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Meet Me At The Barricades

March 3, 2015 Comments off

I read a report from the Columbus Dispatch that the Southwest Licking School District PTA decided to raise $30,000 to install barricades in the doors of its elementary school as a precaution against armed intruders and was filled with dismay.

I was dismayed mainly because I thought it was sad that a group of parents felt that it was imperative that they raise $30,000 for a safety item, but even more dismayed to read that the safety item they believed they “needed” was “…Barracuda intruder-defense systems (for) every student door in the district.”. This report was discouraging for several reasons:

  • The “Barracuda intruder defense system” would not be failsafe in any school: Having looked at the video of this product, I see several flaws in its use. First and foremost, it assumes that the shooting incident will take place when an adult is present in every room in the school, which is often not the case. In elementary schools some group of students are often at recess, or lunch, or en route from one class to another in a (presumably) insecure hallway, playground, or large gathering area. Secondly, it assumes that the adult in the room will know how to use the tool, which requires the training of ALL school personnel including substitutes.  Thirdly, in response to these “gaps” some parents, Board members, and administrators might suggest even more heavy handed monitoring and “locking down” adding to the atmosphere of fear and protection outlined below.
  • “Barracuda intruder-defense systems” reinforce fear and protection in an era when children need support and encouragement: Based on my understanding, the youngsters who become “school shooters” are disaffected students who felt marginalized in school and had a desire to get revenge and make a name for themselves. It strikes me that a “Barracuda intruder-defense system” would not be an obstacle in the minds of these shooters any more than the armed guard was at Columbine or the secure entry system was at Sandy Hook.
  • Taxes, not “bake sales”, should pay for safety concerns: If a “safety item” is needed for a school it should be budgeted by the school board and paid for by the taxpayers. Would the PTO be expected to raise funds to purchase and install better door locks– the most common means of upgrading security? Would they be expected to raise funds for surveillance cameras? Pay for the cost of a “good guy with a gun”? There is a reason that these kinds of decisions are rendered by School Boards. It assures that they are made after weighing their value against other alternatives, after considering the psychological implications, after weighing the time needed for staff training, and— as was true in this case— after ensuring that the decision was in compliance with local ordinances and resources.
  • Parents fears surpass their desire for equity or enrichment: I harkened back to my early days as an Acting Principal at an elementary school in suburban Philadelphia where funds were raised for special field trips to orchestra performances in the city or trips to amusement parks… recalled my early career as a Superintendent in rural Maine where the parents raised money to make it possible for all the children to going skiing if they wished or to participate in field days at the end of the year… and as Superintendent in NH and NY where PTOs raised huge sums to upgrade and modernize their playgrounds so that children at recess and so that communities would have places for children to congregate and play on weekends…
  • “Safety equipment” makes school facilities more like penitentiaries and less like campuses: The more schools attempt to be 100% safe the more they resemble prisons. It is not hard to imagine parents who are fearful that intruders might invade playgrounds advocating that the schools install a fence with razor wire around the perimeter. If parents want to be absolutely certain that corridors and common areas are safe they might advocate the school expand the number of armed guards in the hallways. To make sure that only students are present in the school they might advocate that all students wear uniforms with their names and student numbers emblazoned on the outside. These may sound like extreme solutions, but they are the logical consequence of the desire to provide a 100% secure environment for children.

I am dismayed about these developments, but I have a vivid memory of  the “Columbine Spring” that was the source of this demand for school security, the event that “changed everything”. In 1999 I was serving as Superintendent in Dutchess County NY and convening coffees to provide parents and community members with an overview of the budget that would be voted on in mid May.  But in 1999 the conversations at those gatherings never got to the budget: they were all about the events in Colorado in a community that looked a lot like the communities I was leading in NYS. After those shootings and the ones that followed parents and school boards focussed less and less on funding for playgrounds and more and more on new door locks, video surveillance, and redesigning schools so that administrative offices were closer to the entryway. When budgets became tighter and tighter, security issues trumped playgrounds and other capital projects, a trend that only got worse after the shootings at Sandy Hook.

I am dismayed by this trend because it erodes the child’s belief that the outside world is safe and welcoming and reinforces parent fears that their children will be harmed or abducted and, in doing so, brings discussion down to a lower level on Maslow’s hierarchy when school policy is being discussed. If we want imaginative and creative children who love attending school every day, we need to accept the very low risk that a shooter might invade a school or a stranger might abduct a child while encoring our children to experience the freedom and liberty that makes our country different from those parts of the world where every movement is controlled and monitored.

Using the Rubber Room Staff for Technology

December 2, 2014 1 comment

In 1997 I was appointed Superintendent to an upstate NY school district. During my first week on the job, my Administrative Assistant scheduled several meetings with central office staff members so I would have an opportunity to have an informal hour long face-to-face chat with some of the key decision makers on the staff to learn the scope of their jobs and how they performed the various tasks assigned to them. One individual who’s name did not appear on an organization chart, I’ll call him “Ed Tech”, was scheduled to meet for 15 minutes at the end of the last day of the week. My Administrative Assistant explained that “Ed Tech” was a teacher the district tried to dismiss a two years ago but who was reinstated when he appealed the decision. Not wanting to assign him to a classroom teaching position in a school (in large measure because no Principal wanted to take him) the district had created a position for him: he was the e-rate coordinator. I sighed because I had learned that the district was too affluent to qualify for many e-rate dollars. Furthermore, at the time the paperwork required to get those e-rate dollars was hardly worth the time. Finally, the district had no long range plan for educational technology in place and had dedicated its limited technology staffing to maintaining an outdated mainframe computer.

After meeting with “Ed Tech” I was pleasantly surprised. While I was certain he lacked the ability to lead a classroom of students, he DID display a willingness and ability to research the ins and outs of E-Rate and, in doing so, identified a way for the district to maximize its e-rate funding IF it completed a long range plan that met the standards and completed a lot of paperwork.

I am recounting this anecdote because I read two recent articles in the NYTimes that described the findings of a recent audit in the NYC schools. On November 26 Elizabeth Harris reported that the NYC comptroller found that the city schools “…had so far missed out on as much as $120 million since it was suspended from a federal technology program in 2011.” and that if it didn’t institute some changes it stood to lose out on as much as $300 million by the 2018 fiscal year.  Harris’s follow-up article in today’s newspaper describes unopened boxes of laptops and I-pads ordered in 2011 and the shoddy record keeping done by the business office and technology staff.

My first impulse was to write an article on the difficulties school districts face in trying to recruit and retain qualified educational technology managers and the challenges districts face when they seek funds to add “bureaucrats” to perform “paperwork” when they are cutting teaching positions. These are very real issues for districts across the country and are largely under-reported and under-appreciated by parents, teachers, and school board members….

But then I remembered reading about the “rubber rooms” in NYC and “Ed Tech” in Upstate NY… and it struck me that NYC has scores of “Ed Techs”. Assuming that the provisos we had in place for the lone “rubber room” teacher in our district would apply to the personnel who are not assigned to classrooms, it seems to me that under-utilized professional staff could be deployed as technology support staff. They could perform the kinds of inventories needed, do the paperwork needed to get e-rate funding, and maybe even do some over-the-shoulder training of teachers and administrative assistants so that the computers in boxes can get into the hands of students, teachers, and office personnel. Time for the city to find a way to make lemonade out of the lemons!

 

Computers and Conservatism

November 27, 2014 Comments off

Hack EducationAudrey Watters weekly blog, is always engaging and chock full of articles that are not typically covered in the mainstream press. Like one of my other favorite bloggers, Yves Smith who writes the Naked Capitalism blog, Watters offers an array of links with pithy, funny, and occasionally obscene commentary on each of the articles. Her one word comment to a link to a post from Heartland  Institute’s “Somewhat Reasonable” titled “How On-Line Education Can Save Conservatism” was: “Shudder“. After reading it I had the same response.

Heartland Institute is a Chicago based “30-year-old national nonprofit research organization dedicated to finding and promoting ideas that empower people.” A quick inspection of it’s home page indicates the website has a trove of articles on the climate change hoax, the benefits of free enterprise, the importance of liberty, and the idea that liberals are taking over. Here is it’s mission statement, with my emphases added:

The mission of The Heartland Institute is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Such solutions include parental choice in education, choice and personal responsibility in health care, market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation in areas where property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies.

The Heartland Institute is a national nonprofit research and education organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, it is tax exempt under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. It is not affiliated with any political party, business, or foundation.

Heartland has gained the endorsement of some of the top scholars, thinkers and politicians in the world – including Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, radio talk show host and constitutional scholar Mark R. Levin, and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). See all the heavyweights who praise Heartland here.

Here’s what made me shudder: some of the ideas advocated in the article written by Justin Harkin echo ideas advocated in this blog and many other blogs written by those who believe that technology could make it possible to individualize education… and underscores the reality that if public education does not encourage cross communication among different economic classes and among children coming from households with markedly differing views on the world, technology will ultimately lead to a nation that is even more divided and more contentious than we have today.

The article begins with a litany describing how “U.S. education is rife with liberalism” because, as presumably everyone knows, “Teachers colleges and teachers unions have worked tirelessly to ensure that school systems across the country are stocked with educators that reject traditional free-market and liberty-focused curricula.” It goes on to provide survey data from UCLA faculty indicating the majority of them identify themselves as “far left” or “liberal”. At the end of the opening section it poses the question of how conservative parents might deal with this reality, answering that question with this paragraph:

The obvious answer is for parents to send children to private schools that embrace personal responsibility and liberty or to start homeschooling. In both situations, however, time, funding, and the teaching ability of the parent may stand in the way as nearly insurmountable obstacles. This is where the advancement of online education could save the day.

The rationale for using mediated on-line learning is very similar to the rationale often advanced in this blog:

Digital learning stands on its own or adds great blended value because it can adapt to the capacity and speed of individual learners, provide minute-by-minute feedback on learning progress, and provide rewards suitable for individual learners. It is similar to an imaginary inexhaustible, highly skilled tutor.

Justin Harkin then outlines how on-line learning to “…advance the cause of liberty”, describing the “astounding” results achieved by “highly successful private and charter schools (that) have taken advantage of this new technology,” offering Rocketship as an exemplar. His article concludes with this call to arms:

…It’s up to conservatives, Tea Party groups, private schools that espouse liberty, and homeschools to build educational systems that promote the values that built America. Technology has made the once-reasonable excuses of cost, location, and time no longer applicable.

With some hard work and innovative thinking, conservatives now have the opportunity to combat the liberal tide that has swept across the country’s education system over the past 50 years.

The call to arms to abandon public schools on the right is mirrored to a degree by the call to arms to abandon the testing regimen among progressives and the fact that technology DOES make it easier to home school, to offer alternative education programs for children, or to “un-school” could lead to a generation of students who never hear viewpoints that are antithetical to those held by their parents.

I may have a romanticized view of my schooling. I recall being in classes taught by both liberal and conservative teachers, both progressive and traditional teachers, and teachers of different races and ethnicities. I was in classes with “gifted” and “average” students— or more accurately classes with classmates whose parents attended college and classmates whose parents worked in the local factories or on the local farms. I was exposed to a full spectrum of political views and Western religions.

I may also have a romanticized view of the era I grew up in, the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was allowed to explore the woods near our house, play pick-up ball games with kids of all races and backgrounds, and went on family camping vacations across the United States. I was active in our church youth fellowship, played piano and guitar, acted in school plays, and, in retrospect, was generally happy with the opportunities I had in public school.  More importantly, I had a sense that the community cared about our generation and wanted us to have a better life. There was a hope that we would not have any more wars, that we would achieve racial harmony, that everyone would have a chance to get ahead, and we had a responsibility to help those who were less fortunate. Did I get that sense from my parents? From the three major networks who broadcast the news and offered TV programs? From the teachers in my school?

The homeschooling and charter schooling advocated in the Heartland blog and the Opt Out and Un-Schooling movements are all driven by disenfranchised parents who believe that public schools are too constraining or inculcating the wrong values. As technology advances, public education needs to make it clear that one of it’s primary functions is to teach children how to live in a democracy under the rule of law. It cannot do that if the school district boundaries segregate students based on economics and— yes– race, or if parents who espouse “liberty” and “Christian values” withhold their children, or if parents who value creativity and despise the regimentation resulting from standardized tests abandon public schools. It cannot do that if children stay at home working in front of computers or attend seminars with other children with like-minded parents. The fragmentation that is envisioned in the Heartland blog… that makes me shudder.