Friday, September 30, 2011
Recently, I bought "Watch The Throne," Jay-Z and Kanye West's collaborative album. Since Jay-Z's debut album "Reasonable Doubt," he's undergone a metamorphosis: from a young spitfire to a mature statesman, reigning over the hip-hop community lyrically and industrially. Meanwhile, all 15 of his albums to date have gone platinum. His keen business sense, quiet charisma, and almost imperturbable demeanor have kept his solo career afloat for more than fifteen years.
Jay-Z "broke out" at 25, at about the same age many lifetime educators start our careers. Most of us will never accumulate a net worth of $450 million, but we can meet ambitious goals as teachers. And I think we can learn a great deal from this hip-hop figure:
Jay-Z's debut album was lauded by fans for its texture and complexity. The album analyzed urban life in the 1980s and 90s and incorporated deft and engaging storytelling. It also kept him from reaching a broader base of listeners. So Jay-Z shifted things for his next album—he simplified the language but kept the context deep.
What's the take-away for us as educators? We want all students to fulfill high academic expectations, but we must balance this with the need to meet our students at their level. I often hear educators refer to this as an "either/or" situation—but we can provide the "and." We can speak in language our students will understand without sacrificing the meaning, context, and depth of what we teach.
It's worth noting that Jay-Z was accused of 'selling out' when he simplified the language in which he articulated his experiences. However, ultimately, he reached many more listeners, and his real fans respected his growth. As teachers, we may experience some pushback from peers who are unwilling to meet their students halfway, but if we engage students in meaningful learning, helping them to master critical concepts, we will have done our jobs well.
As in any other subculture, rap aficionados argue about which rapper has produced the most impressive output. Jay-Z has cited Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac as "greats"—and his career is often compared with theirs. The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac met untimely deaths in 1997, so comparisons are limited. But Nas' "Illmatic" is considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Few hip-hop fans believe any of Jay-Z's albums are of the same caliber, yet Jay-Z has released a consistent stream of critically acclaimed albums—while Nas' career hasn't flourished.
As teachers, we cannot expect to perform perfectly for every period of every day of the school year: Such unrealistic hopes can lead only to utter disappointment and early burnout. Unfortunately, perfectionistic tendencies can often be intensified by the pressures of high-stakes accountability systems. That's why we must gird ourselves for the long haul, developing mindsets, skills, and innovations that will enable us to sustain our careers.
Jay-Z has made plenty of mistakes. When he challenged the most prominent MCs in Queens (Nas and Mobb Deep) with his song "Takeover," he fed fans who were hungry for feuds—and initiated an ugly back-and-forth with Nas. In other instances, Jay-Z tried too hard to land in the pop category ("Sunshine"), let others outshine him on his own songs (Eminem in "Renegade"), and responded to haters who only sought to boost their own album sales (Jim Jones). These missteps didn’t end Jay-Z’s career—he learned from them.
All teachers make mistakes. At the end of the day, we have regrets. We didn't listen to a student when we should have. We didn't take advantage of a professional development opportunity. We could have better planned a lesson. None of these mistakes will break us—unless we fail to learn from them and they become patterns in our careers.
First-year teachers, take heed: A terrible day doesn't signal a personal Armageddon. Instead, it's a great opportunity to be thoughtful about regenerating the confidence students have in you. As long as we're willing to get back into the game, the game can become ours.
Jay-Z understands that his professional place in the hip-hop universe is strengthened by diverse, visible collaborations—often with unlikely partners. He's made an album with rock band Linkin Park ("Collision Course") and has lent his voice to the albums of a wide range of artists, from Juvenile and Drake to Lenny Kravitz and Coldplay. He even invited Gwyneth Paltrow to sing the hook to "Song Cry" at a recent London show.
Just as Jay-Z enriches his solo work by collaborating with others, we can enliven our teaching by drawing on the expertise of our peers. Unexpected combinations can be especially productive, encouraging students to see a concept from an alternative perspective. Math teachers can draw upon social studies texts as we teach students to graph on a coordinate plane. Science and language arts teachers can co-create lessons that help students identify and use literary techniques as they read and respond to science texts. But however collaboration looks, its goal should always be to improve students' experiences in our classrooms.
Jay-Z finds ways to use his talents beyond the recording studio. He collaborated with author Dream Hampton to write Decoded. He is an entrepreneur, co-owning the 40/40 Club (an upscale sports bar and lounge with locations in five major cities) and the New Jersey (soon-to-be Brooklyn) Nets. He worked with President Barack Obama on his election efforts and pledged money and time to United Nations' efforts in the continent of Africa. And—even as these efforts move forward—he keeps pushing out rap albums.
Obviously, Jay-Z doesn't worry much about silos. Yes, he's wealthy and has a certain amount of power that may ease the way. But he can still serve as a source of inspiration for teachers who want to push past the silos of our classrooms.
Right now, teachers across the nation are going above and beyond our responsibilities to benefit our students: developing online professional learning communities, fine-tuning our schools' curricula, and connecting students' families to community resources.
What if accomplished educators' jobs could be restructured, enabling us to use and spread our expertise in innovative ways while also keeping one foot in the classroom? To draw on the Jay-Z comparison, what if we could make a greater impact on our world—while continuing to record rap albums?
In Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools … Now and in the Future, I collaborated with 11 classroom teachers and Barnett Berry, founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality, to outline a hopeful vision for the future of education. We wrote about teacherpreneur roles that enable teachers to spend half of their time working with students and the other half solving our schools' most pressing problems. It's not surprising the teacherpreneur idea is gaining traction, thanks to the work of teacher leaders like Vicki Davis (who first coined the term) along with Ariel Sacks and Dave Orphal (who have imagined what teacherpreneurs could accomplish).
But we cannot wait for systemic changes—we must make them happen, cultivating our own policy voices and helping develop blueprints for improving our schools. School structures and policies have inhibited creativity for decades, with no real results for our students. It's time for autonomy and artistry to "trend" in education, much as Jay-Z does on our favorite social networks.
Sometimes we can find the best models in the unlikeliest of places.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Teachers vs. Principals Hurts Students
By Walt Gardner on September 19, 2011
The practice of law in the U.S. is an adversarial system that is widely accepted as being the most effective way of ensuring that justice is done. This is the antithesis of the way educating the young is supposed to be conducted in this country. Nevertheless, the system too often still pits teachers against principals, to the detriment of students.
A case in point was an article in The New York Times on Sept. 16 ("Bronx Science Sees Exodus of Social Studies Teachers"). Eight of the school's 20 social studies teachers chose not to return this year. To put this into context, 26 teachers of about 140 - about 19 percent - did not return. Despite its reputation as one of three elite public high schools in New York City (Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant are the other two), teachers were willing to run the risk of finding positions elsewhere in this uncertain economy. They blamed the administration and, in particular, the principal Valerie Reidy.
The departing teachers pointed to administrators who berated teachers in front of their colleagues, nit-picked their instructional styles, and poorly treated three younger social studies teachers - none of whom were given tenure. Reidy minimized the charges, maintaining that "turnover happens and our job is to make sure that when turnover happens, it's a positive thing for students."
I've written several times before about how abusive principals have the power to poison the atmosphere at the most prestigious schools to the point that even teachers with stellar records request transfers. Specifically, I explained how Lee McCaskill did so at Brooklyn Tech. What I still don't understand, however, is where the teachers union was when these abuses took place. It is precisely these incidents that warranted intervention by the union.
On the same day that The New York Times published the story, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed with the apt headline "Moving beyond 'blame the teacher.' " The takeaway was that the system of management bears the overwhelming blame for the failures of schools. Teachers and principals are supposed to be partners - not adversaries - in educating students. "In reality, schools are collaborative, not individual, enterprises, so teaching quality and school performance depend above all on whether the institutional systems support teachers' efforts."
What transpired in Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science is clear evidence that we have a long way to go to achieve that goal. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all if further examples surface this year because teachers unions have been weakened at the same time that principals have been given greater power to run "their" schools as they see fit. It's a prescription that will harm students.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Monday, September 26, 2011
Sunday, September 25, 2011
An Education Week blog entry about the MOST important news article on education in The Washington Post this week!
Obama Administration Sets Rules for NCLB Waivers
By Alyson Klein on September 22, 2011 5:34 PM
The Obama administration on Thursday afternoon said it will waive the cornerstone requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, including the 2014 deadline that all students be proficient in math and language arts, and will give states the freedom to set their own student-achievement goals, and design their own interventions for failing schools.
In exchange for this flexibility, the administration will require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, focus on 15 percent of their most-troubled schools, and create guidelines for teacher evaluations based in part on student performance.
"The purpose is not to give a ... reprieve from accountability. But rather to unleash innovation," a senior administration official said in a media briefing on the long-awaited NCLB waiver guidelines. "We remain absolutely committed to accountability. We're not interested in giving flexibility for business as usual."
States that are most ready to apply for the waivers can file by mid-November, with the first round of waivers to be issued early next year. A second round of waiver requests will be accepted in January. That means states could, also for 2011-12, reset the bar for what is considered acceptable growth on test scores. Schools and districts may not feel the effects of the regulatory relief, however, until the 2012-13 school year, when such provisions of the law as the need to set aside funds for free tutoring and school choice will be waived.
The waiver package will—just as in the administration's blueprint for renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—require states to implement aggressive interventions in the lowest 5 percent of schools. This won't be a big change for states because they're already operating under the School Improvement Grant program, in which the U.S. Department of Education has prescribed four models for intervention.
States will also be required to identify another 10 percent of schools that struggle with particularly low graduation rates, low performance for specific subgroups of students (such as those with disabilities), or high achievement gaps.
But under the waiver plan, a sizable portion of schools that may not be performing well—but are not bad enough to fit in that bottom 15 percent—could be left to flounder, some fear.
"It is a reasonable federal framework focused on the right thing. That said, it gives the states a lot of running room that they've been clamoring for. The ball's in their court," Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications of the Education Trust, a Washington organization that advocates on behalf of at-risk students. "Will the states step up and come up with thoughtful supports and interventions for schools are not at the very bottom?"
Currently, as schools fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the key yardstick under the law, they face an escalating set of sanctions, which ranges from requiring schools to provide tutoring and school choice to restructuring a school. The waiver package would free up about $1 billion in Title I money that schools have been required to hold back to provide tutoring and choice.
In some ways, the waiver plan is less prescriptive than the administration's ESEA blueprint, or its Race to the Top education improvement initiative, Race to the Top, in particular, encouraged states to expand charter schools, adopt common tests, and link student data to teacher evaluations, including decisions on pay and tenure.
The language in the waiver plan on educator effectiveness appears essentially the same as the blueprint. States would have to come up with at least three different categories in their evaluation systems. Student growth would have to be a significant factor in judging teacher effectiveness. Districts would have to ensure those evaluations provide "clear feedback" to teachers and inform personnel decisions,
It's unclear what those personnel decisions would entail, or how forceful those guidelines would be, although a senior administration official said that for a district to participate in the NCLB waivers, officials would have to "do their part" to live up to the state's guidelines.
The waiver plan also appears to back off on a specific deadline for bringing all students to proficiency, a key facet of the current law. The blueprint would also have called for states to set a goal of having all students be proficient on state tests by 2020, as opposed to the 2013-14 school year in current law. But the waiver plan doesn't set a particular end date. Instead, states would still disaggregate data and set performance targets for every school and every student subgroup, and then set "ambitious but achieveable goals". They could set goals, for instance, to cut the achievement gap in half in six years.
The waiver plan also offers no incentive for states to stick with the department's $360 million effort to support common tests. But, being a member of one of two consortia of states working on common tests will certainly make the waiver process easier. States will generally have to adopt a next generation of tests that meet certain criteria to qualify for the waiver.
Reaction from Capitol Hill was divided along partisan lines:
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.—who had called Secretary Duncan President Obama's best cabinet pick—gave a speech on the Senate floor Thursday urging the department not to grant conditional waivers, but to instead allow states to submit their best plans. The department would then decide if those plans move the needle on student achievement.
Alexander said the department "has states over a barrel" and should refrain from acting "like a national school board. ... We shouldn't create a situation where every governor has to come to Washington to get a waiver from standards that don't work anymore. That's [Congress'] job."
Alexander has introduced legislation that would clarify the secretary's waiver authority to reflect that the secretary does not have the right to put forth conditional waivers.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has also called into question the secretary's authority to issue waivers. He called the plan "a political move that could have a damaging impact on congressional efforts" to renew the law.
"While I appreciate some of the policies outlined in the secretary's waivers plan, I simply cannot support a process that grants the secretary of education sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers," Rep. Kline said. "This sets a dangerous precedent, and every single American should be extremely wary."
But Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that while he would have preferred a comprehensive ESEA reauthorization to waivers, he supports the administration's decision to go ahead with the plan.
The NCLB law has become outdated, he said.
"It's become clear that many states and districts are heading off in different directions," Mr. Miller said. "They are essentially outrunning the ability of NCLB to provide them a path forward. ... Waivers [are a way] to make sure that we continue the tenets of NCLB to provide high standards, provide accountability, make sure we meet the civil rights demands of the law."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said he is continuing to work with the committee's top Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, on a bipartisan reauthorization bill. He'd much prefer a full-fledged renewal of the law to waivers, he said.
But he added, "Legislating is very difficult in this Congress, as we've seen time and time again, and local schools are crying out for relief from the most onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind. I certainly understand President Obama's decision to proceed with a waiver package to provide some interim relief while Congress finishes its work, and am pleased that he is requiring states to show real commitment to reform in order to receive a waiver.