Why Middle School?

After spending the first twelve years of my professional career working at the high school level, I finally found my way home six years ago. It turns out I should have been a middle school teacher all along.  Allow me a Lorax moment here.

Thought experiment: when you read the words “middle school” in the last paragraph and the title, did your heart leap or lurch? Does thinking about middle school fill you with dread or dreams? If you are like most people, there is no middle ground (puns always intended): your reaction to anything to do with middle school is probably extreme. Without knowing who you are, I feel perfectly safe to bet that your reaction was laced through with negativity. That reaction is part of the body of evidence that public education must turn its attention to the middle level.  Allow me to make the case.

For decades, middle school (and middle schoolers) has been greatly misunderstood. As former young adolescents, we adults do not look back fondly on those years. We remember best the personal discomfort and awkwardness of that time. Our attitudes now are at best patronizingly sympathetic, at worst (and far more commonly) irritably impatient with the young humans struggling through this period of their life. Middle school is cast as a hopeless, mindless seething vat of uncontrollable bodies and emotions that can not be understood, merely contained and survived. The attitude of our society seems to be “keep them from killing each other in middle school and we’ll get them fixed in high school”. Too often, this misunderstanding results in nearly hostile attitudes, postures, and even policies towards middle schools and the students they serve. Students very easily read between the lines of the way they are treated in school as a result: you can’t think for yourself (condescension) but we will have to punish you for your mistakes (injustice).

Perhaps worse than being misunderstood and probably as a direct result of some of the factors listed above, middle school is often simply forgotten. School “reform” efforts are almost always focused on early education and/or college & career readiness. We pump resources into elementary schools for the former and high schools for the later; we work hard to understand the developmental nature of students at those ages and what works for education in those settings. And we ignore middle schools – when we are not fussing at them about their discipline rates, test scores, and attendance rates. In many states, including my own, the middle grades receive the lowest rates of funding for teachers. For every middle-grades specific program, initiative, and grant opportunity, there are twenty or more designated specifically for elementary or high school.

I propose three reasons to buck this trend and make middle school a significant priority.

  1. Evidence of the need is clear. Student performance on most standardized tests does drop sharply in the middle grades. Students do tend to face disciplinary action at a much higher rate than in elementary school and upper high school grades. Depending on how your district/state defines “middle school”, these are the last institutions to which education is compulsory throughout. Most high schoolers are legally permitted to quit in their second year. Research has determined that certain factors (such as being suspended from school) are predictive of future failure to complete high school when they occur as early as sixth grade. Where middle grades educational outcomes are weak, they are so specifically because the span has been neglected, misunderstood, and subjected to practices known to be most effective at different levels.
  2. Another reality research has demonstrated with absolute clarity is that young adolescence represents the greatest cognitive opportunity experienced at any age. Research in the last decade indicates the human brain develops more during adolescence than during any other time, surpassing the first year of life (as previously thought). This rate of change can be very frustrating for individuals not experiencing such change themselves. Great middle-level educators resist the temptation to confuse “forgets things easily” with “can’t think”.
  3.  Young adolescence provides the most promising blend of flexibility and capacity. Students’ brains are literally transformed during their time in middle school. Most middle schoolers begin to grapple with truly complex ideas – Who am I? What do I believe? How do others view and understand the world? Middle school provides an incredible opportunity for learning. Instead of railing against and trying to contain the variability and seeming chaos, we should embrace it. Call it flexibility, not ADD; call it resilience, not emotional instability; call it determination, not stubbornness.

As adults, we need to remember that we were young adolescents once too. We have been studying young adolescence for decades; to speak and act as if it were a mystery greater than so many others around us is deeply disrespectful to the amazing young women and men who are passing through this phase of their lives. We must make middle school a priority in public education. Doing so begins with a commitment to understanding young adolescence.

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Galactica Actual

October is Principal Appreciation Month.  This post is dedicated to all the amazing principals I have had the privilege to work with as a teacher and colleague.  

The best metaphor I know to explain what it is like to be a principal comes from the show Battlestar Galactica.

In the pantheon of sci-fi television series, Battlestar Galactica must surely deserve consideration as one of the greats.  In case you have forgotten, the series depicts the odyssey of the last remnants of the human race as they are pursued through the universe by a race of humanoid “cylons” they had created. The ragtag fleet of ships is lead by Laura Roslin – who is promoted from Secretary of Education to President (of the human race) when the 42 government officials ahead of her in succession to that position are killed in the initial attack by the cylons, and by Commander William Adama – captain of the only surviving vessel of war: the battlestar Galactica.

Commander Adama’s ship has a squadron of “Vipers” – flying machines that function in space the way fighter planes function in terrestrial conflicts.  The command of military maneuvers is coordinated between the Galactica and the Vipers by radio transmission.  As with naval ships and fighter galacticaplanes on Earth, each has a call sign.  For example, Commander Adama’s son Lee Adama flies under the call sign “Apollo”.  Pilots attempting to communicate with the battlestar address their communication to “Galactica”.  As in “Galactica, this is Apollo.  I have made visual contact with the enemy.”  In a practice that mirrors that of battleships in the United States Navy, a junior officer on the Galactica is the one who operates the radio and speaks to the pilots most of the time.  When they hear from Galactica, it is his voice that comes over the airwaves.  

But he is only the voice of the ship.  When pilots need to discuss something very important, unorthodox or otherwise unusual, they ask for permission to speak to the Commander himself.  They say “Give me Galactical Actual”.  They are saying, in effect, ‘I have been speaking to the voice of the ship but now I need to speak to the ship itself’.  When Commander Adama says “This is Galactica Actual”, he is is saying ‘Go ahead, you are speaking to the ship’.  

When I saw the show for the first time, I was a principal and I made an instant connection to that concept.  You see, psychologically, it is is the same for a principal.  You are the school.  If you are (or have been) a principal, you know what I am talking about.  On the other hand, if you have never been a principal, you can only understand what I am saying theoretically.  To be the principal of a school is to be the school.  Of course, you are legally and professionally responsible for every detail in the school.  But beyond that, your personal identity becomes entwined with the school.  When your school is mentioned in the paper because a frozen pipe flooded the school or because there was a fight at the football game or because test scores were released last week, you were in the paper – whether your name is mentioned or not.  There are plenty of factors that make the principalship a difficult job – an ever evolving set of expectations, pressure to create change quickly, a steady barrage of deadlines and due dates, and an endless stream of decisions big and small that must be made.  The one that is most difficult to understand until you have experienced it yourself though is the psychological weight the job carries.  It is as if you must become the school.  Whether the individual in the office is a great leader or not, the school begins to take on the personality of the principal; and the principal assumes the identity of the school.  Whether it is more accurate to describe it as being the school or carrying the school, it is a heavy task either way.

Metaphors aren’t useful unless they lead to greater understanding.  Here are just a few hints and suggestions to help make this one worthwhile.


  • You are your school but you are not alone.  Wear the mantle of leadership loosely.  Build a team that works together.  You do have to be a heat shield to protect the folks around you but they can keep you sane by strengthening your hands for the work you do together.
  • Do everything you can to keep your work out of your home.  If you do not take a single task home, you are still carrying hundreds of people and their problems and needs home on your back.  Don’t make it worse by stealing time from your family or personal time to catch up on paperwork or any other tasks.
  • Keep perspective.  Either your school got along fine for a long time before you came along or it will for a long time after you leave.  Or both.  Education certainly did and will.  You are valuable and important but a healthy perspective (from the lens of history especially) will help you stay grounded.


  • When you get frustrated with your principal, keep in mind that they are people too and that this phenomenon I am describing has an impact on how they do the job.  This is not an excuse for poor practice but it might help you understand how to relate to your principal.  
  • Being a principal is not synonymous with having a huge ego.  Admittedly some school leaders appear to be engaged simply in the pursuit of power.  For most though, it is a monumental task to fulfill all the requirements and expectations they face every day.  What looks like ego is often just an attempt to make enough good decisions every day.  
  • On more than one occasion I sat in my office and cried because someone took a few minutes to write me a personal thank you note.  Have you thanked your principal lately?  If not, think about taking five minutes to write a quick note for just one thing he/she does well.  You will make their day (or maybe their week)!

Galactica out.

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Supercell on the Power of Purpose

I play Clash of Clans.

The main reason I don’t often bring that fact up in professional settings is that imagethe game does not make me better at my work.  “I play games” provides common ground with students but not very many adults.  I could make a connection to the power of applying the “rules” of gaming to learning, but that case has been very well made by others already. I see oodles of opportunities for application and professional reflection in many of the in-game features, the psychology of the game and the social interactions it facilitates. Ask me for those insights next time you see me if you are interested.

Supercell is the name of the company that created Clash of Clans. I visited their website today for the first time.  What I read in the section titled Our Story inspired this post.  In the words of a colleague, here are my two “takeaways”.

1.  “…the sole mission of the founders and management [is] to acquire the best talent, create the best possible environment for them, and then get out of the way.”

Is it possible that this approach could work for schools too? What if we spent time hunting down the very best folks, recruited them to be on our team, equipped them for their work and then let them do it?  Supercell leaves no illusion that their employees are free from oversight. In fact, the piece talks about how they “kill” projects that are not working (and how they celebrate their failures and then move on).  But between the point of starting a project and its ultimate launch or abandonment, their very small, very talented “cells” of people “have complete control over their own roadmap.”  Autonomy does not mean freedom from responsibility, high standards, or direction. It does mean the ability to do excellent work by finding the best path. Supercell seems to think that approach is part of what makes them successful.

2. “…the best people … make the best possible impact and nothing [stands] in their way. Everything else, including financial goals, [is] secondary.

Most people would say that the purpose of establishing a company that makes games is to make money. Success is determined by how much money the games earn. Supercell, however, seems to be saying that the only way to be successful is to refuse to be driven by the bottom line.

The measure of the success of a school today is its performance on standardized test scores. We are great at offering endless reasons and rationales for that fact but ultimately “improvement”, “growth”, and “success” are all essentially synonymous with higher test scores. What if we took our cue from Supercell in this as well? What if we began acting like the only way to get test scores up is to stop trying to get test scores up? What if we focused on producing more learning instead?

Public education is not a business and our work is not a game but I believe we have something to learn from Supercell about priorities.

By the way, even though “financial goals” are “secondary” for Supercell, they do just fine in that department too. They take in about $5M (five million) dollars every day.

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Don’t Call it a Promotion

Tomorrow is the first day of my 17th year as a professional educator.  For the first time, I will not work in a school building.  I was transferred to the position of “Director of Middle School Education” several weeks ago.  I asked for this job, am deeply honored to have been selected and am looking forward to working with the principals and faculties at all seven middle schools in our system.

There is one thing I need to address though. Almost everyone to whom I have spoken since my transfer was announced has congratulated me on my “promotion”.  To all of the well-wishers (including the ones I have not yet seen), I make this request: please don’t call it a promotion.  I am delighted to be in my new role and can not wait to see what the future holds.  But I am very uncomfortable calling this move a promotion.

Here are two reasons why:

  • It underscores and perpetuates the “just a teacher” mid-set.  We live in a culture that has largely lost its respect for teachers and generally work in organizations where teachers are treated as problems to be fixed rather than as unimaginably valuable resources.  If people who stop being teachers are “promoted”, what does that say about the educators who chose to continue being teachers?  By extension, what are we implying about principals when individuals who accept Central Office jobs are “promoted”?
  • I became an educator because I love young people.  I did not discover that I get along okay with teenagers after I chose to be a teacher; I became a teacher because I knew I needed to be in a career that allows me to interact with lots of folks all the time.  And to try to enrich their lives in the process.  My new job will require me to make up excuses to interact with students: calling that change a “promotion” seems at least a little bit insulting to them.

I could go on but my entire point is very simple: education is about teaching and learning.  Both happen as a result of interactions between human beings.  Describing career steps that move away from those interactions as “promotions” is backwards thinking in my book.  Longer list of stuff to think about?  Sure.  More responsibility?  Maybe.  Promotion?  No.

imageThere is no need for you to feel uncomfortable or avoid mentioning my new role when we see each other.  I have a suggestion for what to call this transition: I have been exiled.  Feel free to offer either condolences or congratulations on my recent exile.  From what I can tell so far, that imagery works just fine.

I have been removed from where the students learn and taken to another place.  I might be allowed to go back some day, but for now that is not my home any more.  I am allowed to cultivate relationships, maintain strong lines of communication, and work to influence what happens where the students are from where I am.  I can even get away with sneaking back for very brief visits.  But I don’t get to live there any more.  Someone else will be there every day and will build relationships and will fan sparks of curiosity into intellectual flame and will change young lives one interaction at a time.  Like Aaron and Hur, I will spend my days strengthening the hands of the heroes who do that work.  And I will rejoice in the privilege to do so.

Just don’t call my move a promotion.

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Protect Common Core: An Open Letter to Governor Bentley

Dear Governor Bentley,

I am writing this letter in regards to the discussion and debate that has been underway in Alabama – and indeed around the country – about Common Core for the last few years.  As you are no doubt aware, this debate has led to the repeal of Common Core in a few states with others giving serious consideration to following suit.  Last year, I wrote a letter to the members of the Alabama State Legislature making the case that we should not repeal Alabama’s version of Common Core – the College and Career-Ready Standards (CCRS).  To my great relief, none of the bills designed to do so were passed during that session.  Last week yet another bill that would repeal Common Core in Alabama passed out of committee.  While I have already been in touch with my representative on this issue, I am writing this letter to you because it seems unwise to wait until it is absolutely necessary to do so to voice my opinion.  Please allow me to share three simple reasons (of the many that exist) why you should never support any effort to repeal Common Core in Alabama.

  1.  Your grandchildren and my daughters deserve to attend schools with high expectations for their learning.  As you know, two of your grandchildren (Katie and Taylor) attend Rock Quarry Middle School, where I am principal.  The standards set by the Common Core have been the norm for their entire middle school careers.  They are expected to extend their learning past the mere collection of knowledge to application of it.  They are expected to understand math well enough to do something with it.  They are expected to demonstrate the skills necessary to write for a real audience.  They are expected to make complex connections between the learning done in different classes.  The standards their teachers build their instruction on start with verbs like “analyze, delineate, integrate, demonstrate, and evaluate”.  We are not just helping them survive until they reach high school; they are thriving academically in large part because their teachers are expected to make school a deep and rich learning experience; that standard of excellence is clearly articulated through CCRS.  My children are very Girls Hats 2young.  It will be two more years before all three are in elementary school.  They are already devouring the world around them – like all children their age do.  They are so curious; make incredible connections; can already draw conclusions that are alternatively amazing and hilarious.  I am terrified that they will attend a school that begins to teach them that correct answers are more important that wonder.  How long will they view learning as completely natural and fulfilling (as they do now) if they figure out that they can get by with very little effort in school?  As much as I worry about my children, I worry so much more for other little girls and boys I meet whose parents themselves learned that the bar is low and were never expected to strive for greatness.  If we chose to go backward in regards to the standards we set for academic learning in Alabama, those children will be hurt more than anyone.  You see the truth is my children will turn out fine and your grandchildren will too because they have parents (and grandparents) who will make sure they learn everything they can whether that learning happens at school or not.  All of Alabama’s children deserve to attend great schools with high expectations.
  1.  Alabama educators think the standards we have are right.  Listen to us!  I have frequently heard that no profession is more heavily regulated than the medical profession.  You would have a better perspective on that claim than me.  A perspective I can confidently share is that few other professions (if any at all) are treated with as great a disregard as educators.  Aside from all the other evidence I could cite in support of this claim, the most compelling evidence I see is the absence of our voice in decision-making regarding education.  I applaud you for making a concerted effort to be an exception to that rule.  First Lady Diane Bentley spends a great deal of her time visiting schools, including a visit to Rock Quarry earlier this semester.  You hosted a group of National Board Certified Teachers for a meeting last month and declared the week of March 8 Alabama National Board Certified Teacher week.  Many other elected officials in our state are literally ignoring educators though.  Not only do they refuse to consider our perspective on Common Core, they simply ignore our emails and phone calls and requests for meetings.  I am not suggesting that this issue is a simple one nor that there is no room for debate.  I do believe, however, that the human beings trusted with nearly half the waking hours of Alabama’s youth should be also trusted to have an opinion about what to do during that time.
  1.  We do need protection from Washington.  Repealing Common Core will not help.  Alabama’s elected officials have not cornered the market on making decisions about education in Alabama.  There are in fact many decisions and mandates from the federal level that I do not agree with at all.  I have been quite vocal publicly about my objections to those issues.  Alabama’s teaching standards in Language Arts and Math is simply not on my list of concerns.  The reason for that fact is simple: Alabama educators are firmly in control of the decision-making process in our state.  I doubt that any other state has adapted Common Core more than Alabama has.  When something did not fit, we changed it.  When the public expressed concerns about details connected to Common Core, those items were removed.  At every turn, we have made decisions that were right for our students whether someone outside our state agreed with those decisions or not.  Unlike many neighboring states, the Alabama Department of Education has taken a stand when pressure from Washington conflicts with what we know to be best for our students.  I agree with the notion that we should not let Washington dictate educational decisions to us.  I disagree strongly that describing the level at which learning should take place puts us in danger of succumbing to anyone else’s agenda.

Governor Bentley, we do not know each other personally.  However, I do know that you care very deeply for Alabama and that you are a strong supporter of public education.  I am not asking you to attempt to curtail the discussion about Common Core in Alabama.  My simple request is that if you are ever given a chance to weigh in on our instructional standards you remand that decision to the folks who should be making decisions about education in Alabama: educators.  Please do not sign into law any legislation that substitutes the judgement of politicians for that of educators.


Andrew Maxey, NBCT
Principal, Rock Quarry Middle School

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Alabama Science Course of Study, A Perspective

The Alabama State Department of Education has posted an invitation for public comment on the current draft of the 2014 Alabama Course of Study: Science.  If you don’t know much about educational jargon, the main content of this document is the instructional standards for Science classes K-12.  All members of the public are invited to provide feedback on any part or all of the draft document between now and January 30th.  After reviewing the document, with special attention to the middle school standards, I have several first impressions and comments to post here:

1. To my trained eye, these standards are exactly on par with the Math and Language Arts College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS).  They call for high expectations centered on doing Science.  In case you missed it, we have allowed science class (among others) to become an exercise in taking notes about science-y things.  In my opinion if you aren’t doing, you aren’t really learning.  Especially in Science.  Major kudos to the authors/editors of these standards.

2.  The Course of Study includes more than just the standards.  I am also impressed by the relevance of each overview section.  The comments and suggestions regarding instructional approaches reveal that the authors know both the content area and what is most developmentally appropriate for the grade levels they are describing.  I’m still looking, but I have yet to find a pedagogical idea with which I disagree in the grade spans of my expertise.

3.  In case you missed it, Alabama has been arguing about Common Core for a while – as have many other states.  As I have written before, one major difference is thatomat Alabama has in substantive and meaningful ways made the Common Core standards our own.  When the state department of education insists on calling our standards CCRS (not CCSS), it’s not a trick of syntax.  Its is because they are our standards now.  To the best of my knowledge, these Science stanards were written entirely by Alabama educators.  And they read very much like the Math and Language Arts standards.  The reason for that is simple.  Experts wrote them.  If we thought the Math or Language Arts standards were not good for our students, we would not be supporting them.  And the Science standards we wrote entirely on our own would probably not look so much like them.

4.  It seems to me that many have been so caught up in all the permutations of the argument about Common Core that they have missed an important point: our students need us to teach them in different ways than we were taught.  They need us to expect more from them.  Teaching them the way we were taught will not prepare them for college and life adequately.

In case you are wondering, this is just one man’s opinion.  I also reserve the right to keep looking and find things to dislike about the proposed course of study.  I will not be shy about expressing any concerns I do develop.  In the meantime, here are a few suggestions.

A.  Read the course of study yourself.  At least read the section that applies to the grade your child is in right now.
B.  Give feedback about any concerns you have.  I have known Dr. Bice for several years.  I have observed that he takes the opinions and concerns of others very seriously.  If you just want to fuss, that might be a waste of your time.  Constructive criticism will not be.
C.  Consider whether the school where you were or where your child attends treats science instruction like the very important part of learning it is.  Do students do science or do they take tests about it?  If it is not what it should be perhaps it could be better with your help.

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Public Education and Standardized Testing: An Intervention

Before you read any farther, here’s a warning: it might be better if you didn’t read this post.  What I am saying here and (intend to go on saying) is subversive.  It is a challenge to an established absolute in education.  It is dangerous.  However, it has become impossible for me to believe anything different.  I can not remain silent; to do so would be immoral for me.

Fifteen years into my career, perhaps it is no longer necessary to think of myself as a “young” teacher.  I have taught in schools in three states.  Rural and urban.  Rich and poor.  Mostly “language learners”; mostly “free/reduced lunch”; mostly “doing fine, thanks”.  All those schools have some things in common.  As far as I can tell, all schools have some things in common.  To my increasing dismay, the one absolute that is common to every public school everywhere is standardized testing.

Others much more qualified than me have written on the history of standardized testing in the United States.  It is such a hot topic that it makes the news outside educational circles.  Today a wide ranging debate on the place and form of standardized tests is raging.  From my perspective, we aren’t nearly frightened or angry enough.

Although we do our best to deny it – or even to make it untrue – the purpose of school has become to help students get more test SV-AS10 ImageDataquestions right.  All schools write “continuous improvement plans”.  The bottom line of all such plans: help more kids get more test questions right.  There is a hefty list of mandated initiatives/programs/policies that are designed to provide “student academic supports” in dozens of different ways.  What they all have in common: helping students do better on standardized tests.  Listen carefully the next time you hear someone talk about education at any level.  At some point that person will mention needing to “improve” or brag about having “improved” or plans to ensure that schools/students “improve”.  What we always mean by “improvement” is more students getting more test questions right.  When we say a school or a system is “failing” or “struggling” or is a “priority” or “in school improvement”, we mean there aren’t enough students getting enough test questions right.

It is very important to recognize that it is entirely possible to improve test scores without improving learning.  Is is conversely possible to have low test scores that are misleading about the amount of learning (and even achievement) going on in a school.  A student who does very well on a standardized test has probably learned at high levels; a student who does very poorly on a standardized test has probably not learned as much as s/he should have.  The fact is that we can not rely on either assumption to be absolutely correct.  But we do.  We should have an obsessive drive for more learning in all schools.  What we have instead is a relentless pursuit of better test scores.

There was a point at which Public Education had to choose between pursuing more learning and higher test scores.  We chose higher test scores.  We specifically (and often literally) seek to help students pass tests even if they do not learn in the process.  Passing the test is the objective, not learning so much that the test score takes care of itself.  We staff our schools and structure our days and plan our years around the sacred and almighty Standardized Test.  We set aside all other teaching and learning for weeks at a time to prepare for the test.  We contort the entire campus into ridiculous configurations to create the required “testing environment”.  We publish school (and in some states teacher) test results and then base funding and staffing and salary and sanctions and structuring on those results.  There is a growing mandate that teacher’s annual evaluations include their own students’ “achievement” (read standardized test results) as a major component.  In some states those conditions already exist.  On the other hand, we wring our hands (but take no urgent action) when we see no evidence that students are proficient users of technology or effective problem-solvers or accomplished collaborators or highly innovative.  It is permissible for those attributes and skills to be missing because they are not measured on the test.  We know that standardized tests tell only part of the story (when they are accurate at all) yet we make improving students’ performance on them our Prime Directive.

If there was a clear and consistent correlation between test results and learning, this culture would not be as significant a concern for me.  However, the very notion of basing our entire judgement of a student’s (or a school’s) academic proficiency on one test – which includes two hundred multiple choice questions at the most – is simply ludicrous.  This practice is made even more disheartening in light of concerns some (such as Walter Stroup, education profession at the University of Texas at Austin) have raised over whether standardized tests even do what they are supposed to do – measure student learning.  Others (such as Todd Farley, author of Making the Grades) have even suggested that the entire standardized testing industry is little more than a sham; that practices in the industry call the validity of any test results into question.  If these folks are right – if standardized tests are measuring how well students take standardized tests more than how much math they know; if it is not safe to assume that the tests even do what they are designed to do – that raises serious questions for me.  Questions like “why are we even administering standardized tests, let alone putting so much stock in them?”

The most shameful part of the culture of testing undeniably gripping Public Education is the fact that the students who require the most help are almost always hurt by it.  Consider our very common practices.  For a poor student, education is almost certainly the best (or only) way out of poverty.  Learning how to answer test questions correctly is a skill that has almost no application in the “real world”.  Yet poor and under-prepared students are the most likely to be part of “remedial” and “test review” classes in school.  These same students are the least likely to be taught how to think critically, to express themselves cogently, to gain a deep understanding of the ideas that support the facts they are memorizing.  But in the name of “improvement”, we pound them with low-interest, low-relevance, low-yield activities.  They usually score a little bit better on the tests.  But the cost is their opportunity to learn skills and the disciplines of mind that will have any value whatsoever in their future.

While this mindset permeates our entire educational system, comparing schools on extreme ends helps make the point.  Schools that serve primarily middle-class and wealthy students teach them to think deeply.  They have rich learning experiences; they make things; they collaborate; they are the standard-bearers for public education.  When the time for standardized tests comes, these students attend extra-curricular classes (or hire tutors) that train them to perform well on the tests by thinking in a completely different way.  The students learn an entirely separate skill set that they use to ace the tests.  While lots of the knowledge learned in school helps them perform well on the tests, doing well on the test requires a different way of thinking.  They learn that skill, ace the test, and then return to the meaningful learning they had been taught and that will serve them well the rest of their lives.  Schools that serve mostly poor students are very different.  I should know because I spent my entire teaching career in them.  Students who attend these schools can not afford tutors.  They can not stay after school because they have little brothers and sisters to take care of at home and/or jobs to go to.  They don’t have the means of learning two ways to think.  They still have to take the standardized tests.  Their schools are labeled “failing” when they do not do well.  So their teachers spend most of the year teaching them factoids and test-taking strategies.  The really brave and radical ones teach lessons in critical thinking and otherwise try to defy all the mandates to improve scores.  Teaching students to learn (instead of teaching them to answer questions correctly) is often an act of defiance.

These scenarios are not hyperbole or theoretical.  I was one such teacher.  When I was employed in a school system that had a writing sample as a graduation requirement, I taught a class of Seniors who had not yet passed.  Most of my students could not speak English.  But I taught them the formulaic strategies they could use to produce a passing score.  I loved those students and wanted them to graduate; they loved me because most of them passed the writing sample.  I still wonder if they learned anything meaningful about writing or communication or English during that year with me.  And I hate the system that required us to play school.  And still does for millions of students across the country.

Public Education is addicted to standardized testing.  As is the case with most addictions, use in moderation would be fine – probably even healthy.  I begin to believe however that we can not break our addiction by simply resolving to “do better”.  It might be that the only way to save ourselves is to quit cold turkey.  I have had this conversation with dozens of people.  Not one person among them believes we can make standardized testing go away.  Failing that, I have three simple (and extremely difficult) proposals.

  1.  Stop caring about test results.  Choose as a school to become obsessed with more learning.  Focus all your energy on making sure students learn more every day.  Dare to gamble that more learning will result in high test results anyway.  If they don’t, have honest conversations about what the problem is – not enough learning or not enough right test questions.  Then make thoughtful decisions.  Our school has.  It’s working.
  2.  Find another way. I have no problem with accountability.  Each school’s community should hold it accountable to produce very high levels of learning for all students.  But in a world where the collected whole of human knowledge is available at our fingertips every minute of every day, standardized tests are no longer reliable nor sufficient proof of that learning.  Many schools and educators are working on alternative systems of evaluating student learning.  Join the effort.  For this to be a reasonable transformation, we must replace standardized testing with highly accurate, highly descriptive systems that fill the void left and overcome the shortcomings we see now.
  3.  Speak up.  While our continued reliance on standardized testing now has the force of status quo, the number of individuals perpetuating that condition is many hundreds times smaller than the number of individuals who object to it.  The problem is that the largest block of individuals (by far) is silent.  I believe it is simply irresponsible to remain quiet any longer.  For me, it would be immoral to do so.
    Parents, raise your voice and demand that your child’s learning be the highest priority of his/her school.  Ask questions about the evidence of learning that the school offers – whether that evidence be test scores, a portfolio of work, or any other form. Here is a dirty little secret: high test scores guarantee your child nothing.  If you let us get away with teaching your child to ace the test instead of producing mastery level learning, s/he will be the one to pay the price for that charade.
    Teachers, start talking about your practice and your school/system/state policies.  Do they reveal a focus on learning or a focus on a better report card?  I have resolved in my own mind to refuse to participate any longer in any farce about student learning – even if it costs me my job.  I can not sleep at night if I accept a salary in exchange for actions that I know will hurt a child’s future.  Be courageous.
    Administrators, change the culture in your school.  With or without permission.  Protect your teachers when they are teaching at extremely high levels but not complying exactly with a bureaucratic checklist.  Consider which is more important, complying with rules designed to ensure great achievement or actually achieving greatness.
    Policy-makers, please listen to us.  We are not asking to do less work.  We are not asking for easier jobs.  We are not asking for more time.  We are asking you to let us take actions that will in fact accomplish the goals you say we are aiming for.  If you refuse to listen, two outcomes seem very likely to me: many of us will be driven out of the profession entirely and public education will become irrelevant.

For the sake of all our futures, do your part to end this addiction now.  It will be painful, but we can do it.  Here’s how we should start:

“Hi.  My name is Public Education and I’m an addict”

photo credit: COCOEN daily photos via photopin cc

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Best Marking

In a recent conversation with a friend who is in quality control at a local steel plant, he described a process he and his colleges from other plants engage in called “best markinginspection“. Officials from one plant (or many) visit another for the express purpose of learning from their peers. Whenever the guests discover a practice or procedure that is done better or more efficiently than at their home plant they ask lots of questions. The officials at the home plant “give” their innovations to their visitors. This spirit of collaboration always pays off because each plant inevitably learns many lessons in return for each development they share.

As the 2014-2015 school year begins, I am filled with hope due in no small part to the fact that I see a ground-swell of “best marking” in my school, our system and this profession. Never before in my professional career have I seen so many teachers finding ways to make collaborative connections. We have stopped waiting for someone to give us permission to learn from each other and are forging bonds on our own.

I work at a middle school that moved into a building already occupied by an elementary school six years ago. We brought one wing of classrooms with us, but more than our share of traffic. And classes. And hormones. In our struggle to work out how make things work we mostly forgot how privileged we are to work under the same room. We know there are superstars down the hall but we have never taken advantage of that fact.

Until recently.

We decided near the end of last year that we are going to be a family. We’ve got sharing the bathroom and squabbling over who took who’s stuff down pretty well. Now we are going to love each other and have each other’s back and learn from each other like a family does. We’ve been working this summer on some pretty cool plans for this year based on that new commitment. I can’t wait to see how they play out.

For the last ten years, I have worked in a school system that’s probably not that different from yours. We love children and we work very hard every day. We do RTI and IEPs and HALT and CIPs (although we phased out BBSST and ARMT and AHSGE). We want to “do what’s right for kids” and we write our plans to make sure that we do. And what we seem to have missed is that students are not numbers. And that not even the numbers that are true about them are THE truth about them. And we have especially forgotten that among us we have profound insights; and between us we have rich experience; and together we have immense strength and an iron resolve.

Until recently.

Many of us decided to begin learning from each other. We have started driving across town to ask questions. We use social media to share ideas with each other. We work together to plan timely, profoundly relevant professional development. Connections and partnerships are forming across the city. We mean to continue this grassroots effort to learn from each other. I can wait to see how our collaboration plays out.

Until about two years ago I knew less than ten educators from outside my school system. I was part of a landscape of educational silos: most people working in virtual professional isolation. We were all so busy revising our Code of Conduct or our mission statement or the testing schedule that we forgot that the school system in the next county might have an incredible insight to share about a problem we were trying to solve if we would only ask. We went to lots of conferences to hear the experts pontificate on the newest ways to solve the oldest issues but we missed the simple genius of the professional right next door or just across the state line. And we were content to come home and keep our own council about the giants we were facing.

Until recently.

My eyes began to open much later than many of my peers, and it seems to me that more and more educators in this part of the state and across the country (and around the world) are simply and quietly choosing to stop being an island.  I have connected with and had incredibly rich professional conversations with teachers and principals through social media.  Through the power of technology, I have participated in “live” conversations with my peers.  And my story is not unique.  Educators are becoming “connected”.  We are establishing relationships with a whole web of folks who are passionately connected to being better at what we do – we call them professional learning networks.

Our school year begins tomorrow.  We will be granted the opportunity to once again pour all our sweat and wisdom and love into young lives.  For many, we will have the best year of our career specifically because we have finally understood that it does take a village.  Not a conglomeration of loosely affiliated (though geographically contiguous) independent contractors; a tightly woven community of inter-dependent, highly collaborative, philosophically and missionally aligned partners.  It may take us a while to figure out that we all need to make best marking a priority.  From my vantage point, though, the future has never looked so bright.

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DO something

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing”.  I often heard my father use this quote by Edmund Burke in his sermons as part of a repeated call to action.  I wonder today if public educators might need a similar call to action.

It appears that almost everyone in the field of public education believes that things are not as they should be.  We are made to take actions for which we have not been funded, trained or prepared.  We are expected to take on ever-expanding roles without the luxury of more time.  We are governed by decisions about which we were not consulted.  Our unsolicited opinions seem to go unnoticed at best and are punished too frequently.  We are shaping the minds and hearts of the next generation and often feel that the rules of engagement are determined by folks who have never undertaken this task a single day or who have forgotten how hard it is do so.

And yet for all our frustration, we seem convinced that our only choices are to put on a brave face or to complain.  I believe that there are better options.

In the past three weeks, I have visited both my state and the federal capital to speak with legislative IMG_0499representatives.  On both occasions, I was privileged to be part of a delegation from the Alabama National Board Certified Teachers Network.  We engaged these men and women on a range of issues from the significant impact to student learning when the teacher is of National Board Certified to the importance of high instructional standards.  In every meeting I was part of, we were well received.  The folks we were speaking to were attentive; they asked thoughtful questions; many responded with enthusiasm; each thanked us for coming and proposed a continued dialogue.  Our voice certainly seemed to be heard.

In spite of the success of these visits, I am under no delusion that we changed the state in one day or the country in two.  It did become clear to me that there was no reason for me to have waited until my fifteenth year in education to make first contact with a state-level elected official in support of education.  I was also convinced that every teacher deserves a voice in this conversation but must claim that right his/herself.

In no particular order, here are five ideas that might help you find your professional voice and claim a spot in the conversation.

Tell a story.  Someone is talking and writing about your school.  Or about your district.  Or about Public Education.  If that someone is not an educator, chances are they aren’t telling the story the way you know it.  Tell the real story yourself.  Share examples of your students’ successes.  You don’t have to be a “prolific blogger” or a tech guru or a master email writer to begin adding your voice to the conversation.  Just tell about the great learning that is happening in your classroom.  Post pictures of great learning to social media.  Get a twitter account for your classroom and let your students promote their own learning.  Ask to post 30 second videos on your school’s website.  When you are in the grocery store, talk about what is right about your school.

Put students first.  Talk to the people who matter (your community, your board, your legislator, etc) about what students are learning and can do.  Higher pay for teachers is important.  Better benefits and more real influence and a lower (or at least not a higher) co-pay are all issues that need to be addressed.  But we did not get into this profession for any of these things.  And talking about them does not capture anyone’s imagination.  Stories about student successes do.  Share them.  Talk about them first and last and lots in-between.

Build relationships. I spoke with ten or fifteen legislators I had never met when I visited our state capital.  My time was well spent.  I am sure, however, that the person who took me most seriously, took the most notes and made the most concrete plans to act on our conversation was my local representative.  You see, we have a relationship.  He has been in our school.  He attended an entire class last period and then spent most of the teacher’s planning period talking to her.  He stayed the next class period talking to me.  We have corresponded by email since then.  I believe his time in my school and our subsequent conversations laid a foundation of credibility for me.  One teacher can make a difference; it will probably take longer than one day.

Invite decision-makers to visit your classroom/school.  Start with your immediate supervisor and work your way up to the governor … or the president.  For the sake of full disclosure, in my experience a whole lot of folks you invite will not come for one reason or another.  Many will.  If you are changing students’ lives, that is something the people who have a say in how you do your job need to see.  Don’t put on dog and pony shows when you do have visitors.  They may not be teachers, but they know when what they are looking at is not a true “day in the life”.  Your story is good enough without artificial bells and whistles anyway!  A visit to your classroom will probably have a bigger influence on a decision-maker’s opinion than 100 phone calls and emails would.

Be brave.  I am the sworn enemy of the status quo.  For clarity, I have a very deep respect for my forbears and for the pantheon of greatness that has gone before me.  I refuse to accept, however, that those champions of Learning and Education believed that success is achieved by remaining the same in perpetuity.  I mean no disrespect to them when I insist that the innovations of their day must stand aside for the solutions that more fully address the challenges my students face.  I urge you to be courageous for the sake of your students.  Challenge tradition when it gets in the way of student learning.  Wade through the educational jargon and make sure that real and deep learning happens in your classroom.  Refuse to be the slave of a 60 question test.  Be always courageous for the sake of student learning.  In case you haven’t noticed, “innovative” and “intractable” are often used to describe the very same practice.  Have the courage to risk the later in the pursuit of the former.

Perhaps “evil” is too strong a word to describe the challenges that Public Education faces.  On the other hand very little is likely to change if good educators like you and like me take no action to protect our students and their learning.  So today, instead of merely pointing out all that is wrong in public education, do something about it.

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Autonomy vs License

Leadership as a one man show is no longer a viable option.  As I have shared before, leading is not seeking to exert control over others, and great leaders expect honest feedback from those around them.  More succinctly, organizational excellence is not possible in the absence of autonomy.

signHow often though is needed change slowed by the misapplication of superior strategies and paradigms?  The importance of making this point has been driven home for me recently as I observe situations in which a leader promotes the importance of autonomy without maintaining a culture of high standards.  If everyone in an organization makes decisions for him/herself outside the context of a shared standard of excellence, the result is often severely disjointed practice – even chaos.  It is the responsibility of every leader to nurture growth in those around him/her.  To do so requires a dissatisfaction with stagnation and a clear vision of what should/could be.  Permitting poor practice in the name of autonomy – or failing to recognize its existence – is doubly irresponsible.  It abdicates the responsibility of leadership and it undermines the very valid principle being misapplied.

To leaders everywhere: hold tightly to the wheel of change.  Do not swerve to one side or the other.  As regards this part of leadership, nurture and listen to and trust the voice of those around you.  Allow others to have a real and significant say in the decisions that impact them.  But combine this practice with a culture of high expectations.  Ask probing questions.  Expect folks to think deeply about their practice and to be prepared to give an answer to anyone who has questions about it.  Establish a shared definition of excellence together and hold each other accountable for holding your practice at that level.

Autonomy; not license.

photo credit: hockadilly via photopin cc

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