Thursday, December 11, 2014

Best-selling YA Author Jay Asher Brings Anti-Bullying Tour to Colorado

Bullying may always be with us - but that doesn't mean we can't try to do something to lessen it. And, that's the approach being taken by best-selling YA author Jay Asher, whose novel Thirteen Reasons Why has engaged millions of teens nationwide with discussions of bullying, harassment, depression, and suicide. In response to the huge outpouring of support for and interest in his novel, Asher has been on a "50 States Against Bullying Tour," sponsored by his publisher, which includes visits to fifty different high schools across the country.  Recently, Asher visited Cherry Creek High School in Colorado and delivered his message of hope and positive behavior to more than a thousand students. Here's my coverage of the event.

The presentation at Cherry Creek was an entertaining event, as Jay Asher is an engaging speaker who can connect with large groups of teens in person as well as with the written word. His speech, which is obviously about a serious and potentially somber matter, is surprisingly light and uplifting as he constantly reinforces to the audience a message of hope. As a speaker, he has an easy-going manner, punctuated with some self-deprecating humor that enables him to deal with a difficult topic in a positive and engaging way. Asher deftly balanced his serious commentary with amusing anecdotes that were both thoughtful and amusing. 

The book and tour have not been without controversy, which isn’t surprising considering the subject. Sadly, Asher noted, “Some communities live in silence” about issues like bullying and depression and suicide because they make people uncomfortable. And that, Asher believes, is a huge mistake. Not talking about serious issues is not the answer for how to deal with them, and his tour is a response to that instinct. In that regard, Asher spoke positively about the opportunity to come speak at Cherry Creek, after noting his book had been banned and challenged in numerous places. In fact, he has even been un-invited from some schools after their communities learned more about the book’s plot. “It’s a testament to your school that I’m speaking to you now,” he told the students. “Your school is telling you that they care about you.” 

Jay believes that ultimately Hannah’s lesson, or message, would be that “I want you to think about how to treat people from now on.” That’s the message he’s sharing with students, and he believes he’s making a difference with young people like the reader who told him after reading the book, “It just makes me want to be wonderful to everyone.” That would be a pretty meaningful legacy.

Ultimately, this event is another important step in educating our youth.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fat Doesn't Make You Fat - And Weight Isn't about Counting Calories

We all know people who can eat what they want and not gain weight. And we know some people seem to put on weight by just looking at dessert. The amount of misinformation about health and weight is as staggering as the number of calories in a Carl's Jr. burger. And until we get some legitimate honesty about weight and the role played by sugar and carbohydrates, we will never begin to get a handle on Americans' expanding waistlines.

The biggest myth in the "obesity crisis" is the idea that "fat" makes people fat. That's been a myth perpetuated on the American public for more than fifty years now. And, interestingly, that fifty years coincides with the greatest increase in American's weight and health problems. The reality seems to be that the low-fat and no-fat craze - initially fueled by the the government and the American Heart Association - is probably the most significant cause of increasing weight problems. That's why "Everything you think you know about fatty foods might be wrong."

The low-fat and zero-calorie hype is directly correlated with weight gain. For, as producers removed fat from foods, they actually increased the sugar. The rise in processed foods with a lot of sugar and empty carbohydrates is the link to weight gain.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Charli XCX Revitalizing Music Industry by Making Music Her Way

The future of the music industry seems to be in the hands of numerous gifted young women who are making music on their terms and setting their own standards for success. Everyone knows the names Taylor Swift and Lourde, but we can add Iggy and Charli to the mix. Notably, British musician, singer, songwriter, Charli XCX is making a name for herself by writing great hit songs, collaborating with others like Iggy Azaela, and occasionally just giving her hit songs away. This week Time Magazine profiles Charlie as the "Riot Girl Hitmaker" who is raging against the pop music machine and improving the music industry in the process. It's just an exciting time to listen to music, especially with a young women who claims to be "very judgmental of the music industry." Charli is innovative and progressive, producing catchy rock anthems like "I Love It" as will as hip-hop tunes like "Fancy" and the pop radio friendly "Boom, Clap." On her most recent album, Sucker, she went for a feisty punk sound, which Time calls "a middle finger covered in Sour Patch dust." That sounds pretty good to me.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Is Education Reform Holding High Achievers Back?

In the push to close the achievement gap and ensure equal access and opportunity to all students, the community that supports advanced learning has legitimate fears that the needs of America's highest achieving students are being ignored. The basic belief around "Gifted & Talented," or advanced learners, is that "they will be all right." However, scholar and educator Charles Finn is not so sure. In fact, he is deeply concerned that the country's highest achieving students are being harmed by the recent attention the Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has put on "access to advanced classes."

Five points deserve attention.

First, in going after practices that separate kids on the basis of achievement, OCR will confound and cripple every educator’s favorite reform du jour, “differentiated instruction.” Because in the real world of middle schools with 200 sixth-graders, differentiation doesn’t mean true individualization. It means various forms of ability grouping.

Second, the U.S. is already having huge trouble paying attention to high achievers (some say “gifted and talented”) when we’re preoccupied with low achievers and dire schools. Anything that discourages such attention is bad for American economic growth and competitiveness, not to mention unfair to kids who are ready, willing, and able to soar but have trouble getting the teacher’s attention. (Disparate impact at the expense of high achievers and smart kids is apparently just fine with OCR.)

Third, some forms of “tracking” are good for poor kids, minority kids, and low achievers seeking a path to upward mobility. If anything, we need more of it in high-poverty schools. As Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution has shown, those are the schools least likely to give their high achievers (who are also poor and minority kids) chances to accelerate and to learn with other high achievers.
At the high school level, “voc ed” has a bad name, and old-style tracking led to a lot of dead ends. But what about high-quality career and technical education for young people who want a good job but don’t necessarily want to go to a conventional college—or who haven’t been educated well enough in the early and middle grades to thrive in an AP classroom? Aren’t they going to get further if they have access to classes designed for them? At the very least, the choice of such classes?

Indeed, if OCR (and the Education Department more broadly) were as interested in giving people school choices as in deciding what’s good for them, I’d be a lot less apprehensive. But they’re not. They’ve been throwing monkey wrenches into all sorts of choice programs and policies because they think they know better where people belong.

Fourth, of course we want to see more minority kids succeed in AP classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, just as we want to see more boys succeed in English and girls in physics. Insofar as the education system is capable of achieving these goals, however, it needs to strive comprehensively from kindergarten (or preschool) onward. Swatting high schools because elementary schools didn’t send them an ethnically balanced collection of kids ready for AP and IB does not accomplish any educationally desirable end.

Fifth, consider the likelihood that OCR’s threats may have the unintended effect of encouraging white and Asian families to decamp (more than they’ve already done) for predominantly white and Asian schools. Then, of course, there won’t be racial gaps in access to educational resources—because kids of other races won’t even be present.

To be sure, schools and communities must take measures to guarantee access and opportunity. However, the push must not come at the cost of slowing schools, classes, and instruction down in order to allow all students to catch up.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jovan Mays - A Conversation on Race

Sometimes it takes the poets, speaking in verse and imagary, to help us truly understand the world around us. To that end, we have some powerful words from Jovan Mays, the Poet Laureate of the city of Aurora, Colorado.

"On these days, we are all Black boys ..."

It's time to stop ... and think.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Colorado Students Refuse State Standardized Tests

The school reform movement ran into a bit of a snag earlier this month in Colorado, at least in terms of its standardized-test emphasis and test-based accountability for schools. As one of the states that adopted Common Core State Standards and aligned with the PARCC testing consortium to assess "readiness" in the areas of math and language arts, Colorado is also in the process of implementing state standardized assessments in science and social studies at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. These assessments are not related to Common Core or PARCC, but are related to Colorado Academic Standards, which cover eleven content areas. These tests, which are being called CMAS - Colorado Measures of Academic Success, gained news earlier in the year when "students performed poorly" on the new assessments. Some argued the low scores were evidence of a need for the "more rigorous" standards, while others argued against the authenticity of the scores for a variety of reasons including decreased prep time and the new style of computerized assessment from Pearson. Thus, the battle over standardized assessments for rating schools, teachers, and students has taken center stage in the Rocky Mountain state.

And, now some parents and students are pushing back.

Thousands of high school seniors refused to participate in the high school version of CMAS, which was scheduled for the fall of senior year and required two days of testing. The movement seems to have snowballed around the state, as word spread about the idea of "opting out." Several education advocacy groups have promoted the idea of parent refusal, arguing that students are "more than a test score" and that they should "choose to refuse." In the progressive town of Boulder, students not only refused to participate, but also staged a protest on one of the coldest days of the year, explaining their reasons for "opting out":

Across the state, the number of parent refusals was highly noticeable. In two of the highest performing schools in the state (and, in fact, in the nation), Fairview High School and Cherry Creek High School, hardly any students took the test, as participation was well below five percent. These numbers weren't matched at most schools, but numerous school districts saw surprisingly low compliance with the state mandated tests. The reality is that parents don't have a legal right to "opt out" of tests, but any parent has a legal right to "refuse participation" for any aspect of their children's education. Thus, parents can refuse to allow their child to read a specific book or attend a required assembly or even to be immunized. And, many students who feel like they have been over-tested for their entire school career are beginning to ask if "standardized tests should still be standard."

With the coming PARCC assessments in the spring, the issue of challenging standardized assessments in public education will continue to generate controversy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Students Need to Hear

What to do about kids who don't achieve in school?

Every school reformer has a general big idea or agenda to fix the problem of struggling schools and struggling students. Is it standards or poverty or teachers or tenure or testing or  what? Occasionally, it seems like they just need a good talking to, explaining the "truth" to them in a way that will shake them out of the slumber that leads to sub-par performance. A pep talk should do it. And, that's the essence of a video making the rounds by English teacher Chase Mielke who as some advice on "What Students Really Need to Hear."

Basically, they need to work harder.

There's been a lot of writing lately about how success for kids is really about grit and perseverence. Paul Tough wrote about it in "How Children Succeed" and Charles Duhigg did in "The Power of Habit." It's what Geoffery Canada promotes with the Harlem Children's Zone. It's really all about character education, and many reformers will argue that truly effective, or great, teachers will be able to get this message through to kids. 

The real sadness is the endless stream of kids who can't find it in themselves or their lives. So, as Chase says, we simply have to be there each day, patiently, helping them develop it.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Joel Klein is Right about Education Reform, Except Where He's Ridiculously Wrong

Joel Klein, who was a lawyer before becoming Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, has some ideas about how to "fix public education." In addition to heading up one of the largest school districts in the country for roughly a decade - a time in which he did little to improve the educational conditions and achievement for the neediest of students - Joel has since become one of the expert voices in the world of "education reform." To that end, he has (big surprise) written a book on "fixing schools" called Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools. And, obviously, his high profile has allowed him the opportunity to promote his book in a huge weekend profile in the Wall Street Journal.

The problem, of course, with Klein's WSJ piece and his book is that he has very little experience with or knowledge of "fixing schools." In fact, I'd venture to say he has never actually "fixed" a school or dramatically impacted the life of a single child. To do that, he would have to be an actual educator with some experience working "in a school." These concepts are foreign to people like Joel Klein, as they are to "edu-reformers" like Bill Gates and Dave Welch. As I've noted before, these men would be far more impressive and credible if they simply focused on fixing "a school" and then continued to devote their vast financial resources to replicating that "achievement." The biggest problem with Klein is in the following statement:

Too many teachers in our big urban school systems are overworked, isolated and bureaucratically oppressed, struggling to educate students who can be exceedingly difficult to reach. As anyone who has stood before a classroom will attest, teaching is a tough job. 
The problem with many education reformers is that Joel Klein has no idea what it's like to have "stood before a classroom" and attempted to "educate students who can be exceedingly difficult to reach." Neither has any of the other edu-reformers. And, in almost perfectly cliched fashion, he cites the "Finland example," as if he's just discovered some gem for education reform that no one has mentioned in the past decade. Clearly, Klein is obtuse to the fact that Finland has about 4% poverty and an elaborate social safety net with a homogenous population. And, he makes no mention of the NYC schools which have social problems that would blow the minds of most Europeans, including schools with 80-90% of kids in poverty and food insecurity and violence in their neighborhoods that Europe hasn't seen since WWII.

Granted, Klein makes some sound assertions about creating teachers who are experts in their field and are pretty high achievers. But he ignores a lack of correlation and causation between Master's degrees for teachers and the achievement in their students. And, he seems clueless that nationwide teachers must undergo regular professional development and graduate level courses to simply retain their teaching licenses. And, he's also right that the teachers who develop "relationships" with students are actually most adept and effective at improving achievement. But that has nothing to do with their high school GPAs or their advanced degrees. It's simply who they are as people. So, once again, we have an in-experienced school leader who has no credentials or record of achievement offering cliched and unproven answers for how to "fix schools."

I'd be more impressed if he just took his money and his backers and stepped up to the front lines and literally showed us how it's done.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Are Charter Schools "Motivating Kids," or just finding "Motivated Kids"

When I first saw the edu-documentary "Waiting for Superman," my first reaction to the stories of waiting lists for kids to get into high performing charter schools was simply, "Let them in." Heck, if a student wants to go to the rigorous, high performing school that offers him a better chance of success than his neigborhood school, then school districts should just let him in and build more schools if the current ones are at capacity. Of course, that is a knee-jerk reaction fueled by the pathos of the "for the children" argument of the movie.

The real issue of "charter schools" as the answer to struggling schools is far more complicated ... and potentially nefarious.

The criticism of the charter movement is that the schools simply "siphon off" the most motivated and high achieving kids, leaving behind the struggling and less motivated ones who will only drag the neighborhood school down more. And there is plenty of evidence for such charter school recruitment and enrollment tactics. Even when charter school supporters explain how they don't or can't "cherry pick" their students, the reality is that the students who enroll in charters must be motivated enough to pursue the opportunity, which means a lot more than just showing up at their neighborhood school each day. And the problem with students enrolling in charters is the movement does nothing to strengthen the struggling schools.

I remember visiting a charter, The Denver School of Science & Technology, with a friend from the business world who was promoting the school. DSST is truly one of the gems and success stories of Denver Public Schools. The problem comes when my friend said, "Isn't this impressive? Imagine if they could just run all schools this way." But it doesn't work that way. And the struggling schools that remain just become fodder for perpetuating the myth of "failing public schools."

Charter schools and education reformers are really only helpful and significant if they can succeed at "motivating students" and not just finding "motivated students."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Corporate Education Reformers Should Partner with, not Attack or Align Against, Educators

It's no secret or surprise that the major "education reform" efforts of the past decade or so are driven by the business world, not parents or educators or politicians or school boards. Driven by "stories" and news of the "decline of public education" and the "failing state" of public schools, people in the business world such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have joined with organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and think tanks like Achieve, Inc to launch nationwide efforts to change the nature of public education. The charter school movement and the Common Core national standards initiative have been born out of buinsess leaders belief that they can "fix public education." They base their hopes and fears on a view of public education based on the dismal nature of America's worst 30% of schools and the reports in the news that American students trail the world on standardized assessments like the PISA exam.

There are, clearly, numerous problems and shortcomings with this point of view. But it is the current reality, and schools must deal with it as such.

Thus, it's refreshing to hear from experienced educators and school administrators who can take a critical eye to both public education and the corporate-led reform movement. That is the feeling I got from reading the commentary "How Business Leaders Can Help Education" today in the Vail Daily from Eagle County Schools superintendent Jason Glass who offers some valuable recommendations for the education reformers. Glass's piece very astutely identifies the problems and challenges of corporate-led "education reform" while also acknowledging the good intentions and potential benefits of an education-business relationship. Glass offers some important recommendations for business leaders hoping to help, not the least of which is encourage business leaders to team with educators as opposed to painting them as the problem and the enemy. Imagine that.

And, in a particularly insightful observation, consider Glass's opening:

This week, a star-studded list of CEOs, investors and entrepreneurs from across the country gathered in Avon to discuss the important topic of improving the American education system. I felt fortunate to be invited and to be a participant in this event, the discussions and the ideation.

Clearly, the absence of educators and parents and students from the meeting in Avon to discuss how to fix education is the primary problem with corporate-led reform efforts. Not only should a school superintendent not feel "fortunate to be invited," but the "CEOs, investors" and business leaders should be ashamed of themselves for convening any discussion of "improving the education system" without the primary stakeholders as the center of the event. Discussion of improving education should take place in schools and communities with teachers and parents present, not at resort areas away from the crux of the matter.

So, thanks to Superintendent Glass for his commentary and insight. Let's hope some of the businessmen who gracioulsy invited him to discuss his area of expertise actually listened to his input.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fall Break - A Bonus to School Schedules

"Fall Break" is the greatest invention in the history of school schedules. When I first moved to Colorado, I was amazed to discover this little gem in the calendar for the year. After the first ten weeks of school, the Cherry Creek School District takes a week-long break at the end of October. It is the perfect time to re-charge and re-focus, and it operates almost like a "quarter system" in school. And, it meets the needs and expectations of people worried about learning loss from students out of school too long or over-stressed by long stretches of school. While I am firmly against the idea of "ending summer vacation" and adopting "year-round school," I am not opposed to shorter and more frequent breaks in school. The idea of taking a break after about ten weeks is a great idea, especially for high school students who have so many activities going on and seniors who can use the break time to visit schools and finish college applications. So, adding a break into the fall might be just the key to adjusting school schedules to meet more needs. A week or two in the fall, two or three at winter, and a week or two in the spring, with a slightly shorter summer is the perfect antidote to the burden of school schedules.

Monday, October 27, 2014

College Board & Common Core Shift Focus From Calculus to Algebra

Is the College Board conspiring with proponents of Common Core to replace its emphasis on calculus for top students with a focus on basic algebra skills for all? And, is this all the more evidence of a "Race to the Middle" in which the needs of America's best and brightest are ignored in the attempt to bring all students to a basic competency? That seems to be the indication from the announcement that the College Board is "Reconciling AP Exams with Common Core."

The College Board is responding to the brewing changes of today's Common Core era by revising the Advanced Placement program so that the focus is on fewer concepts and more depth. Despite these measures, there are still difficulties in reconciling many AP courses with the Common Core. In particular, AP Calculus is in conflict with the Common Core, Packer said, and it lies outside the sequence of the Common Core because of the fear that it may unnecessarily rush students into advanced math classes for which they are not prepared. The College Board suggests a solution to the problem. of AP Calculus “If you’re worried about AP Calculus and fidelity to the Common Core, we recommend AP Statistics and AP Computer Science,” he told conference attendees.
Moreover, the College Board may offer an AP Algebra course (although no plans are definite), which may supplant AP Calculus, particularly in schools rigidly adhering to the Common Core standards.
This misguided shift by College Board could very well represent another "Sputnik moment" when America again ends up on the wrong side of history. Truly, for many students a basic proficiency in algebra is all they will ever need in terms of numeracy knowledge. But for the top thirty percent who will be accessing the highest levels of math in college, the earlier access to trig and calculus and differential equations is fundamental to success. Let's be clear: Some students should be prepped for the study of calculus and many shouldn't. And there is nothing wrong with that. But emphasizing a deeper knowledge of fewer concepts at the lower grades will prepare fewer for the highest levels at high school and college. And this is a mistake.

The very idea that College Board could be considering an AP-level for algebra is truly absurd. Granted, there is "algebra" at the college level - especially abstract studies of "linear algebra." But the idea of offering AP credit for the basic level of math at high school is disconcerting. The students at my high school can access four levels of math past AP Calculus - Calculus III, Differential Equations, Abstract Math, and Linear Algebra - because our students are simply that advanced. We even have students accessing AP Calc as freshman or middle schoolers. And that is truly exceptional and should be cultivated. It should not be dismissed as a side effect of trying to make sure more students "go deeper" into algebra.

Could this be more evidence that the current education reform is detrimental to the needs of our most most advanced and gifted students? And why is our focus on one-size-for-all?

Thanks to Darren at RightOnTheLeftCoast for bringing this to my attention.