25 January 2009

Is It Bigger Than a Breadbox?

Depending upon how you roll in the edusphere, you may have noticed that Educon 2.1 was happening this weekend. This event, hosted by Chris Lehmann's Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, is "an education conference. It is, hopefully, an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas -- from the very practical to the big dreams." (Learn more on the Educon 2.1 Wiki.)

I watched the streaming video of the Sunday morning panel, fascinated to see reps from KIPP, Teach for America, and the Constructivist Consortium weigh in on what's happening with schools. Between listening, watching the "back channel" chat happening amongst other listeners, and peeking at Twitter, there was information overload to be had.

Comments from the panel included:
  • Schools are places where kids go to watch adults work.
  • Reform means schools fitting the form the kids need as opposed to the other way around.
  • We are beating kids over their heads with rifles because we can't afford the bullets. (re: NCLB Funding)
  • We should take all the worksheet teachers and put them in one school.
  • As the richest country in the world we should provide every student with a computer and a cello.
There was much head bobbing from the audience and many "Amen"s on the backchannel. My personal takeaway from all of this was simply "What next?" We know what's wrong with the system. We know the things we've tried to do to fix it. The people involved with this conference (even me, in a very remote way) are all very passionate about making schools the best we can for kids.

But what do we do to make that happen? What are the action steps? Because talking about it is no longer enough.

I worry that the people who attend these events are not the ones who have the greatest power to enact change. That is not a diss on anyone who works for change within their classroom or circle of influence. I am also incredibly jealous of anyone who was able to attend this conference. It is simply an observation that until policymakers are watching these conversations at 6:30 on a Sunday morning along with me, there will be no scaling up.

In my position, I have far more "power" than I have ever had. I merely utter the name of the agency I work for and whoever is on the other end of the phone line will jump to find the person I need to talk to or others at a lunch table will stop conversations and listen. I don't necessarily like this, but I am learning to make my peace with it. I am beginning to see how I might use my voice for change. However, even at my level, I am running into significant roadblocks. The people who can truly make things happen are so far removed (both physically and mentally) from the realities of classroom life that they refuse to consider the damage their words and actions are doing. They are not at Educon (or similar events) to listen to educators.

And so, my friends, what do we do to change this? What is our first step beyond our circle of influence? What is the answer to this first of 20+ questions about taking action?


Hugh O'Donnell said...

If the leaders don't get it, nobody else stands a chance.

Continue to work for excellence in leadership. Make sure they "get it."

Oh yeah, that means leaders that don't get it gotta go.

So...go to work for a state agency, get into admin, or run for school board. But most of all, be a progressive teacher at any level.

-- Hugh O'Donnell, retired progressive teacher and current school board member (Hillsboro School District 1J, Hillsboro, OR)

Unknown said...

Similar to the thoughts I just posted in a comment on your previous post "Striking a Balance", I think one of the action steps is for schools to focus on building relationships with stakeholders to work toward building flexible networks of more specialized educational organizations (nodes) that students can work in/with to achieve their goals.

I think the comments re: worksheet teachers and cellos are a bit extreme. Yes, you can learn from worksheets, they're just not ideal all the time and they're easily over-used. And no, not every student should be given a cello - do we really expect music to be relevant to all kids? I know that these comments are meant to be provocative - but I worry that this kind of posturing only re-entrenches the "eyes wide shut" stakeholders that we so desperately want to reach.

As for changing funding schemes - that's a no-brainer ... punishing under-performing schools with less funding gets my blood boiling even more than the thought of using bad grades as punishments for students. I do like the comment about watching adults work - this is one that I think we can all focus on, and get a big return for a little bigger investment of time and energy. I'm using this (and other reasons) as motivation to get into the classroom more often to do observations on student engagement and how teachers use their instructional time so that we can reflect more on best practices and learn to be more comfortable with the idea of learning alongside the students. For teachers that are engaging in best practices, I think the next step is to network with others and publish their methods (successful and otherwise).

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Holy Christmas, Jonathan! Have I have wasted my life!? I can't comment further until I have finished absorbing your school's web site!