests is not a solution for 21st Century skill development and critical problem solving.

Business leaders should have a great deal to say about education since they will be hiring the product of the nation’s education system. But the tenets of business do not match the tenets of education, and business policy does not always have a comparative counterpart in education. Public education is a very specialized institution and the reform of education must come from those who have both the training and classroom experience, beyond the just “being in the classroom” experience of many successful business leaders.

Dear Governor Dannel Malloy:

I forgive you for the inflammatory comments about teachers in your State of the State speech delivered last February (2/8/12),   “In today’s system basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years.  Do that, and tenure is yours.” After all, I  have said some pretty unflattering things about politicians these past few years. Let us agree that professions should not be demonized.

Instead, I would rather provide you with an example of  great professional development for educators by discussing the value of the Connecticut Summer Institute which is a part of the Connecticut Writing Project. Eleven dedicated teachers from different school districts in the State of Connecticut have spent the past four weeks this summer (July 9-August 3, 2012) at the Connecticut Summer Institute organized and taught by Bryan R Crandall  at Fairfield University. These were elementary, middle school and high school teachers, social studies and English, willing to spend a good portion of their summer vacations (for graduate credit) learning how to improve student literacy through writing from 8:30-3:30 daily. A variety of guest speakers  also visited the Summer Institute and shared their writing experiences; there was a a journalist, an author, a poet, and veterans including  co-director Julie Roneson of past Connecticut Writing Project programs. This program is associated with the National Writing Project, an organization dedicated to improving writing at every grade level. The NWP website states:

Writing is essential to communication, learning, and citizenship. It is the currency of the new workplace and global economy. Writing helps us convey ideas, solve problems, and understand our changing world. Writing is a bridge to the future.