I’ll Add To The Rant

So the edbloggosphere has been on a every other month rant about the sorry lack of initiative by politicos, school boards, school administrators and others, to try new approaches in education. Well I’ll add to the chorus.

You know how it works. During a six year cycle you adopt a new reading program, math program, science program … and so on. The adoption is made, usually with lots of promises from the publishing company to provide training etc. and so the books and whatever else come and the training consists of one 3 hour training …  to at best maybe several days with a few follow-ups the 2nd year (“…but you can form cadres of teachers that plan together on your own time…”) and that’s it. No coaching, peer coaching, mentoring, paid planning sessions, or time to discuss the “ins-and-outs.” So success happens here and there, but mainly there’s grumbling and a general gnashing of teeth and slowly but surely whatever the new program was becomes whatever each teacher makes of it.

I teach at a school (well over 80% free/reduced price lunch) that like many others over the last 5 – 6 years has finally taken on an a program that was as “fully-funded” as I’m afraid I’ll ever see in my lifetime (note all “At-Risk” schools in my district spent as much money and did variations of what I describe here). Between NCLB and “Title” funding and some initiatives using state money and some grants, we spent $100,000 to $250,000 dollars a year, just at my school, training teachers in using a specific literacy program. We received an initial 6 days of training for the entire staff that carried over from year to year so that new teachers to our site received the same training and teachers that had already been trained could choose to do the training again as a refresher. We had onsite mentors that received ongoing training from the experts. We had twice monthly 90-minute trainings and time to develop materials and share “What Works.”  We did 2 whole day inservices each year to review and re-tool. We were paid or received credits for being involved in “Book Clubs” where a book was chosen and paid for to be read and discussed that supported the type of literacy program we were implementing. There was money for supplies and support materials. There was money to send every teacher on staff to literacy conferences – and those teachers would then share what they learned with the rest of the staff. There was money for “Experts” to present to the staff and energize the staff to do their best. And money for lots of different ways to assess what was happening – because we complained that standardized testing didn’t show much of the growth our students were making – so besides all the mandated assessments we did a battery of our own to prove that what we were doing was really working.

Was the program successful? Yes … somewhat. Our scores are up overall – I think 6 years ago we averaged about the 32nd percentile as a school -  and we’re around the 40th percentile now. BUT, is there a program or technique or style that might have done as well or better? Who knows? None were tried.

I’m sure I’ll hear from those that will say we have put tons of money into trying other ways of “doing school” and it has mostly been money down a rat hole (And I wouldn’t totally disagree), but how many different approaches have been tried that received the funding and time that I described above? NOT MANY (if any). When I hear about pilot programs that try different approaches, they are usually done on a shoestring, with little commitment of time (certainly not the 5 to 7 years we just experienced), little training, and often without doing some consensus and vision building and planning at the outset (read how the Science Learning Academy that just opened is doing this).

In addition, was the program above a really different approach? Not really. The program basically looked at research and pulled “tried-and-true” techniques and sewed them together. As we were told over and over, “We’re not teaching you totally new techniques and activities. We just put ways that research shows are effective together in a somewhat new way. It’s not new teaching, just GOOD TEACHING.

HMMM.

So when some of us (maybe many of us) say that our school districts, communities, states and country need to invest in, yes, spend more money on education, we are talking really about R & D – Research and Development as a big chunk of that investment. We are not going to get all that money by “Cutting back on administrators” or “cutting the fat” – although that would help a little (especially if I get to choose which administrators … sorry off topic). We have to take some of the ideas out there and ENCOURAGE THEM and fund them with the time and money necessary (maybe we could get it from the drug companies – they’ve had a long run of super-funding for R&D).

Have there been schools – entire schools (elementary, middle and high schools – high income, low income, urban, rural) – where a real problem-based, project-based approach supported by field trips, 21st century tools and Web 2,0 applications, grounded with a literacy program and a solid hands-on, minds-on math curriculum have been truly tried? I mean funded with time and money and encouragement as described above? Not many – if any I suspect.

I’ve said before that I have attended meetings with business people where they complain that schools aren’t keeping up with the times (and they are right), aren’t changing enough (if at all really) in how they do things and they need to change fundamentally. But when you point out possible ways schools could look, many often lament that they won’t understand what is going on because it won’t be like school when they went to school. So can school be done like it was when they went to school and really be changed??? Hence the problem I’m afraid.

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