Monday, January 31, 2011

Put Technology in Classrooms but Not at the Expense of Kids

Many school leaders realize the world is changing with technology ubiquitous, and schools need to keep pace by providing learning environments rich with technological tools and on-line resources. But the conversation on the topic is increasingly difficult this year with school budgets under siege. Nearly every state in our union is laboring with how it can provide adequate funding for its schools.

Many recognize the significance of placing mobile research tools in the hands of students in a one-to-one, high-tech classroom environment. However, we struggle for how to do this when our funding is dwindling. In our rush to try to find a solution to these challenges, let us not forget that some of our students are suffering the worst during our nation's economic downturn.

Some schools, unable to raise the funds for one-to-one laptops, are looking at using the students' own cellular telephones in the classrooms. It seems that nearly every student has one, and sometimes those students whom you would least expect have the most sophisticated phones. But we cannot let these initial impressions confound us. Many families are struggling during this time. It is not a given that all students have cell phones and all can afford them. Some students stay very quiet because of their embarrassment that their families cannot afford such gadgets.

I believe firmly in the right of every child in the United States to a free public education. It is no longer free if there are daily user fees attached to devices the students must bring to class. There is a wide range of cell phones: from smart phones, to media phones where students pay data charges, down to track phones where students buy their minutes in advance and pay for every text message. Is it free if a student has to pay on a daily basis to participate in class?

Cell phones should be allowed in school. Our school allowed them early on, and our students have learned to use them appropriately. But cell phones are not the solution to our classroom technology needs.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Schools Need to Fix More than What is Broken

The U.S. system of public education is not broken. Not broken.

Our system provides the United States with the highest standard of living on Earth. The United Nations in November released its Human Development Report for 2010. The Human Development Index (HDI) places the United States well ahead of all the nations whose students may have scored higher than ours on standardized tests. Our nation is the envy of the world, and it is our system of public education that helped to create it.

There is an expression: "If it's not broken, don't fix it." I heard this as a boy and thought it clever, "That makes sense. Why do we try to fix things that don't need fixing?"

I now loathe the words. I have heard the expression as a continuous mantra from those who wish to maintain the status quo. We have a good system, yes. But it could be better. It must be made better.

We can do this by moving our schools into 21st Century learning institutions. We need to reduce our drop-out rate by individualizing instruction. We need to develop students who are both independent problem solvers and cooperative team players. We need to teach our students to teach themselves by utilizing Inquiry Learning and Active Learning. We need to foster the use of technology in achieving our educational objectives.

Most importantly and immediately, we need to get on with the work at hand. Yes, our budgets are handicapping us, but we must stop fixating on finances. The economic conditions are what they are. We must also remember we have seen good times too. We have to adapt our services to the resources at hand and realize that the world is changing. Schools must evolve and get better.

Our students need schools focused on the future of our world, not the present school budget. Our work of building a brighter tomorrow cannot be slowed by trying to maintain schools as we have known them or by using our financial resources as an excuse. This work is just too important.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

1-to-1 Laptops Need Valid Reasons for Implementation

As the pedagogy of one-to-one laptop computers continues to grow at a geometric rate across the nation, two types of schools are emerging. The first type of school chooses to become a one-to-one laptop school for reasons which may include technology is the future of our world and our kids need to learn it, the school may be able to grow its enrollment with laptops for everyone, or other schools are going one-to-one so our school must also to keep pace.

The second type of school chooses laptops for their students because their teaching has advanced in the use of inquiry-based instruction, their classrooms are active learning centers, and they have shifted the center of gravity in their classrooms from the teacher at the front of the room to the students in the middle of the room. Laptops are the next natural progression as these schools develop their curriculum. These latter schools have reached a point  where they need to put powerful research tools into the hands of their kids in order to advance their instruction to the next higher level.

Technology is a siren song. We are attracted to the sounds, the action, and the information. We marvel at applications we never would have dreamed of a decade earlier. But technology only for the sake of technology is empty. It leads to accusations from the public that the students are distracted, they are wasting their time on games and chats, they are not learning the basics, or worse--the laptops rest in their bookbags while core instruction continues unchanged from years before.

Maybe you have heard the stories: the students rush into the classroom, pop open their laptops, and log on. Then the teacher enters and says, "Put those things away; we have work to do." It's happened.

One-to-one laptop initiatives should not be decided top down. It is imperative the teachers are part of the decision. The teachers must be on board from planning through implementation. There should also be an understanding of how instruction must change once the initiative is underway.

So lash yourselves to the mast. Resist the siren song of technology for technology's sake. And when ready, lay a clear course for a destination as a 21st Century school.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Response to Director Glass

An Open Response to Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass:

First of all, thank you for asking your three questions for Iowa education. In my 30-plus year career, no one has ever asked anyone in our profession before. Below are my responses.

1. What should we stop doing?

Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.
The Iowa Tests are an excellent test--one of the best in the nation. We need to continue to use them, but only in the manner for which they were designed: to assess the curriculum of individual districts. The Iowa Tests are norm-referenced and are therefore ill-equipped for testing against specific criteria. Moreover, the criteria on which the Tests are based is kept a secret from Iowa schools. If we are to improve student achievement in Iowa, we need specific content for the students and we need assessments designed to accurately measure whether or not teachers are teaching and students are learning.

2. What should we keep doing?

Iowa Core.
I was an initial opponent of the Iowa Core Curriculum because schools were being held accountable by the Iowa Tests, yet the Iowa Core lacks the specificity to help us improve on those tests. However, I see the education community in the state unifying behind the Core which is something that is badly needed. The Core should be kept, but modified and augmented. We need to include national standards because we are a mobile nation. Kids move into and out of Iowa from every state in the union, as well as many foreign countries. We need common standards, but we need the specificity in our curriculum that will allow us to increase student achievement as measured by our tests.

3. What should we start doing?

Educational Choice.
Iowa schools have improved since the open enrollment law was passed in the mid-1980's. Schools had captive audiences before. Since the law, schools have had to improve or lose customers. The law made schools more customer-focused. But the law is really only for those with enough money to afford transportation. Until we allow buses to cross the boundaries of another school district, we will not have true open enrollment.

Charter Schools.
Charter schools are not necessarily a fix for creating innovation in Iowa, but they are necessary, and we need to open the doors of more of them. Where they are needed is in rural Iowa. Iowa's dwindling rural population is hurting the state. We need charter schools that have the flexibility to keep schools open in small communities. We need to maintain our rural public infrastructure and services if we are to maintain our rural population.

Find Greater Efficiencies
Our schools are still structured on a 19th Century model here in the 21st Century. Modern technology and communication means the management of schools can become more efficient.

Embrace 21st Century Learning
Iowa does have an issue with technology. In some districts, technology is a tool; in others it is an aim. Technology needs to facilitate high-order teaching and learning in the classrooms. With the high-tech world our students will be entering, we need to make sure we adapt our teaching, our curriculum, our school days, our course offerings to reflect the way technology can be used as the tool it should be.

Thank you for your consideration.

D. Frazier

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Do We Want Good Schools or Great Schools?

There is a dilemma created by how people perceive schools in the U.S. compared to how these same people perceive their own schools. In October 2010, Phi Delta Kappa released its annual poll on education. Across the nation, only 18% of citizens would give our public schools a letter grade of an A or a B. However, when asked about their own local school, 49% give their schools an A or B. If this is indeed a true cross-section of our nation, should not the two percentages be the same?

And when asked to grade the school where their oldest child attends, 77% of parents give their schools high marks.

America wants good schools, but are they ready for great schools? As Jim Collins points out in his book Good to Great, good is the enemy of great. If something is good, people have little incentive to make the changes that may or may not result in greatness.

But America is a Great nation, and we believe that we need great schools to maintain our leadership in the world.

So therein is the school leader's dilemma. We are charged with reforming our schools to create great schools, . . . provided we do not change our local institutions because they are good just the way they are.

I maintain this is one of the largest forces of inertia holding us back. We Americans love our schools. Adults remember fondly the schools they attended. They wish to model today's schools with warm nostalgia after their own alma maters, whether they graduated in 1999 or 1929.

We need to reform U.S. schools, but we can only do this if we have the educators with courage to make the necessary changes. We also need a public and school boards prepared to support change in the face of the discomfort it creates.