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Racing to what and where?

impatientThe last ten years of my life have been spent married to a wonderful school teacher. I think it’s safe to say we have a good marriage. A big part of that is because I’ve observed her behavior and made adjustments to mine. For example, my wife does not like to be rushed. We will be getting ready to go and things will be taking a little longer than I’d like, and suddenly I’ll get the urge to apply some stimulus to get her to pick up the pace. But this is an urge that needs to be resisted at all costs.

You see, a number of things happen when I try to up the sense of urgency. First of all, I am sending a message that she is incapable of realizing that we are about to run late. That assumption irritates her, and now she is trying to get out the door in an irritable state. Now that she’s distracted, things get either half-done or forgotten, which leads to further irritation and the need to back track. That means the car ride to the function is unpleasant and precious time at the function is lost while my wife attempts to shed her irritation. In short, we may get to the party relatively on time, but there is little reward for it.

I have learned that once I supply the goal and its importance, I just need to get out of the way. I need to trust in her abilities to be on time. If she’s running late because she is trying to multi-task, I can step and up do some of those tasks so she can focus on getting ready. I can also make sure that I’m not standing around acting impatient and serving as more of a distraction than an expeditor. Experience has taught me that this leads to a much more pleasant ride to the party and valuable time at the party is not lost. It’s better to make sure we arrive then it is to focus on being on time.

Last week, I went to a taping of an upcoming public television special on school choice. Midway through the taping, an administrator at a local charter school stood up and emphatically stated repeatedly that her children do not have time. They cannot wait. Every second is vital. Time not spent learning is time wasted. That’s when it hit me. We are treating our children, and our schools like I used to treat my wife. We are demanding so much urgency that they can’t possibly keep up, and then we act surprised when they fall behind. Our schools have become like that spouse standing in the doorway tapping impatiently on his or her watch.

Studies have shown that we are currently testing our kids an average of 24 to 30 hours a year, and that number is growing. This does two things: it takes away from instructional time, and it also sets a strict deadline for learning that must be adhered to. We like to say “One size doesn’t fit all,” yet we structure our testing in a manner that all children have to learn at the same pace. Proponents say it holds teachers accountable and raises expectations, but if it leaves no time for meeting those expectations, is that effective?

At a recent dinner party, the husband of a school board member and I had a conversation about learning styles. My son is potentially a kinesthetic learner, as his father is, and I was getting some insight into different techniques. It was a fascinating conversation, and I wonder if teachers even get the opportunity to assess children’s different learning styles these days because they are so buried with testing or if not testing, test prep. Experienced teachers have had a lot of training in how to teach a diverse group of students, but because of all the assessing and data monitoring they are forced to do, they don’t have time to spend on what would really help their students. But currently we are more focused on accountability than we are on really helping students.

The accountability piece always baffles me. It sets the assumption that teachers and students need outside influence in order for them to be efficient. Little hubris there, no? I especially like when high school dropouts start preaching about setting expectations and billionaires chime in with their insight despite having zero experience. Learning is a natural state for children, and, if nurtured, will blossom into a life of learning. However, like my wife at a party after she’s been rushed, make the process unpleasant and that desire will be muted.

The other side of that is that somehow the narrative has gotten out that there is a large segment of the teaching profession who actually has no desire to teach kids. Apparently, if left to their own devices, these teachers would do nothing but plant kids in a corner and eat bon bons all day. Unfortunately for those who wish to perpetrate that narrative, it doesn’t jibe with my observations. Sure there are bad teachers, just like there are bad plumbers, bad journalists, even… gasp … bad professional football players, but the vast majority are dedicated professionals who refer to teaching as more of a calling than a career choice. So-called bad teachers also tend to recognize their own failings, and if they find their skills lacking, either get better or are naturally weeded out. Trust me, 45k ain’t enough to cover the stress and scrutiny of being a teacher if you aren’t committed.

Furthermore since we’ve never fully funded our education system nor allowed teacher to fully utilize their acquired skills, are they truly bad teachers or just poorly supported. Teachers are measured in large part by students performance on standard test despite the wealth of data that shows the correlation between poverty and test scores. In fact, schools that score the highest tend to invest the most. But we only like data that tells the narrative that reinforces what we want to believe, so it’s back to the bad teacher narrative.

I like to say there are accountability systems and “get things done” systems. Accountability systems are all about making sure we know who to blame. They measure not so much to see what we are accomplishing, but more to see where things fall short and who is at fault for it. A “get things done” system focuses more on accomplishments. It creates a culture of we-are-all-in-this-together, and if we fall short, we are all responsible for fixing it together.

Currently, we are operating under an accountability system, and it’s going to cost us. In fact it already is, the current teacher shortage can be directly attributed to our reliance on an accountability system. We’ve been so busy trying to weed out the “bad” teachers, that we’ve failed to create an environment where the “good” teachers can thrive and so they are leaving as well. We need to shift to an accomplishment system and allow the ones who’ve made this their life’s goal to move to the front of the line instead of expecting them to just follow dictates from those who’ve never stood in front of a classroom or just borrowed that space as a resume builder. In the name of accountability, we are failing to utilize our most precious resource, and for those who like to compare schools to businesses, that’s a poor business practice.

Our increased testing is tying the hands of the very people who are capable of increasing accomplishment. How can teachers possibly focus on teaching when an endless supply of tests, spreadsheets, and data entries are demanded? Take a music course, and you will learn that part of the secret to playing music is learning to find the spaces between notes and letting them breathe. Currently, we aren’t allowing our students or teachers to find that space, let alone breathe. That needs to change.

I find myself wondering, where are we in such a hurry to go? Is there only a finite amount of time people are capable of learning? In architecture, they often talk about the importance of making sure to take time to ensure that you get the foundation right. Shouldn’t the same hold true for education? If tests are so overlapped together, are we even sure that we are getting accurate results? Do teachers have time to make sure students fully grasp concepts before moving on, or do we just make sure kids can pass tests? Again, we need to put trust in those who interact with children daily and trust in their monitoring of student progress. After all, we hire them for a reason, right?

People focus on the individual child when it comes to schooling, and there is merit in that. However, we can’t lose sight of the impact our public education system has on society as a whole. Turning out a whole generation that equates learning with testing is going to impact how that society looks. Making the teaching profession one populated by employees from a temporary agency is going to have an impact. We need to ask ourselves, are our actions not only improving the child, but are they also improving our society?

My daughter is in first grade, and we read to each other every night. Last night she started reading Llama Llama and the Bully Goat to her brother and me. I was quite pleased with her reading, but every couple of sentences she would stop and question her brother about what she’d just read. I quickly became annoyed and told her to “just read the story.” She replied, “I’m just trying to make it interesting for Peter, Daddy.” It made me pause and think, when did reading stop being about getting lost in the story and making your own interpretations and all about grasping the intent. In essence, when did the magical become the pedestrian and the joyful the practical?

We need to make sure that children master the skills necessary to get to the “party” but we shouldn’t rush them and make the preparation so painful that they can’t enjoy the ride there or themselves when they arrive. Maybe it’s time we start observing our children’s behavior and started adjusting ours. After all, as a wise man once said, “Education isn’t preparation for life, it’s life itself.”

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The Great Data Chase

RunnerOver the last several years, I have made the transition from non-runner to runner. My monthly totals these days vary from 50 miles, during less inspired times, to 100 miles, when I’m really feeling it. When I first started running, I began using Nike’s running app to measure my distance and to give me a sense of progress. Like everybody else I thought it’d be good to know how far and how fast I was going. But a funny thing has happened.

You see, it started with a simple app that measured time and distance and kept a running total for a benchmark. But then it progressed to enough of a dependency to justify getting a top-of-the-line Garmin race watch because, well, dependence on data requires more data. Where I once was only concerned with how far and how fast I ran, I am now measuring footfalls, cadence, and several other categories that a) I don’t know exactly what they mean, and b) I wouldn’t know how to change them even if I knew what they meant. I imagine that my running has gotten better over the years, but I attribute that to running more and trying to eat better, not measuring my cadence and footfalls. My sense of accomplishment has certainly not grown; in fact, I’ve noticed a weird phenomenon.

If I head out on a run and one of my measurement tools isn’t working, I’ll either quit the run or proceed without the measurement. The weird part is, that if I continue the run sans measurement, it’s almost like it didn’t happen. I’m going the same distance. I’m burning the same miles, but for some reason it doesn’t feel real. When I look at the data for the month, those runs cease to exist and any progress I might have made is discounted. When I compare my results to friends I “compete” against, it almost feels like I’m lying about those results.

I’ve also found that there is a loss of why I started running. It originally was for the sense of accomplishment and my overall health, both mental and physical. There is no chance that I will ever qualify for the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t reap benefits from my 9:36 mile pace or even a 3-mile run. Do you know that sometimes I will pass up a run because I can only run 3 miles, and, well, that doesn’t add enough to my monthly totals? It’s impossible to measure the effect a run has on my mental state, so that becomes a secondary reason for the undertaking. These are all symptoms of data addiction.

Data addiction is a phenomenon that is not isolated to just running, and actually over the last several years has permeated our whole society. It rears its heads in the weirdest places. For example, I remember when I was managing a nightclub in the early 1990s, and we got a breathalyzer machine installed. We would spend hours after closing trying to see how high we could get the machine to register. The machine would measure something that was previously immeasurable, and we pursued those results relentlessly. In essence, the pursuit of data was altering our behavior. And that’s what is happening in our schools.

We started out measuring a few key indicators, and then we became addicted. We got some useful information from a few measurements, and then we decided that anything we could measure was worthwhile. We started increasing our testing to the point where teachers were doing as much measuring as instructing. When we cited things that couldn’t be measured as evidence that our schools were good, it felt like lying, so we stopped doing it. We gave lip service to the notion that art, music, and industrial skills are important, but our actions said otherwise.

It’s funny, addicts behave the same no matter what they are addicted to. It starts with a little pleasure, and then quickly becomes all-encompassing. It leads to lying about the copious amounts of consumption and the true intentions. Quiz any official and they will blame all the testing in schools on someone else. The state blames it on the district, while the district blames the school, and then the school eventually lays the blame at the feet of the state. It’s a never-ending cycle in which no one is truly honest. Think I am stretching things? Talk to a few parents. They seem to have a better handle on the effects of this increased zeal for data then so-called experts.

We also say that standardized tests are for the good of the child and that we are preventing minority children from slipping through the cracks, the opposite is actually true, but I ask you, how many people have cited that one test back in 7th grade that opened the door to learning for them? Until they took that test they were lost in the wilderness, but that test inspired them to greatness. Now substitute test with book or mathematical concept, and I bet you get a different answer. By putting emphasis on learning for the measurable we are actually restricting people’s potential. Like when I fail to take a 3-mile run because it doesn’t add significantly to my monthly totals, similarly, students will potentially fail to partake in opportunities to learn because it will produce no measurable results.

Data addiction also leads to putting undue pressure on suppliers. Let’s face it, that is what we are turning our teachers into, data suppliers. Our teachers are under a constant barrage to deliver more data. They are losing valuable time and sanity trying to meet the ever-increasing need. They are in an endless churn to produce more data under the threat that if they don’t, we will replace them with people who can, though we never mention a viable source for these replacements. Perhaps there is a teacher orchard producing an overabundance of quality teachers willing to work for decreasing pay and autonomy that I am unaware of.

Our thirst for more that is measurable has reduced the art of teaching into that of a producer. We’ve lost sight that teaching children is more than just about instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Think about the teachers who had a profound effect on you and your growth. Do you remember them because in fifth grade they had you reading on a seventh grade level, or is it deeper than that? Is it because you felt that they cared for you and were truly vested in helping you understand your place in the world?

My friend JC  told me a story the other day about a friend of his growing up who lost a parent while in the 7th grade. The only reason this friend was able to make it through that school year was because a teacher provided him with comfort and guidance. That’s the stuff that doesn’t show up on a standardized test, but does make a real impact on a child’s life. We like to say it’s all about the kids, but as JC observed, these days we have our teachers under so much pressure to produce and so busy being accountable that they don’t even have time to express care and love for a child. That’s just wrong. Teachers are so much more then just data generators.

Which begs the following question: If we are trying to instill a love of learning in children, how can we do that in a facility that is joyless? How can we expect teachers to convey the wonder of learning when they are miserable because we have demanded so much from them? Child psychologists have long preached that stress in the home produces negative effects. Why do we not think the introduction of ever-increasing rigor in classrooms would produce similar effects?

I never like to go for a run when I have less then an hour. The stress of making sure that I get done in time robs me of the pleasure of the run. There is no time to explore alternate routes or rest if I’m not as strong that day as other days. On those days the negative consequence end up undercutting the positive. It’s the same thing that happens in our school. The relentless drive to produce results undercuts the joy in learning that is needed to create life long learners.

It’s even worse in our high poverty/high English learner schools. The pressure is even higher here because they are dealing with children who are coming to the table challenged. It’s like this: If I was coaching a football team, would I have more success if the kids entering my program had been on a high-protein diet and lifting weights for the last five years, or with the kids who’ve been undernourished and never seen the inside of a weight room? Which team would I want to coach if my family’s livelihood depended on just wins and losses? If a caller to a sports radio show can grasp these concepts, why can’t our education policy makers?

Yet we fail to acknowledge these basic concepts, and instead we drive our teachers so hard to produce that few last longer than five years. We replace those who leave with even more inexperienced teachers in facilities that are inadequate at best. We communicate to teachers and principals a sense of urgency yet fail to apply that same sense of urgency to ensuring that technological and staffing resources are provided. The result is the creation of the most unstable environments for those who require the most stability. All in the pursuit of more data and a false sense of accountability. I say false sense of accountability because our data chase has produced no evidence of success, as this chart show.

The first step to fixing a problem is admitting that you have a problem. It’s like me with my running. I’ve started leaving the watch at home every once in a while. I occasionally just run for how it makes me feel. Unbelievably, those miles still count. I still burn the same amount of calories. Truth is, I actually feel a little better. I notice more and more, my mind actually constructs ideas while I’m running and I’m able to think critically because I’m not tethered to just chalking up data. That doesn’t mean I’ve thrown away my Garmin and Nike + app, I just try to be a little more discerning with their usage. I can’t help but think the same would apply to our schools if we just slowed down the data churn.

It’s time to recognize that all children have different challenges and skill sets. It’s time to recognize the importance of culture and the environment upon a child’s growth. It’s time to remember that teaching is an art form as well as a skill set and that even a teacher who is perceived as average can have a profound effect on a child’s life. We also need to remember that the child of today is the adult of tomorrow. Leaving the world a better place than how we found it used to be as important as being a high achiever. I personally believe that still rings true.