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  • Andrew T Schwab 9:28 pm on September 16, 2010 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , k12, reform, reinvent, revolutionize, school   

    The School Train 

    School is a train.  I don’t mean one of those long slow freight trains bogged down by a hundred tons of steal and cargo.  No, school is a bullet train charging down the track, leaving the day 1 station on the lightning run to 180.  Once the school train sets off, altering the course of that speeding machine is a superhuman task.  The train keeps going, only stopping for the occasional holiday or mid term break when you might have time to hop out, bang the track with a big hammer to make a minor course adjustment before you have to hop back on and speed away again.

    Bullet train

    Did I mention the school train moves fast? Day 30 flies by, then day 45, 90, 120 and soon the train is slowing into day 180 and the ride is up.  You are left with what you were able to accomplish during the ride using what you had with you on day 1, supplemented with the few things you brought back on board during the occasional stops along the way.  But for the most part, what you brought with you is what you used.

    The time to truly affect the course and eventual outcome of the train is in the summer, after the short four week hop to summer school has been made and the train is safely back in the maintenance yard.  It’s a short window, but proper planning and track laying can make or break that next 200mph trip.  Unfortunately, this is the time the people that make these decisions take their vacations. So the track goes unchanged. The train may get a new paint job and some fancy new gadgets, but it’s still making the same trip as the year before.

    On that trip, the train doesn’t slow down because the computer lab fails, it doesn’t alter course because Apple releases a magical tablet device, it doesn’t make an unscheduled stop because the Internet goes down.  It keeps going, no matter what. It sticks to the schedule. It keeps going until it gets to day 180.

    The train is a challenging place to work. You work with the people that got on the train day 1 and you probably don’t see many new faces all the way through until day 180. For the most part, you stay in your section of the train. Occasionally you meet with other passengers to hear about how well last year’s train ride went or to discuss a group of passengers that might be getting off the train early. It’s basically the exact same conversations you had last year. It may even be about the same passengers. Not much changes on the train from year to year. Same train, same scenery when you look out the windows, same destination.

    I think its hard to look at the train or the destination when you’re on the train speeding down the track at 200mph. Maybe what we really need in education is more time to think about where we are going and how we get there.

    What is it that we want to change in education? Is it the destination? The tracks that get us there? The train? Or maybe even the passengers?  Can we reach a new destination if all we change is the track and we leave the same trains running on them? Are trains even the best way to get there?

    photo source http://www.flickr.com/photos/telstar/216062271/

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  • Andrew T Schwab 8:07 pm on October 21, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , extending the school year, motivation, pay for performance, reform, teacher,   

    Calling for more change, really? 

    U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling for a change in how perspective Teachers are taught in our nation’s schools of education.  I am a big fan of change and think it is great that the Secretary is addressing one of the foundations of the American Education System.  Not having gone through one of these schools of education myself however leaves me perhaps missing the point.  Any change in these institutions is not going to have a real effect for several years to come and it will do nothing to address the plight of the current generation of teachers now serving in the nation’s classrooms not to mention their students.

    So let me jump outside the box and offer a more radical prescription for change.  I think everyone agrees that while there are a myriad of factors that can affect student learning, teachers have the potential to have the most impact.  I also know that Duncan is pushing for pay for performance as a means to possibly motivate good teachers and move out “bad” ones.  Watch Dan Pink’s TED talk about the Science of Motivation and tell me you still think pay for performance is a good idea for the 21st Century.

    I don’t think pay is the issue but it makes for good politics.  So how then do you get all teachers to do better?  I think the answer is simple and yes, it will cost money.  What good teachers need is more time to prepare and collaborate with one another.  What struggling teachers need is more help and support (basically more time).  In a world where 50 minutes out of 450 is spent on “prep” and you are lucky to get 5 days of professional development a year, how can anyone be expected to keep their head above water, let alone master their profession and impact students without being an extraordinary person.  I think we’ve built failure into the system at a fundamental level.

    If it takes extraordinary effort to be a great teacher, how can one realistically expect every teacher to be great.  We can’t all be Teacher’s of the Year.  So changing the schools of education won’t make every graduate a great teacher (not that they shouldn’t change for other reasons but lets stay focused here).  I think one of Secretary Duncan’s other ideas, the longer school day/year, does have merit.  Extending the school day and year could address several issues if done right.  Dedicating some of that additional school time for teachers to develop their skills and adjust their instructional strategies and curriculum would help all teachers (and students); both the great and the mediocre.  More time for collaboration would also allow for implementing innovations like Danny Silva’s idea for 20% time in class which are now next to impossible given the lack of planning time in today’s system.  More hours at school would also have the added benefit of addressing pay, because no one should expect teachers to work additional days for free even though to be successful in the current system you absolutely have to.

    But how does extending the school day/year address the problem of the teacher that just won’t put in the effort?  I think just the additional work time would weed out a subset of teachers.  Add to that the requirement of continuous professional and course/curriculum development (a metric less subjective than observation) and you’ll start to see the bulk of the coasters and survivors drop away.  The institution of school has provided cover for under performing teachers (and administrators to be perfectly honest) because it does not promote (as a general rule) the development of teachers as professionals.  It is easier to hide away in a classroom for years teaching the same thing the same way than it is to improve, grow and change.  And everyone knows most of us are predisposed to take the easy route.

    As a second year VocEd teacher that came to the profession in a round about way, I can honestly say that teaching is the hardest job I’ve ever had.  And by hard I mean it tests me in new ways every day.  It forces me to think, to be creative and to challenge my preconceived notions on a daily basis.  I don’t know if this is sustainable in the long run, but I sure hope it is.  What I am proposing is a change so radical it calls for taking away the easy option and treating teachers like the professionals they should be.  If we are trying to build an education system for the next century, which I believe we should be doing, according to Dan Pink, the focus should be on empowering teachers through autonomy, mastery and purpose.  In that kind of environment, mediocrity and apathy cannot survive.  Pay has nothing to do with it.

     
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