What a Ride

The quote of the year came from teacher Tom Mulhall as he emceed our annual retirement celebration. “Never before have so many been so envious of so few.” It’s an exciting and difficult time in education. In many ways, this was both the best and the worst year we’ve had in a long time. Here are some of the highlights:

The Attack Continues. Public schools are a failure. The United States is falling behind. Despite the best test-prep programs our government can dream up, we can’t keep up. It doesn’t matter that poverty is the real problem, or that we insist on educating (and testing) 100% of the population, or that our students are in school fewer, shorter days than students in any other industrialized country. It’s the lazy, complacent, ineffective teachers and school leaders that are causing the problem. And yet…

Schools Don’t Suck Enough. The state of Ohio is changing the formula it uses to grade schools. Currently, it uses the Local Report Card, which rates each school on student test scores, attendance, and graduation rate, and then throws in some factors like Value-Added to ensure that each student is improving, and Adequate Yearly Progress to ensure that subgroups based on gender, race, and other factors aren’t being left behind. In this system, the school district in which I work has received top marks since the program began 13 years ago. But a new system is in the works that changes the formula. The result? Under the current formula, 352 schools are rated “Excellent” or “Excellent with Distinction.” With the new rules, only 31 districts would receive an “A” or “A-“.  If the governor’s office can continue making the case that our schools are awful, he can continue to push his privatization agenda. Meanwhile…

Teachers are Taking it in the Shorts. Locally, negotiations with the employee unions have been more contentious than anyone can remember. The conversation isn’t about pay raise versus pay cut. It’s about pay cut versus bigger pay cut, with increased health care costs and worse coverage as an added bonus. This all comes after four rounds of staffing cuts that left everyone with more work to do and fewer resources to do it with, and a current contract that included an absolute salary freeze and increased health care costs. On the board’s side, the financial outlook is bleak, with declining revenue and a depressing gauntlet of levy campaigns in our future. And at the same time, we need…

more More MORE (less). Whenever resources are scarce, we turn to technology to pick up the productivity slack. So we’re doing more things with technology that are critical to the operation of the school. And we’re using more technology for instruction, too. In the last eight years, we’ve doubled the technology we’re using in our school district. In the next three years, we’re going to double it again. And all of this technology is critical. If the POS system breaks, we can’t serve lunch. If a projector bulb burns out, teachers wander the halls with their classes looking for an empty classroom with a working projector. But so far, we haven’t seen more staff, and the attitude is still that we need to be reducing staff overhead.

So the year hasn’t be a great one. But on the other hand:

We’re finally blending. It was 1993 when I started using the Internet to take class discussions beyond the limits of the time and space inherent in the school bell schedule. I’ve been a strong advocate of pushing teaching and learning online as long as I’ve been in this profession. We’ve been running Moodle now for eight years, but it hasn’t really had much traction with our teachers. Now, people are starting to take notice of the benefits of online learning tools. Part of this has to do with the current obsession with “flipping the classroom,” the success of which entirely depends on how the regained classroom time is spent. Another piece comes from the state government, which believes we can outsource “education” to online providers and save millions of dollars. But all of this talk about these technology tools has teachers exploring the possibilities for teaching and learning online, and that’s going to ultimately benefit students. At the same time…

We’re talking NextGen. I started using the terms “Next Generation Skills” and “NextGen Learning” because “21st Century Skills” has become so diluted that it no longer has any meaning. Earlier this year, I started a NextGen Blog, and we have had lots of discussions at all levels of our school community on the future of education, the roles of student and teacher, the effect of technology on teaching and learning, the use of personal learning networks, and all kinds of “big picture” topics related to education. I like to think that the discussions themselves are causing teachers, parents, administrators, and community members to re-imagine what our schools should be. This has led to…

Planning for 1:1. It’s becoming increasingly clear that technology is moving from places to people. That happened with phones first. My kids don’t remember a time when phones were tied to places. Every person has a phone. Computers are the same way. We’re finally seriously talking about getting rid of computer labs and dedicated classroom computers and just giving a device to each person. It’s going to take a  long time to get there. We’ll be using classroom sets of netbooks in some classrooms next year. We’re planning to start issuing laptops to teachers in 2013. We have a whole lot of infrastructure challenges to overcome, but for the first time, this is seriously on the table and not just a pipe dream. Meanwhile…

I hosted an EdCamp. I did a conference presentation in 2008 on the power of learning networks. I’m finally at the point where some of those ideas are starting to take root in my own schools. Last week, our school hosted the first EdCamp Cleveland, and we had teachers, administrators, and others interested in education all making connections and discussing important issues in education. I think we’ll be seeing more events like this in the future, and probably some changes in how we approach professional development as well.

So the year hasn’t been all bad. But it has been exhausting. Now it’s time to step away for a while. It’s time to re-charge the batteries, figure out where we are, and determine how we’re going to face the next part of the journey.

Photo Credit: Ben Spark on Flickr.

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Author: John Schinker

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