Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Echo Chamber Of Education Reform...

One of the complaints I get and hear about Twitter, specifically, educators on Twitter, is that it is an echo chamber. Meaning that most of us that take part in things like #edchat, general discussion or just sit on the sidelines, generally feel the same way about education, that we are headed down the wrong path and need to change. Often the conversations go around and around, there is some fist bumping but no real action. 

You know what I think? To an extent the complaints are correct. I often see or take part in discussions that give me a sense of deja vù, that we have been here before, going around in our circle again...

Last night's #edchat was dedicated to figuring out how to move the conversation away from Twitter, blogs, and the Intertubes in general, and take it to the people who really matter, policy makers, state and local legislatures, boards, media, and anyone who will listen. 

Here are a few highlights:
  • Ed reform takes TIME-time to meet, time to discuss, time to explore, time to learn. To have more influence, teachers must invest TIME.
  • To participate in ed reform, teachers must embrace new roles & responsibilities, looking beyond their own classrooms.
  • Admins need to actively encourage teacher leaders & provide opportunities for growth & participation in decision-making.
  • Teachers must have positive relations with parents & community (and media).
  • Teachers must take the extra moment and advertise the great things they do, and not consider it bragging!
  • Students actually have far more power than some may think. They may influence many if inspired.
  • Mustn't forget who we serve. First students, then families, community, society, administration, school board? in what order? 
  • For effective change, we need effective teams working together, Build relationships with your own staff. Tribes.
Be sure to check out the entire archive and visit the new #edchat Facebook page for tons more info.

Here are some of my thoughts...

There are tons of people both on Twitter and off who are taking their message to the masses. Jeff Pulver believes in education so much that at his series of 140 Conferences he has upped the number of education related panels and talks from 1 in Los Angeles in Oct. 2009 to 4 at the most recent in NYC. At conferences around the world many educators are talking to audiences about why we need social media in the classroom and how relying completely on summative assessments is the wrong way to look at student achievement and other "hot button" education topics. 

The problem is, most of the time, the same people are hearing the same messages. And even further, those people already agree. There aren't enough educators talking to the people that matter. And really, that isn't their fault. I blame those that refuse to listen. Take state government. A politician will get in front of a camera all day long and say they are for education and that education is a priority. But when it comes to putting your money where your mouth is that politician is suddenly silent. It isn't the voices of the students or educators that they listen to it is the big bucks of donors that keep them in office who's voices are the loudest. 

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of educators that stand up and talk to those in positions of power. (I being one of them.) But until those in power begin to listen we can't make any inroads. 

So what do we do? 

First, we have to quit talking about testing. Someone last night said that when we talk about reform we ultimately come back to testing. Yes, the system most of us have is flawed. But I believe it is the way data is used, not collected that is the problem. Standardized tests can tell you a lot about individual students and how those students assigned to a particular teacher compare to each other. But when that data is used in such a way to compare kids to different teachers, or even worse, to different kids at different schools in different districts, that is a misuse of data. Education leaders using only the test is also an example of a flawed system. If we encourage teachers to use more formative assessments along the way, have students produce products that demonstrate learning, when it comes time for the summative assessment (the "Test") there will be no worries because you, the teacher, know what your kids were lacking, made some changes to your teaching and all turned out alright. We need to face it. Tests are here to stay at least for the time being. Do something different in your classroom. And forget about tests. 

What else can we do? Educators have to reach out and add voices to the chorus. Get to your parents, make them an ally. Talk to your community. Make them a partner. It is easy for policy makers to ignore educators. (Frankly, they do it all the time.) But when we add local businesses, parents, community leaders, it gets that much tougher for them ignore. We have to quit thinking that parents and the community are the enemy. Schools were once centers of our community. We have to get back to that. Separate, we are week. Together we are strong. (Clichè?)

Finally, we have to stop believing that there is some magical, one-size-fits-all change out there. The problems I have at my school are completely different from all the other schools in my district and from your school. While there are general things we all need to focus our effort on; technology in the classroom, teacher prep, professional development, PLC's. None is the exclusive answer for every situation. Figure out what change is needed in your area and start there. Start small. Change in the classroom is easy. Doing different is often contagious. You start doing things different, and suddenly your team or grade level is doing it too and then your school. Thats when things get noticed and you can spread your message. 

The key in all this is to not get discourage. Change in education is like an ice age. It happens slow. But it does happen. Stick with it and remember, its not about us. It is about those kids that come through our doors everyday. Don't they deserve it? 


  1. Point well taken!
    We are dealing with human nature, fear, and inertia.
    It seems to me we will sooner develop the technology for real-time online democracy than we will curtail the instinctive urges of powerful men to cater to the special interest groups that keep them in power.
    It also seems we will sooner develop the platform for meaningful online education than we will make meaningful inroads in a governmental department. Unless some great vision and leadership are brought to bare from the top down.
    Otherwise, it's a bottom-up reform process.
    Which takes courage.
    Thanks for your great work!

  2. Your points are well taken, but I'm not sure about "Change in education is like an ice age. It happens slow." My sense is that it is more like a glacier. It seems that nothing is happening. Then on one day, it's an iceberg floating away.

    My sense is that the emerging bankruptcy of the States in the US coupled with the defeat of a number of school bond issues in the last week, tell me that a glacier may be soon ready to separate.

    It's pretty clear that the Obama administration is serious about it's committment to change the high school dropout situation. What is not so clear is that the AFT is starting to get on board.

    I read this week that in Oklahoma the AFT worked with the school district in a high school reinvention that involved firing 50% of the staff.

    I raise these points only to try to point to the reality that change will happen much faster, rather than slower.

    I think it's fair to say that the public conversation is "how to deliver educational services at a sustainable price." If the great teachers don't bring their viewpoints and suggestions to the table, there are plenty of others who will.

  3. Great post and you are right! I like the section you have at the end where you talk about decentralizing Education. However, the trend in the country right now is definately toward centralization of control in Washington DC. You are exactly right that one size doesn't fit all. However, NCLB and RTTT and every other program just tightens the federal control over Educataion. Especially since this administration is waging a war against taking risks. Risk is how change and improvements happen! Thanks for your post!

  4. Steve-

    We break the down the walls of an echo chamber by reaching out period;to everyone that will make the Tribe stronger.

    It is important to connect to parents,community members, legislators, etc... Many of these conversations are still filtered through the lense of how these individuals expereinced school.

    We need to as individual educators and as a community to invite "others" into the conversation. Specifically "others" who are surviving and thriving in this new environment.

    Twitter is a perfect platform to add new members to the education conversation, invite them into the "Tribe", and break down the silos we operate under.

    Educators that are making those changes in their classroom and in their schools are not doing so because they have the latest "ed strategy book".

    Their strategies come from Seth Godin, Clayton Christenson, Dan Pink, Ken Robinson and other cutting edge business folks, entrepreneurs,and individuals who understand and embody the skill sets of adaptability, innovation, creativity.

    I still see PLN as networks of educators talking to other educators about how to prepare students for the "real world" and the web with little or no input from those actively participating and thriving in that world.

  5. Steven, respectfully and with a great deal of admiration for your ceaseless, invaluable efforts to advance dialogue on education:

    We should not stop talking about tests unless we are willing to ignore them, boycott them, and force public education into a different conversation about how best to assess students - a conversation in which standardized tests have no say. These tests drive public education. Saying that we should accept them and move on is unfair to students better served by more genuine, authentic assessment and feedback - that is to say, it's unfair to all students.

    Standardized tests don't have to be here to stay anymore than we have to teach to them. Programs like Minnesota's New Country School and the Maine Farm Enterprise School point the way toward better PBL and portfolio-based assessment. That we choose as a public education system to scale up testing and not alternative assessments is a matter of politics and economics, not a matter of student-centered pedagogy.

    No matter how much a student knows, standardized tests fail to capture it. They are limited and capped by the finite number and arbitrary nature of the questions they ask. They do not reflect what students can do. They don't account for differences in students' test-taking capabilities. They don't ask what else a student knows. They don't assess what a student can create from knowledge. They don't assess what a student can do with something about which she actually cares. They perpetuate the notion that what we should be doing is standardizing education. They perpetuate the notion that students should learn what we tell them to learn. They perpetuate the notion that knowledge has gate-keepers and that these gate-keepers must be appeased - that one must have their approval - to have status in society. They perpetuate the notion that teachers should do what their told by private companies - democracy and pedagogy be darned to mittens.

    They suck.

    But let's keep talking about that. I'll be proctoring some this month and hoping we do well.

    Kind regards,

  6. Here is a thought...

    Ignore the tests (stop testing preps, teaching to the test, etc) and focus on the curriculum. Use good teaching practice that focuses on how to think, process information, and show what you know in the 21st century. Prepare an education that looks at student needs first.

    If a 21st century administrator has the nerves to believe this and take the pressure of the teachers to "score well," I believe it won't matter if legislators change policy on assessment. Our kids would score well anyway.

  7. Argh! Your blog just ate my comment. Here goes (again)
    Thank you Steve for coming out with this post. It's been something that has been on my mind too.
    On Twitter we are singing to the chorus, when we talk about ed reform.
    It's time to move beyond the rhetoric.

    I don't know about what other folks are doing, but I'm working on a small scale (maybe because I'm a bit timid?). I'm just spreading the word to my non-tweeting colleagues about the power of having a PLN.
    It's amazing how SO MANY educators still think they are teaching in isolation.
    Thanks for the post.

  8. Great summation of the #edchat. We can be an echo chamber on Twitter, but is that such a bad thing? Generally people need to know that they aren't just having a crazy idea. We need to know that there are others out there with the same passions and concerns about education. Knowing that we aren't alone in this makes us bold. With that confidence we are able to go back into our situations and start affecting change, because we are no longer just our own voice, we are supported by all of those in our PLN.
    That being said, I agree, change will look different depending on our situation and our population. We as educators believe that there is no perfect test that will give us a complete view of every student, why would we think that a one size-fits-all solution would work to fix education. Each situation is unique and each will have its own set of challenges.

  9. Sometimes change is not slow. In the case of Michigan, our state pushed through legislation quickly in an effort to qualify for federal race to the top money. One item included was merit pay. As I understand it, teacher pay will be based on those standardized tests that you, and others, agree is not a valid indication of student ability.

    In response to your comment on the order of things - It's too bad that the students aren't first every time. It really seems that money is first, cuts are made, aids are eliminated, supplies are slashed, teachers are overwhelmed with classes upwards of 40, and yet we (the teachers) are left floundering in a sea of sharks, without even a life preserver.

  10. I echo what Chad said. Beautifully done.

    I love this post and the ideas here, though I disagree that change happens slowly. I think that it can occur very quickly with the right tools. And while I definitely, definitely agree that one size does not fit all, there are many cases of communities have been able to radically change to a student centered environment practically overnight with the right principles at the center (and principals).

    The biggest issue I see you raise in your post: you can't change the system through a classroom. One teacher alone can make an impact forever. But to create an echo of reform, it has to be systemic--a whole school in which the administrators and teachers all agree about the vision, principles and practices and implement the strategies from bottom to top, top to bottom... that is where the speed of change occurs.

    In my dream world, excellent teachers should walk into interviews and say "I am looking for an environment that encourages innovation--do you provide it?" and then walk away if the interviewers don't get the question. If all those frustrated individual teachers could somehow refuse to work where their ideas are not embraced it would create that whole "capitalist effect" that people always hope will occur.

    As a side note...

    I thought your post was going to be about the fact that there are people in twitter who simply echo others have said rather than putting their own ideas out there. As someone who frequently RTs people on this page, I appreciate the opportunity to say "I echo that" and reiterate the value of what others have said to share with a more silent population who needs to hear these same ideas multiple times prior to jumping into the dialogue.



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