Speaking from Experience: Top-Down Initiatives

Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PM

This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

During my 20+ years of teaching, I have been required to implement more initiatives that I can count. Most of these have been based on research that has shown that “good schools do ___” or “good teachers do ___” or “high achieving students do ___”. In short, they are based on the “what works” mentality. Researchers gather evidence that correlate a certain set of actions with a certain set of positive school qualities. Then, a school system, state, or even entire country decides to implement this action in a broad stroke. Many of these may have begun as good ideas, but eventually almost all top-down initiatives have had limited success because of poor implementation.Read More »


Speaking from Experience: A Series

Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PMData-driven decision making has been all the rage in education for the past few decades, but, as Larry Cuban points out here, there is little evidence that this trend has led to any better outcomes for American schools than teacher decision making. While documentaries, media attacks, and political rants continue to assert that we teachers are incompetent and apathetic, and that years of working in classrooms makes us even more so, we now have growing evidence that, in fact, teachers with classroom experience do make a difference for our students.

Lately I’ve been reading more writers who even suggest that experienced teachers might know more about what helps students learn than multi-billionaire businessmen like Bill Gates and the Koch brothers, or basketball players like Arne Duncan. We teachers may have some ideas about why the panels of “experts” who write standards and tests, lead conferences, and design evidence-based curricula haven’t been able to make lasting and meaningful improvements in our schools. Maybe we should begin to listen to experienced teachers.

But, they lament, it’s hard to find classroom teachers doing more than complaining, making excuses, or following self-interest. There are some writers, like David Greene, who share their many years of classroom experience with us. But no one of us can speak for all teachers, since we are all different people working in different settings, with different students, and teaching different content. We need to hear from a broad spectrum of teachers.

So, this begins a series from my perspective as a classroom special education teacher. I’ve taught in public school classrooms for 18 years now, with an additional three years teaching in a private non-profit classroom and few others as a classroom consultant, among other education-related jobs. I’ve seen trends come and go. I’ve seen successes and failures. I’ve seen the repackaging of the same and the promotion of the ridiculous.  I constantly read about education, think about solutions, try out new possibilities in my classroom, and pick and choose the successful pieces to add to my teaching repertoire. And despite all this, I still face each day feeling that I have so much more to learn if I am ever to do my job effectively.

In this series, I will share observations about the general trends I’ve seen in education over the years. It will be my narrow view from where I have been teaching.  I won’t share “what works”, but rather, what has worked for me at which times, with which students, and in which settings, and why I think some other efforts may not have worked so well.

Compassion: A disjointed story without beginning, middle or end and no clear protagonist

Read more about today’s 1000 voices blogging for compassion at http://1000speak.wordpress.com/about/

This post is part of the 1000 Voices for Compassion project. You can read more posts here.

Louis presented each of my two children with a giant (and I mean really giant) teddy bear when they were born. Many gifts followed over the years, including influential birthday gifts like portable CD players with classic R&B CD’s, and even their first cell phones. There were also many small, spontaneous gifts like drawings and re-gifted trinkets, given to Louis by charitable groups but more appropriate for my young children. Community mental health workers were surprised and often suspicious about his interest in my kids. They saw him as a large, black man who was chronically mentally ill and prone to violent outbursts that landed him in restraints and required mega-shots of Thorazine to keep him under control – not the sweet voice calling to ask about “those babies”, or the gentle man who could barely bring himself to pat the children’s heads when we got together.

My mother, Sissy, is 5’2” and dainty, a lawyer who watches Fox News and insists that it’s quality reporting. Almost every morning for about 30 years, until he died this past summer, she received a call from Louis that would begin with a mundane report of how well he had slept and how his bowels were moving, but too often segue into a bombshell report about the latest upheaval in his life. Many times he had landed back in the state psychiatric hospital but was being transferred into a group home, losing his most recent apartment and all the furniture that he and Sissy had bought and moved in during his last change of residence. Other times it was a report of his being kicked out of a group home and all his belongings being stolen, and his sleeping at the mission, or worse. Sometimes it was a tale of being arrested. Once he had been released from the hospital to a shelter, during winter, with only a pair of house shoes on his feet. During later years, it was reports of heart attacks and hospitalizations for chronic heart disease.

He usually asked her for something simple – some chicken, because he was hungry, or help getting money from his account so he could buy toilet paper and soap. The rest of Sissy’s day, between depositions and court filings, was spent buying new shoes, bringing food, calling mental health case workers, or driving Louis to the bank to withdraw his money. She often helped him gain access to his money since he was deemed incompetent to manage his own finances. Louis was like her part time job, without pay, for almost 30 years. Yes, really. 30 years.

Rewind those 30 years, to the time when my sister, who I have written a bit about here, was sent to the state psychiatric hospital after our family health insurance ran out. She was frail and young, helpless from the severity of her illness and the chemical straightjacket she had been prescribed. This was the 1980’s, when psychiatric institutions were undergoing reorganization, poorly funded and understaffed – dangerous places for disoriented young women.  This is where she first met Louis, who protected her, like a part time job, without pay, until events outside his control took her.

And so I know that compassion is all around us, often unexpected and unrecognized, but sometimes contagious.

The Pace of School

The most popular blog post I’ve ever written is one called “Schedules and Timetables”. I wrote it about a year and half ago, and it continues to get hits almost every day. I don’t really know why. I certainly don’t consider it my best work. It’s a pretty straightforward comparison of the American public school schedule of an 11th grade, university-bound friend with my daughter Anna’s British sixth form timetable for Year 12 (equivalent to US 11th grade). The difference between the two is in the pace. The British timetable left free periods between classes, light days that balanced the busy days, and opportunities to meet with teachers to get help when needed.

Anna is now settled into US public high school after spending last year in a British sixth form and her previous 10 school years homeschooling. A look at that “Schedules and Timetables” post reminds me that current discussions of school reform are ignoring one of most central problems.

The pace is simply frantic. Since she started US public school, Anna doesn’t get enough sleep at night. She wakes up each morning early, hurries out the door and runs through her hectic schedule…a dash to class to sit 47 minutes…think…write…work, then, at the bell, dash to the next, switching off thoughts of the previous 47 minutes to sit…think…write…work about a completely different topic.. again and again for seven different subjects each day.

When the final bell rings, she dashes off again to her various after-school activities. She has had to drop her involvement with our beloved community theater and most of her work hours because there is simply not enough time. She no longer reads for pleasure because there are so many assigned readings. But there are still dance classes, Quiz Bowl team, Girls Scouts, and more. By the time she gets home, she eats a quick meal and starts on the homework. Her weekends are filled with more homework, exercise to counteract the hours of sitting all week, part-time work, and precious time with friends.

An old yogi of mine used to say, “It is in the periods of rest that we absorb the benefit of our activity.” That doesn’t only apply to physical exercise. Without time between classes, I see that Anna doesn’t retain as much knowledge this year as she has in her previous years of schooling. It seems that the more school work she has, the less she really learns.

I also see the toll it’s taking on her physically in her eyes, her hair, and her skin. It takes a toll on her emotions as well. Sometimes she weeps for no reason, or no reason she can name. Sometimes she snaps.

Grant Wiggins’ blog recently highlighted the issue of the pace of school when he featured a report from a teacher who spent a day shadowing high school students. As a follow-up, Pernille Ripp is asking students to share pictures of their school day on February 5th, with the hashtag #studentlife, to show teachers what a student’s day is really like. I hope efforts like these will start a discussion of ways we can address the problem of our harried pace.

Why So Many Teachers Homeschool Their Own Children

People may think it’s simply because we can. We are, after all, confident teaching children. But really, there’s another reason:


We’re dreamers.

We may obediently teach the state prescribed curriculum and follow the directives of our administration, but we are secretly thinking “what if…”:

  • What if I could slow down and fully teach the content that really matters – to mastery this time?
  • What if  I could throw away the bribes and threats to make these kids read and write and think, and instead just share the joy of learning with them?
  • What if I had time to really listen and learn how well my students understand this stuff, so I don’t waste their precious time with material that’s too easy or too hard?
  • What if I could create a learning environment that was relaxed and supportive, while still expansive and challenging?

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And we realize that, at least with our own children, we can.

But we’d like to do the same with yours … if only we could.

Power Struggles

It seems that every conversation I’ve been involved with online lately boils down to a common theme of power. First, it was a British blog that described a school-wide behavior plan to achieve “impeccable behavior.” Another time it was a twitter exchange with a middle school principal who kept asking why his teachers abandoned his reforms so quickly and seemed confused when I asked whether his teachers had been involved with the decisions or suggested that his research-based directives might not work in his school, with his teachers and students? Then there was a passionate exchange about a video (which has since been deleted from Vimeo) which showed a young teacher from one of the Uncommon Schools demonstrating classroom management techniques that looked a lot like a puppeteer controlling a team of marionettes, which led to blog posts by those for and against.

Why do I bother? I’m 48 years old. Too old to still fight the power. I should have accepted that the world works by each tier holding power over the one below. We, teachers, hold power over our students. School administrators hold power over teachers. Politicians hold power over school administration. Billionaires hold power over politicians. That is how it is, and how it shall be for time everlasting.

Haven’t I matured enough by now to quit trying to empower students to take responsibility for their own education? It is, after all, the pursuit of short term increases on standardized tests that define student achievement, not the growth of young people into capable and curious intellectuals.

My job is to carefully orchestrate my classroom so that I exert power and control over all aspects of my students’ behavior and make my classroom run like a practiced championship game or performance. Then my administrative observers will see this performance and reward me with outstanding marks on my teacher observations. I can close the door of my classroom, knowing that I am officially approved by the powers above. This is the end I should pursue. I should not expect administrators to reply to my emails, listen to my ideas, or ask my opinion about changes that directly affect my program. This is not my place in the world. I am a teacher. Just a teacher.

It’s time I grow up, away from that punk rocker who wanted to change the world. I should be happy to have a job that earns slightly above the standard of a living wage. I should be happy to have powerful administrators who make the difficult decisions. I should be happy to have the ultra-rich paying for their vision of reform in my school and community. My students should be happy that the world has taught them their place at a young age. Perhaps they won’t waste their years trying to fight the power.

Another shot at American schools, and another “solution”.

I recently read the same article that this blog addresses, and started writing a response that is so similar to this one, I laughed aloud when I stumbled on this, and decided to reblog rather than finish my piece, since this one says it better than I could have.

The Coal Mine

I have seen many articles decrying the way education is delivered in America, for example this one by David Edwards, entitled,

American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist

Edwards starts off by asking, “Are Americans getting dumber?” He laments the decline in math, reading, and literacy skills in America compared to other countries, and identifies an education “crisis”.

Then he goes on to imply that the traditional school model separates learning from doing. And from here he offers a solution: “Maker” workshops.

Maker workshops are all-day workshops in which a class identifies a large societal issue (for example, difficulties that might be face by an aging population). The class is then into small groups which collaboratively tackle a specific problem related to the overall issue (perhaps the problem of lifting heavy pots on a stove), and then seeks to invent a device that will address the problem. The group is given a kit with which to…

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In Praise of Southern Boys

A scene from our school parking lot during our annual Agricultural Day celebration

Huffington Post published an article entitled “This is Why 12% of High School Graduates Don’t Go to College” that reports findings from the Center for Public Education’s “The Path Least Taken” report. Here’s how it opens:

“By the age of 26, just 12 percent of high school graduates have failed to enroll in a two or four-year college. Of this 12 percent, many are male, from the South and tend to come from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, according to a new analysis from the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Center for Public Education.”

The article concludes, as most of these reports do, with an assumption that the findings reflect a flaw that experts should begin fixing immediately. Specifically, that we should begin a careful analysis of why the 12% don’t apply to college and encourage these Southern boys to choose the pathways we university-educated experts think they should be following – toward “more rigorous coursework” and guidance into college.

While the reporting of these statistics carries the obligatory alarmist tone, the numbers don’t seem that concerning to me, since Georgetown’s Recovery 2020 reports that 36% of jobs in the year 2020 will not require an education beyond high school. Who do we think will fill these job openings if we convince everyone to complete post-secondary training?

I think we should be more concerned about the millions of university graduates now holding jobs that require no degree. The report lists the top reason the Southern boys who didn’t enroll reported as “can’t afford to go to college.” Sounds like some of those who don’t enroll might just have more financial sense than many who do.

Tennessee is embarking on an exciting new initiative, called Tennessee Promise, that offers two years of free community college or technical school for all Tennessee high school graduates. I think the number of Tennesseans who go on to get technical certificates and associates degrees will skyrocket under the new plan. (Note that the the “Path Least Taken” report did not count young people who attained occupational certificates as college-enrollees, so these students will still count in the 12%) Still, I regularly speak with students who simply don’t want to attend college, and often for reasons I find hard not to respect. I met with a student last week who told me his goal for the future was “to do hard work, outdoors” because that was when he felt most happy and knew he was doing a good job.

“The Path Least Taken” finds concern that 67% of those who didn’t attend college had entered high school believing that they would go on to college. But while in high school, they took fewer academic courses, spent less time on homework and performed poorly on standardized tests. Those of us in high schools know that there are many young students who say they want to go to college simply to placate the educators and administrators who, in today’s pressure-cooker school accountability environment, press all students to pursue a college education and present it as the only pathway to success. Many students change their goals once they experience “rigorous coursework” that doesn’t mesh with their personal values or lead to learning they find meaningful.

Now don’t get me wrong. We have plenty of Southern boys who go on to earn university degrees, and even had boys from our high school enter prestigious colleges like Princeton and Vassar this year. The South has strong intellectual tradition, evidenced by writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and scientists like George Washington Carver. But even among these intellectuals, our Southern values tend to run close to the land, practical, and level-headed. Not everyone agrees that higher education will always help us reach our goals.

Instead of expending energy trying to force all of our boys to value higher education, maybe we could respect more of the admirable cultural values that many of the rural Southern boys express to me in our goal setting sessions. I regularly talk with young men who report that they want to spend their lives working in fields that offer opportunities like:

  • hard, physical labor
  • work close to nature
  • a chance to make or fix practical, high quality goods
  • work settings close to family and community

If our vision for the 21st Century doesn’t value these qualities, I don’t know if I want to be a part of it any more than the Southern boys I teach do. And if the Center for Public Education thinks the answer is to press on with more and more rigorous courses rather than expand course offerings to meet the occupational goals my students express, then (with apologies to Lynyrd Skynyrd), I said a man don’t need them around, anyhow.

British Secondary Vocational Settings, in Pictures (mostly)

I’ve been organizing the photos I took of school settings for 16 – 18 year-olds across England last year. I thought they might be interesting for some who have recently asked me about the differences in vocational education here in the U.S. when compared to England.

Students in most European and Asian countries have a choice to leave the academic high school setting at around the age of 16 and attend vocational or technical schools full-time, or take on paid apprenticeships or other work-based training.

The college pictured below had a huge Art, Fashion, & Design program with large workrooms for learning textile design, costume design, garment construction, and fashion.

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Hair and Beauty schools were popular, and well-equipped, throughout many colleges I visited, although many young people chose an apprenticeship route to gain their qualifications in Hair and Beauty as well.

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The setting shown below had an equine studies program:


The large, rural campus also offered training in Animal Care, that could prepare a student for the field of Veterinary Medicine, among other qualifications. It also offered qualifications in Horticulture and Countryside Management. I could imagine many of the students I serve choosing this type of program.


Below, I visited a much smaller vocational setting, but its Automotive program was sponsored by Snap-On Tools, so that students could work toward passing tests to become certified to use specific Snap-On equipment.


The garage was a working business as well, and was offering a special on winterizing vehicles on the day I visited.


Students were required to keep detailed records of vehicle service.IMG_0415

Snap-On provided an array of high-tech diagnostic and repair equipment to the college.


Instructors were industry-certified, with experience in the field.IMG_0423

The college below offered a Building Trades program, with a large workshop for learning plumbing and electrical skills.

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Guest Post: Guidance from the Community College Level

Course Pathways Sample
A sample page from the set of spreadsheets Al describes as “50 course pathway templates: one master for graduation requirements only, then 41 technical program templates, followed by the six transfer and two other community college technical program templates.” He considers these plans as “starting points” to be used in personalized planning.
In my article, “Rethinking High School Pathways” in this month’s Educational Leadership magazine, which the publishers have allowed me to link here without the paywall restriction, I discuss the need to provide alternatives to the one-size-fits-all high school diploma. Personalized guidance counseling is one of the key ingredients for the development of pathways that students can follow to connect their high school level studies to their personal career goals. Too often, high school guidance counselors have little time to do more than ensure students meet minimum, generic high school graduation requirements with a few CTE elective credits thrown in to fill the gaps. I wrote that many of the students I serve need clear pathways to follow into their chosen careers, but that these are often unavailable to those who don’t choose a career requiring a 4 year degree.
Shortly after the article appeared, I received an email from Al Scheider, a community college guidance counselor who has been working to develop individualized pathways that bridge the gap between high school coursework and post-secondary certifications and degrees. I was intrigued by his work, which he described as follows:
“Last year I was hired by our local community college to develop course pathways from every high school in the community college district into every technical program at the college.  I expanded that to also include six types of “transfer pathways” and references to “unique” technical programs at nearby community colleges.”

What if all high school guidance counselors could coordinate with their local community college and technical school guidance counselors to provide clear pathways like this? Even though most of the credits at the high school level must still fulfill broad, generic high school graduation requirements, pathways like this just might clarify the progression enough to keep some of my students motivated to continue.

Pathway to Individualized Focus

submitted by Al Scheider

As an academic adviser for Political Science majors at Illinois State University in 1972-73, the value of one-to-one communication became apparent to me.  During that assignment I also became aware that Political Science majors were in that major for a variety of reasons.  Therefore, I developed seven Poli Sci “career paths”, encouraging particular courses within the department to both “check out” and pursue more specific fields within the political world.

For the next 20 years I worked in a variety of settings.  In a state government agency and a couple of non-profit organizations there were many committee assignments.  From that type of work, I concluded that the bigger the committee, the less effective.  In other words, a two-person committee was much more effective than a seven-person committee.  In my early teaching days, I also learned that disciplinary or academic communications were much more effective when they occurred away from the class (either outside the room or after class).  In all these situations it seemed like the one other person was so much more genuine when not having to impress or “be cool” in front of others.

Finally, in both my training for and experience as a school counselor, the importance and effectiveness of a genuine one-to-one communication has become so apparent to me.  After many years of developing an individualized-focus guidance program, surveys of graduating Seniors exhibited very high rates of satisfaction with that program (over a three-year period, 87% satisfied, 3% unsatisfied).

Twenty-one years after starting to work as a school counselor, I enjoy warm greetings on almost a daily basis from former students and their parents.  I believe that strong positive reaction is attributable to the individualized nature of my program.  Not only did I not assume that any two individuals would follow the same path in school/life, I also tried to meet the diverse needs of each student as best I could.  While the personal needs were too diverse to categorize, some similar academic pathways were developed to give students a starting point to both “check out” and pursue stated career fields of interest.

After years of researching college program requirements, my work culminated in a course pathways project for my local community college.  After studying the curriculum guides for each high school in the community college area, reviewing those guides with the respective school counselors, and consulting with the technical program heads of the college, course pathway spreadsheets were developed for each high school.  Each spreadsheet has 50 templates:  one master for the high school’s graduation requirements, 41 technical program templates leading into AAS/certificate programs at the local community college, two templates for transfer into unique programs at nearby community colleges, and six “academic transfer” templates.  Every student in the area school districts can therefore easily obtain a six-year plan if intending to go to the community college or a 4-by-4 plan if intending a direct-to-university path.  With fifty possible “starting points” for student planning at each school, my basic belief in the unique desires/goals of every student has been at least partially addressed.