Ignoring the Rules

The New York Times recently published a long front-page story about how Google “took over” the classroom. The writer’s primary focus is on concerns about the amount of student data the company is collecting in exchange for their free tools, and what they plan to do with it, although she doesn’t get many answers from them.

However, the part I found most interesting was about how those Google’s tools arrived in many classrooms in the first place. IT directors from Chicago, Oregon, and Fairfax County (aka our overly-large school district) complain that representatives of the company went straight to teachers with products like Google Classroom instead going through channels.

He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.

And why do so many teachers ignore IT’s rules and go through the formal process of getting those services approved?

Lots of reasons, but in our district it’s mostly because they know that the wheels of our bureaucracy grind very slowly. The formal evaluation system for new tech products can take years, especially for anything that hasn’t been blessed by Microsoft.

IT grudgingly went along with the use of Google Drive in the classroom after hundreds of teachers started using it on their own. Some of our innovative people very quickly recognized the value in online collaborative tools and jumped at the opportunity soon after it was released (only five years ago). One school even had the audacity to register their own domain to make things easier for their staff and students.

This would be a good time to point out that there’s no such thing as “free”, especially when it comes to Google. Even if the latest tool looks like a gift from the gods, teachers still have a responsibility to be cautious about allowing their students to pour data into these systems (see also the recent news about Edmodo).

On the other side of things, district administrators also need to understand that some of the best resources for evaluating new technologies are the connected, innovative educators working in their schools. Ignoring their expertise and judgement is going to result in them ignoring you.

[Apologies in advance to Doug for this post. :-)]

Acting Small in an Overly-Large System

George Couros, one of the most thoughtful voices in my RSS feed, recently wrote about leading in a large school district. The post was triggered by an administrator with a good question: “Do you really believe that you can make this change happen with such a large district?”

That “large” district serves 30,000 students and it started me thinking again about the overly-large school district in which I worked for many, many years.1 If this person has trouble wrapping their head around steering a system that size, what does it take to significantly change course in one with more than 188,000 students? As I’ve said, overly-large.

One of George’s suggestions is that “leadership needs to always act small”, regardless of the actual size of the system. He wonders whether teachers and others actually know who the superintendent is, and by extension in a large system, the other members of the “leadership team”.

Does your leadership go into schools? When they do, does anyone know? Do they show up with their “entourage” and pop in and out? Do they hang out in classrooms, sometimes bring their laptop, and sit in classrooms to understand the impact of their decisions on classrooms? You should never make decisions for classrooms, students, and teachers unless you are present in those classrooms.

I know when any of the superintendents I worked for visited a school, it was a major press event. They never sat in a classroom without plenty of notice and several assistants in tow. Plus at least one photographer. Same for school board members, most of whom seemed to make principals very nervous.

Later in the post, George makes this observation.

Your district or school might be gigantic, but if you are in a leadership position, your job is the same; you serve students and educators.

In an overly-large district like ours, I think the superintendent and most of the leadership team often lose sight of that idea. Their days (and many nights) were often taken up by various political factions and issues, both internal and external, leaving little time to consider the everyday process of teaching and learning. Occasionally some of them will talk about “change”. It’s usually in very general terms, using the cliches drawn from the most current issue of their ed journals, and little of it gets translated into policy.

Now, none of this is intended to be critical of the people themselves. Most of the leaders in our district were well meaning (with the exception of a few nutball school board members) and believed their work was in the best interest of students. It’s the nature of the job that they have no time to develop a good understanding of the impact their decisions made in the thousands of classrooms of our district.

Currently the Fairfax school board is looking for a new superintendent to try and steer this colossus. They hired a “top” recruitment firm to conduct the usual “exhaustive national search”. Screening for the qualities of vision, leadership, and the ability to make data-driven decisions, at the top of the impossibly long list. The board should be getting close to making a decision, at least if they want that person in place for the start of the annual budget wrestling season.

But, I fully expect the person they hire will be far more CEO than educator. The little time spent in classrooms will be for show, when time allows. As to using social media to “create visibility during times that you can’t physically get into classrooms”, as George suggests, don’t hold your breath. It will be interesting to see if this one has any online footprint at all. Beyond newspaper articles and press releases, that is.

Change Where Nothing Changes

I’ve written more than a few times in this space about Fairfax County Schools, my former employer and the district formerly known as the overly-large school district, slow (very slow) efforts to implement a 1-1 computing program. When you have almost 190,000 students and a budget with too many antiquated priorities, I guess slow is the only way you can go.

My friend and former colleague Margaret is the tech professional development specialist for the one high school (out of 25) that will be part of the pilot 1-1 program next fall. And she is worried about2 the pushback she is getting from some on her staff concerning the coming changes.

Last week a teacher said to me “I’m not going to change something I’m doing just so kids can use technology.”

I think this represents our biggest hurdle and misconception about this transition. The idea that we are making changes to instruction to include technology rather than changing instruction to help students learn.

The big idea here is that this isn’t about the device. We keep saying that but it doesn’t seem to be sinking in.

Margaret is right in categorizing that attitude towards change as a hurdle, but I’m not so sure it’s a misconception on the part of this teacher. I’m betting this particular staff member has been around long enough to have seen many similar initiatives, technological and others, come and go over the years. He/she knows that the only thing new in the classroom next year will likely be more devices.

The curriculum won’t change. The overemphasis on testing, coming from the state plus AP and IB, will be the same. Any training she gets will be far more focused on operating the technology than on the pedagogy necessary to make best use of the devices. School administrators will also receive incomplete training on what a 1-1 should look like, and will be more concerned with equipment theft and student “hackers”.2

I think I’ve heard the concept of “it’s not about the device” repeated hundreds of times in Fairfax, by everyone from the superintendent on down. But actions rarely followed the talk.

The process of implementing 1-1 in Fairfax is largely being lead by the IT department (unless something drastic has changed in the past ten months), with most of the time in planning sessions I attended before my exit last year was spent on topics such as what device, how it would be deployed and managed, and what to do if the kids did something wrong. Changes to instructional process came at the end of the agenda, if at all, and alterations to curriculum were rarely were discussed. Plus, one of my big gripes, very few teachers were involved in high level planning and kids were excluded altogether.

Anyway, it will be interesting to watch the rollout of the Fairfax 1-1 project. And I hope Margaret and everyone involved are able to affect some genuine change for their teachers and students using the flood of new equipment that’s coming next fall.

Although I have little evidence to believe that major changes to the way that students learn are coming as a result, I really would love to be proved wrong. Really!

Fight Over Funding the Status Quo

It’s April which means Fairfax County is now coming to the end of the annual school budget fight civil discussion of priorities between the school district (formerly known as both the overly-large school district and my employer) and the county Board of Supervisors.

The continuing conflict that usually comes to a temporary resolution every May arises because our local school board has no authority to raise it’s own local money. They get some funding directly from the state and from federal government programs, but most of their budget comes the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (in something known as the “transfer”).

Early in the budgeting process, the school superintendent starts by laying out the district’s “increasing needs”, tossing out some numbers that will make everything run smoothly, and warning about the programs that could be cut or canceled without full funding. Soon after the supervisors, working totally independently, announce how much money they can afford transfer to the district (and accuse the superintendent of being irrational).

Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots

After a couple of months of back and forth, the school board ignores the supervisors and puts together a budget for the next year based on those “needs” and other priorities. Of course, the amounts don’t match (in the past five years, I don’t remember them even being close) and both sides ramp up the hype.

School supporters take to local news media and social network channels, attempting to build community pressure on the Board to increase their figure. The superintendent talks about larger class sizes and diminished programs (sometimes even threatening to take away the Friday night gladiator matches, aka high school football), which she says will lead to a mediocre education for the kids.

On the other side, Board members make a lot of pronouncements about the county coffers being empty with nothing more to give, and lecturing school administrators on the concept of living within their means (file that under the heading: do as I say, not as I do).

Both sides are right to some degree. And are also full of crap.

The community in which we live is one of the richest in the nation (second or third depending on who you ask). At the same time, the vast majority of people living here don’t have kids in school and so have no direct interest in one side of the fight. Which means the two top priorities, for most residents as well as most Board members, are keeping taxes as low as possible and keeping the value of their property as high as possible.3

Those Board members know very well that raising taxes – any taxes – is likely to cost them their job; at least attract a very strong challenge to unseat them. And, since we already have “good” schools, at least according to the usual statistical measures, the perceived corrolation between that and property values is already assured. At least until the next election. All is good here in Lake Wobegon.

On the superintendent’s side of things, the school population continues to grow at around 4000 to 5000 students each year. And increasing numbers of students in the system are non English speakers, qualify for low income benefits, or require special education services (or combinations of those categories), all of which add to the cost of running the district. Add in the pressures of providing decent pay and the increasing cost of benefits and you get a lot of upward pressures on increasingly tight budgets.

However, even if the school board got all the funds they asked for, the money is largely paying for very conventional educational programs. Although the superintendent promises “innovation”, preparing “global citizens”, and “creative” solutions to the system’s problems, her plans include very little change in the basic structure of the school process – curriculum, instructional practice, standardized test-based student assessment. Nothing different from what it was in more flush times ten years ago.

School administrators and the politicians who allocate the funding for them should be working together to find alternatives to the way things have always been done. Are there alternative models of “school” that work better for kids with differing interests and skills? Are there alternatives to property taxes that make paying for an educated society more reliable and equitable? Can we make schools more valuable than just supporting property values to the general public? Maybe by integrating schools with those communities in ways that benefit even those who have no children in the system?

I don’t have all the answers but it doesn’t seem as if either side in this debate is even asking the questions.

Instead we have school leaders fighting to fully fund the status quo in an education system that is still riding its successes from twenty years ago 2. And community leaders who are satisfied with schools that are “good enough”, as long as the property tax stays the same, and the Friday night football game starts on time.

Blame the Smartphone, Again.

Say what you want about the writings of Post education columnist Jay Mathews (and over the years I have), he does manage to stumble across some insight occasionally. Even if he’s trying to make roughly the opposite point. His most recent example is his column from yesterday’s paper.3

A high school teacher here in Fairfax County (formerly my employer and aka the overly-large school district) complains that student responses in his government classes have been “crumbling” since “smartphones and other such devices were allowed a few years ago.”. Evidentally, before this “invasion”, discussions on his lessons were thoughtful and lively. In just three years, which was about the time BYOD entered the picture, kids have changed that much.

Of course, this is just an observation. He and another teacher are writing a book about the “decline in critical thinking as digital technologies grow”. However, they “admit they have mostly anecdotal data” to use for their work but are are certain – certain I tell you! – that “brain research eventually will back them up”.

Ok, this is nothing new. I heard from plenty of teachers who blamed kids carrying smartphone for all sorts of ills. But I also know many educators who view the spread of personal connected devices in the classroom as an opportunity to enhance student learning and improve their own teaching.

Anyway, getting back to Mathews purpose in this column. He is trying to use the story told by these teachers as proof that technology is “degrading discourse” in the classroom and “hurting students”, to use two phrases from just the headline. But at the end he drops in his personal biases when it comes to technology and completely kills his authority.

As a journalist, my most pressured years are behind me. I can have a rewarding professional and personal life even though I don’t use smartphones or tablets, never tweet or don’t go on Facebook. I am excused of such eccentricities because of my age.

Two things: first, as someone pretty close to his “age”, I really resent the idea that you get “excused” from learning, and participating in the real world, because you’ve passed a certain checkpoint in life. In schools, we use this reasoning far too often to excuse those “older” teachers from the requirements of understanding how connected devices are changing the process of learning for their students. And from actually using those new tools to better connect with those kids.

And second, I’m not a journalist, but I do understand how radically that profession is being changed as a result of technology and social media. Refusing to acknowledge and at least attempt to use such “eccentricities” in his own work should disqualify Mathews from analyzing any changes they are forcing on the American education system.

I say “should” because he will be back soon with more nonsense about the need for traditional educational practices (probably having to do with AP or charter schools) and the Post will print it.