Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Business Versus Personal

The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, posted a blog about the NBA lockout on November 18, 2011, entitled, “Business vs. Personal.” He starts with a few lines from a favorite guy movie, The Godfather:

     Hagen: Your father wouldn't want to hear this, Sonny. This is business not personal.
     Sonny: They shoot my father and it's business, my ass!
     Hagen: Even shooting your father was business not personal, Sonny!
     Sonny: Well then, business is going to have to suffer.

But later he follows a tangent that I thought was relevant to school leadership jobs, and I thought someone else, somewhere, might like to read this:

“Quick tangent: My father served as the superintendent of schools in Easton, Massachusetts, for nearly twenty years. He retired in the summer of 2009, at the age of 62, for a variety of reasons … but mainly this one. He didn’t want to stay too long. When you’re a superintendent, it only takes one renegade school committee member, one unexpected budget cut, one scandal or one tragedy to shift momentum against you. Once it happens, you can’t get it back. Adversaries smell your weakening power the same way zombies smell blood. You start getting undermined or browbeaten into ideas you never wanted to do. By the time you finally resign or get replaced, those final years become part of your legacy, the last thing anyone remembers about you (whether you like it or not). My father never wanted that to happen. He left one year too early instead of one year too late. He has no regrets.”

You can find the rest of the article, if you are interested, on

I think this is a good lesson and a reminder that school leadership is highly political. Now the politicians like to point at schools and state how awful public education is. At the same time, the popularity of schools has never dipped anywhere nearly as low as the most recently public opinion poll on Congress. And although there are people who propose bold changes to the system, we all must realize that public education in the United States is a political entity and subject to the same winds that blow through our political landscape.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Foreign Language in 21st Century Schools

Our globe continues to shrink as modern telecommunications allow mass messages to millions around the world instantaneously. Between the leadership of the United States in technology and its position as a world superpower, English has become the international language. Yet with rapid communications, sensitivity to other nations and cultures from around the world becomes ever more important.

The Ameri-centric view of the world in the schools of the United States remains mired in our old model that high schools offer four years of a single foreign language--or maybe two or three languages. At the same time, the students in our schools are making online friends around the world. Social networks allow students to connect world-wide while video chatting lets our internationally-savvy students meet face-to-face. The future could have U.S. students employed in any number of countries involved in international commerce.

Oblivious to these changes, states continue to require schools to offer one foreign language in high school, and colleges follow along by requiring a minimum of two years of a single high school foreign language for college admission.

Schools for the 21st Century need quality online instruction in foreign languages. Instead of a single foreign language high schools should offer a menu of languages, e.g., Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, and Mandarin. The completely automated coursework needs to become interactive and supported by native speakers available online. Rather than a teacher in a classroom, schools should provide a high-tech language lab, preferably (but not necessarily) staffed by a certified teacher. Classes and student progress should be regularly monitored by an adult, but students should be allowed to progress at their own pace and potentially complete more coursework than is currently possible with our existing paradigm. With the technology available to today's students this can be a reality now. We need to make our schools as relevant as students are finding in their social networks online.

So what will happen to all the foreign language teachers currently employed in America's high school? Let us all move them into the elementary where brain research tells us children are acquiring their language skills. A child who learns a language from a native speaker by third grade will have a lifetime ability to speak that language without an accent. We need to rethink and change the delivery of foreign language in America's schools.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

1:1 Laptops are not about Increased Test Scores

"If we implement one-to-one computing, will our standardized test scores go up?" said many school board members when their respective schools were considering a laptop initiative for their students.

Unfortunately, the data is inconclusive. There are some studies that show gains, but some of these studies are minor or narrow. Meanwhile some other studies show no difference. The brightest hope for increased standardized test achievement is in student writing skills. Unfortunately, many writing assessments are subjective. And most national tests do not truly assess writing; it simply does not fit the bubble sheet answer format.

Our school is now in its second year of using one-to-one laptops in grades 4 through 12. I am convinced that laptops can grow standardized test scores. However, I do not believe this is the proper use for them. There are a number of quality software programs that provide students with extra practice that could increase their assessment scores. If a school was to use their laptops for intensive basic skills practice on a daily basis, I am of the opinion that test scores will improve significantly.

But there is a larger question: is this really the best use of expensive laptop computers? Can't the same aim be met if we simply immerse our students in reams of worksheets?

One-to-one laptops are about 21st Century Learning. We use them to promote research and critical thinking to increase higher order thinking skills among our students. We are trying to get our students collaborating with classmates and with students around the world. We want our students using creativity to solve problems. This is education that will prepare our students for the world ahead of them, and this is the way to use a valuable learning tool such as a laptop for each and every student.