Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lessons from EdCamp

Tom Murray, from the Alliance for Excellence in Education in DC, shared a "What I Learned at EdCamp" post over at the USDOE blog, and it's a striking study in how disconnected the work of the USDOE is from its words.

Murray lists five takeaways from the DOE's convocation of teachers from all over the place.

Relationships and Culture Matter at All Levels

Personally, how will I foster relationships with those at the ED, those in Congress and the Senate, State Departments of Ed, so that we can collectively work to provide students with the access they need and staff with the professional learning needed to effectively shift instructional pedagogy? 

It's a good question. A better question is how anybody in the field such as, say, classroom teachers in far-off places like Pennsylvania can ever get their voices heard if they don't have the resources or opportunities to go make relationships with people in power. Why is it necessary to know somebody personally in order to get anything done? And if it is necessary, then why isn't the DOE trying to figure out a bridge to the  thousands of school systems filled with millions of teachers? You cannot oversee ALL the people you're responsible for if you only respond to the ones you meet personally.

I realize this is a larger-than-education problem, but it has always bugged me-- this endless parade of "I was always against mugwumpery until I met a mugwump, and now I understand." Human beings are supposed to be smarter, more empathetic than that. We're supposed to have the mental and empathic capacity to comprehend things beyond just what's directly in front of our faces.

How can anybody approach any area of federal governance with an attitude of, "I know I have millions of constituents with many concerns, but I'm only going to focus on things I know about personally."

Connected Educators Are My Educational Family

Okay, I get that. I certainly have experienced that as I've wormed my way into the bloggosphere. But again-- is the implication that educators I'm not personally connected to are just strangers on the street. Can't we do better? I expect the USDOE to do better.

It's Not the Technology; It's the Learning

Murray is a tech guy, and I think tech guys have to learn this all over again about every six weeks. That's okay, but wouldn't it be great if the reformster world could grab ahold of it instead of insisting that standardized tests on computers are a good idea, even for eight year olds, because, you know, computers!

Personalized PD Is Essential

Yes, great idea. And the exact opposite of what is being fostered by USDOE. We have spent a lot of time and money establishing a one-size-fits-all world, a world where the scripting of teacher lessons actually looks like a good idea to some people.

Simply put, the traditional, top-down, one-size fits all approach to PD is outdated and a waste of time.  It must be replaced with a model that is meaningful, engaging and relevant, where teacher voice is an important part of the process and owership is shared by all. 

And I agree. And absolutely nothing about the high stakes test-driven standardized status quo in education supports this. Instead, personalization has taken on a new meaning for teachers and students-- it now means that we are going to figure out how you can personally adapt yourself to fit in the same identical path as everyone else.

We Have  a Leadership Crisis

Murray identifies one other recurring need that came up at camp: "the need for high-octane educational leaders who create environments that promote risk-taking and innovation in their schools, who focus on the whole child not just state test scores, and who are models for the staff and students they serve."

Again, I have to say that this seems like nice talk, but every single thing going on in the world of education reforminess works against this.

It used to be risk-taking could result in a principal taking nasty phone calls, or dealing with an angry staff, or having to admit he'd failed. Nowadays, risk takers are risking their entire careers. At the same time, we've lowered the bar considerably on what constitutes a risk. In some districts, a teacher is a risk-taker if he does the Tuesday lesson on Monday or Wednesday, and if he does it more than once, he'll get a special risk-taking letter of reprimand in his file.

Meanwhile, in some areas, a child's test score will decide whether the child flunks or not. So again-- nice thought that the child is not just a test score, a thought which I expect is shared by every single solitary teacher and administrator in the country.

It's a puzzler. If there is no teacher or principal anywhere saying, "The only thing that matters about our students is their test scores," then why are so many acting as if they believe that? Who, oh who, convinced them, cajoled them, threatened them, held their careers hostage unless they acted as if they believed nothing matters more than test scores?

EdCamp is supposed to be more than just plain old PD. You know Plain Old PD-- it's when you go learn some stuff that would be really cool in some alternate universe where you had the time, resources, environment and support to make it happen. But you don't live in that alternate universe, so it all goes away.

Murray has a list of pledges that correspond to his five takeaways, and while I wish him well, it sure looks like a typical PD list-- plenty of cool ideas from an alternate universe and little in place to make them real in this universe.

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