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Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Pandemic Truants Flag the Need for School Reform

October 5, 2020 1 comment

A recent NY Times article by Amy Goodnough describes the struggle school districts are facing tracking down remote learning “truants”, a large group of students who have not logged into their virtual classrooms. The article offers a series of explanations for the thousands of students who are missing classes. Some students couldn’t participate in remote learning classrooms because they lacked high speed internet connections or didn’t have a device capable of connecting to the platform their school is using. In other cases, older students missed classes because they were providing child care for preschoolers or overseeing the remote learning of younger siblings so their parents can go to work. And in some instances, the students themselves were working to help support the family. However, Ms. Goodnough overlooked one very real reason for the absences: some students are “truant” because they realize there are no consequences if don’t attend remote classes. Based on my experiences as a high school disciplinarian in the late 1970s, I sense that this group is sizable.

I served as a high school administrator for six years, serving three years as an Assistant Principal in a blue collar suburban Philadelphia high school of 650 students and three years as the lone administrator in a 400 pupil regional high school in Bethel, Maine. During these years I gained an appreciation for how the world looked to the non-college bound high school students who comprised the majority of the students in both schools. Many of them felt invisible, neglected, and unappreciated. These overlooked students didn’t misbehave or participate in the life of the school. They did just enough to get by. They never missed school often enough to draw attention and took only the courses they needed to graduate. Like some of the students described in Ms. Goodnough’s article, many of them helped out with child care and pitched in to cover the costs of their households– households that often lacked some of the conveniences present in the homes of their more affluent classmates in the same way that some of today’s remote learning “truants” lack computers and internet access.

In my first year as a High School Principal in Bethel in 1978, the lone guidance counselor at the school went on leave in the Spring. As a result, I helped each student develop their schedules for the coming year. To help identify courses that might interest them, I asked each student what they hoped to do once they graduated. Many of the non-college bound students had no clear picture. They told me they just wanted to “get out of school”. These teenagers knew how many years until they reached the age where they no longer needed to attend school or knew the minimum number of courses they needed to pass in order to graduate. For many of these students, school was joyless.  It was a place where most of their classmates and teachers failed to appreciate the hardships they experienced at home.  And in too many cases it was a place that made them feel like failures. Had there been remote learning in response to a pandemic in the late 1970s I doubt that these disengaged students would be logging on to attend a virtual class. Nor would the 10% of the students who were labelled “frequent flyers” for the many times they were sent to my office for misconduct or skipping class. 

Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s Director for Education and Skills and an advocate for the use of technology in education, acknowledges the limitations of the kind of remote learning we are now using in response to the pandemic. He writes:

“It is clear that (online learning) will not reach everyone and it’s not just a matter of access to devices,” he says. “If you don’t know how to learn on your own, if you don’t know how to manage your time, if you don’t have any intrinsic motivation, you won’t be very successful in this environment.”

Once this pandemic is over, public schools have an opportunity to make certain that all students have the intrinsic motivation to learn. By personally connecting with those students who willfully avoided remote learning, it might be possible to develop an individualized learning plan for each of them based on the unique skills they possess,  a plan that was designed to engage them and give them an intrinsic motivation to learn, for that is what is needed on today’s world. All schools, but especially secondary schools, could focus more on the developing skills that will help students no matter what direction their life leads them. Instead of promoting courses that focus on preparation for college, high schools could emphasize the interpersonal, artistic, financial management, and physical skills that will benefit students whether they attend college or not. The pandemic has shown us all the importance of “essential workers” and the dignity of their jobs. There is a gap between the attributes and skills those workers possess and what we emphasize in schools. By acknowledging that that gap and striving to close it we might be able to re-engage the remote learning truants and make school a more joyful experience for all students. 

Conservatives Discover Mastery Learning, the Flaws in the Carnegie Unit… Can Their Abandonment of Standardized Tests be Far Behind?

February 18, 2020 Comments off

I make every effort to read every perspective possible in my education feed, and as a result I received an article from The Hill by Margaret “Macke” Raymond titled “The Diploma Dilemma”. Ms. Raymond, who is the founder and director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University recently authored a policy briefing of the same name as part of the Hoover Education Success Initiative. And what is the dilemma as Ms. Raymond sees it?

Despite evidence that our students’ performance is flat or declining on many levels, our high school graduation rates have continued to rise significantly over the past six years. This paradox may not be widely known or understood, as politicians and policymakers have consistently trumpeted the steady rise of graduation rates. The casual observer would be led to believe that public education is improving because more students are being granted a diploma.

The truth is, in most states, there is a critical chasm between the rising graduation rate and the underlying knowledge and skills of large shares of degree holders. Many students, especially low-income students and students of color, are inadequately prepared to take the first step of college, training, military service or employment, let alone have the foundational knowledge needed to improve their lives in the future.

The truth is that US public schools are not as bad as standardized tests make the out to be or as good as graduation rates make them out to be… except for those underfunded schools serving low income students and students of color. The data on this truth have been evident for generations and yet nothing has been done to address it. After decrying softer grading standards, seat time as a metric, and “low expectations”, Ms. Raymond offers this idea to close the gaps at the high school level:

So what’s needed? States and school districts need mastery-based approaches to capturing and rewarding high school learning to ensure that students earn a high school diploma that provides a fair and clear signal of its value. Better and more frequent measures of high school students and courses would illuminate the pathways that students follow, and the benefits gained from them.  Linking course passing with known requirements for post-high school options will improve the success that holders of a U.S. high school diploma can achieve. In order to realize these things for our students, school systems leaders will invariably be placed in a diploma dilemma —strengthening requirements will almost certainly mean falling graduation rates in the short-term. 

Ms. Raymond’s prescription sounds very familiar to this blogger. In the early 1990s I attempted to launch a district-wide initiative called “Teaching for Mastery” based on the premise that TIME needed to be the variable and LEARNING needed to be the constant. Here’s what I learned from that experience: changing the dominant paradigm as a Superintendent was beyond my reach. Indeed, Ms. Raymond seems to miss the entire point of mastery learning, which is that TIME must be a variable if LEARNING is constant and so time-driven metrics like standardized testing and graduation rates tied to a student’s age are meaningless.

Our current system was implemented in the 1920s and it was designed to sort and select students with no regard or expectation that ALL students would master the K-12 curriculum. There was an expectation that many of not most students would fall short of the standards and find work in the fields or factories. And thanks to labor unions many of those jobs paid well and enabled workers to have good life. That economic paradigm disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s and it isn’t coming back any tie soon. When oh when will our education paradigm change? When will TIME be a variable and LEARNING constant?

Study Proves Mindfulness Reduces Stress, Improves Academics… But There’s Another Benefit

September 2, 2019 Comments off

A few days ago, Science Daily reported on two studies at MIT that came to the same conclusion: “…mindfulness — the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment — can enhance academic performance and mental health in middle-schoolers.”

I have been a formal mindfulness practitioner for roughly 15 years and can attest to the positive effects it has had on my mental acuity and physical well-being. But as one who has practiced mindfulness, I believe that the studies’ focus on the positive impacts on children are understated. Here are the conclusions of the studies as reported in Science Daily:

Synopsis of Study #1: After the mindfulness training, students showed a smaller amygdala response when they saw the fearful faces, consistent with their reports that they felt less stressed. This suggests that mindfulness training could potentially help prevent or mitigate mood disorders linked with higher stress levels, the researchers say.

Synopsis of Study #2: Students who showed more mindfulness tended to have better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions.

The first study’s conclusions are drawn from brain scans while the second study’s conclusions were drawn from an analysis of questionnaires. John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the scientist from the second study, emphasized that mindfulness cannot be taught in isolation or offered as a one-time course. It needs to become a habit:

“Mindfulness is like going to the gym. If you go for a month, that’s good, but if you stop going, the effects won’t last. It’s a form of mental exercise that needs to be sustained.”

These reports and this conclusion bring to mind a talk given at a retreat by Zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh who was approached by the military to offer mindfulness training to soldiers to help them improve their functioning. While he was disinclined to refuse the opportunity to offer the training because he knew the power of mindfulness, he ultimately rejected the proposal because he saw mindfulness as a PATH and not an end in itself. While this sounds like a call for a dogmatic “religious” approach, it reinforces the message offered by the MIT researchers. The mindfulness trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh require a wholistic approach, a willingness to not only go to the gym every day but to commit to a regimen of healthy living, to adopt habits of mind and habits of living that are sustainable for the individual and the planet. Those habits of mind will lead to a level of self-awareness that will help preclude the fear that grips us today, fear that leads to hatred of “the other” and a sense of isolation that ultimately can lead to unhealthy thoughts, speech, and deeds.

If mindfulness is approached as a path, as part of a mental regimen, it will do more than lead to better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions…it will help transform the mental formations that are leading us in the wrong direction… mental formations that compel us to think that better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions is all we need to change in schools.