Saturday, April 26, 2014

Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Luck?: The Remote School Problem

There's always talk about "the education crisis" and all the troubles our teachers and students are facing.

Poverty is a key issue and catalyst in "the education crisis", a problem just as wicked as education itself.  It's a problem that's been addressed as far back as The Great Depression and validated in the 1960s with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 which included policies and provisions under Title I, Part A that provide funding to strengthen the education programs and provide academic interventions for at-risk students attending schools in low socioeconomic areas.

However, where do we generally perceive those low income areas to be, and is the issue truly about the poverty of the location or capacity of the school to provide a high quality and effective education to the students? 

According to a 2013 report published by the Southern Education Foundation, out of the top 10 states with the largest population of students from low income homes attending public schools, 55% or more of all rural students were low income.  Only 27% of high school graduates from rural locations generally go on to college.
From A New Majority: Low Income Schools in the South and Nation (October 2013)
With startling numbers such as these, why does it seem like we pay more attention to the issues with the inner-city schools located in low-income neighborhoods than the issues facing the schools located in remote, rural communities?

Perhaps it's a matter of out of sight, out of mind.

We view the education crisis much more clearly with the inner-city schools because they are in our line of sight as we make our way from the suburbs to the towns and city where most of us work.

We watch the news reports on the education crisis which often feature the wicked problems facing our inner-city schools such as poverty, nutrition, economics, politics, and family dynamics.

We see documentaries such as Waiting for Superman that feature the growth and progress of the charter schools who are succeeding.

However, why don't the rural schools receive as much attention or notoriety?

I can't help but think of this as I started this blog entry a few weeks ago sitting in my hotel room in Bluff, UT, a rural territory 20 minutes from the Arizona-Utah border as I spend the next couple of days helping a K-12 school district located 45 minutes away in an even more remote location with the nearest city being hundreds of miles away.

The schools to whom I provide academic program consultation and professional development on implementing, instructing, and integrating the Common Core State Standards are primarily Title I schools located within a large city with a population of more than 250,000.  These schools are mostly located in low socioeconomic neighborhoods and have a free and reduced lunch population over 40%, which qualifies them to implement a Title I Schoolwide Program according to Section 1114(a)(1) of Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

NCES's urban-centric locale categories, released in 2006
A couple of the schools with whom I work are located in rural areas designated as fringe and distant territories according to the school locale definitions designated by the National Center for Education Statistics.  However, these rural areas are seemingly and slowly becoming more like towns and suburbs as more chain restaurants, supermarkets, department stores, and entertainment centers such as movie theaters open in these areas.

The school I am currently working with on this trip is in a sparsely populated remote location.  The nearest is more than 25 miles from an urbanized area and is also more than 10 miles from an urban cluster.  Housing is limited.  Commerce is practically non-existent except for the gas station convenient store over 30 miles away.

Another school with whom I considered working was also located in a remote Arizona location just 50 miles off Interstate 10 that stretches from Phoenix to Los Angeles and 40 miles away from the Arizona-California border.   The nearest commercial enterprises were rest stops and fast food joints that were over 20 miles away. 

These are the schools that are truly in crisis - not just because of low student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance.  They're in crisis because of their issues with capacity and sustainability.

From Beginning Teachers Are More Common in Rural, High-Poverty, and Racially Diverse Schools
(Gagnon & Mattingly, 2012)

While rural districts have higher percentages of beginning teachers than mid sized-small cities, suburbs, and fringe-distant town districts, they generally do not stay longer than 2 or 3 years.

Those who do stay either spend the rest of their career teaching in the district, go on to become school leaders and administrators, or eventually leave the profession to pursue another career or stay home and care for their children.

Finding highly qualified and effective school leaders is just as challenging.  Districts in remote locations are more like independently owned charter schools with the district leader taking on the role of an Everyman, taking responsibility for all areas of the district and its schools - the leadership, the curriculum, the federal programs, even the classroom instruction in some cases.

Rural districts located in the most remote parts of Arizona are known to have a revolving door of superintendents who jump from district to district just as their contract is up for renewal or their job is in jeopardy.   Other districts decide have a classroom teacher who is underqualified do double duty as the district superintendent and grade level instructor.

It is these districts who find themselves on the radar of the state department of education only after someone in one of the departments that reviews the compliance of academic programs under one of the titles of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 finally acknowledges how poorly the district and its schools have been performing - and then it is usually too late.  The rural district or school gets designated as a focus or priority school and needs to meet a series of complex goals that they do not have the capacity to implement, measure, or monitor.

The issue is not a fiscal one.  Rural districts are often allocated significant funding through Title I or Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) funding.  The problem is how to spend all that money wisely and effectively on human and instructional resources to improve student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance.

So how can we help these schools?

It starts with the school board for these schools and those elected who profess to have the best interests of the community in mind in governing the education provided in their area.  However, these school boards need to realize that in this globally connected world that isolationism is no longer effective.  They cannot shut themselves off from the world and depend on those who leave their small community to receive an education from a college or university will return to give back to their community.  It's similar to what happened when the children of the farmers went off to World War I and II and decided not to return home to the farmland after having a more worldly experience.

The next area that needs to be addressed is the leadership.  These districts need a strong leader, not someone who has done the job before or is liked by the community and therefore deserves to become the superintendent or principal.  A leader in these schools will not be liked because they will need to implement grand changes, and change is uncomfortable.

The issues with leadership also needs to extend to the governing board of the district.
Too often performance and progress can be hampered by elected officials who believe they have the community's best interest in mind when they restrict the district and school from expanding and extending their resources.  Board members needs to keep in mind that a philosophy of isolationism will only hinder and hurt our students rather than help the community.  What's always worked and the way it's always been done may not be as effective or meeting the global and social demands education and the workforce places on us teachers to prepare our students.

The most important area that needs to be addressed are the teachers, who are doing the best they can with the resource they have - physical, human, and economic.  However, as with any teachers, they need professional development and support to improve. 

The most vital actions rural schools can take does not come from the school but rather the state education agency (SEA).  There needs to be more guidance and support provided to these schools - and not just fiscally.  These schools need help with building their capacity and sustainability.  They need help with bringing those highly qualified and effective teachers to their campus located in the middle of nowhere.  They need help with providing professional development to ensure the staff they currently have are both highly qualified and effective.

The SEA needs to do more than designate these low performing schools as focus or priority schools.  They need to focus their efforts on helping these schools improve and make school improvement a priority.  However, they should be more assistive than punitive.  Perhaps if they did, these schools wouldn't have to pay consultants like me who are willing to travel to these districts and not encumbered or restricted by lack of funding or interest to travel and provide them the support they need.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How to Teach Educational Failure - And Should We Teach It?

Does your school require you to turn in certain paperwork such as lesson plans or submit your grades by a certain time?  

What are the reasons why don't you turn in lesson plans, grades, or required paperwork on time?  Were you too busy with other responsibilities to complete your work and meet your deadline?  Were there things in both your professional and personal life that prevented you from fulfilling your obligations and doing what was expected of you?

What happens when you don't follow through with these expectations?  How does your administrator or supervisor react or respond?  Do you attempt to explain to your administrator why you need more time?  How flexible is your your administrator with your request?

What about if your students are not meeting the annual measurable objectives set by the state in which you live or the benchmarks for proficiency set by the district, charter, or site where you work?   What does your administrator do?  Do they fire you right on the spot because you're not performing at the level you should be?  Do they wait until the end of the year to let you know your contract will not be renewed or do they continue to keep you on staff, provide you with an instructional coach or mentor who can help you, or place you on a plan of improvement with specific goals you must attain?

How about when you don't agree with your administrator or supervisor and you refuse to do something out of civil disobedience?  What happens when you refuse to teach the class your administrator decides you need to teach the following year?  What happens when you refuse to follow directives and directions from your administrator or department chair?  What happens when your administrator or supervisor tells you not to do something and you go ahead and do it anyway?  What happens when you're not paying attention during a professional development or when you talk back to your principal?

Would it be acceptable, appropriate, and reasonable for you to be fired for all these things?  

These are all fireable offenses.  With the first scenario, you're failing to fulfill your obligations and responsibilities.  With the second, you're failing to meet or exceed standards of performance set for you.  With the third, you're failing to recognize and respect the directions given to you by your supervisors.

However, how many opportunities are you provided to correct or redeem your failures before your principal calls you into the office and says this.

Is this how failure is in the real world - final, penultimate, and unforgiving - or are we allowed and encouraged to learn from our errors and misjudgment and redeem ourselves so we may not repeat our mistakes and go on to achieve even greater success?

Most of the entries for the definition of failure in dictionaries focus more on the disappointing outcome when someone has tried to do something or describe how failure could be the result of an uncontrollable, unforeseen, unfortunate, or unpredictable circumstance or situation.
Famous "Failures"

This is how failure is viewed in the professional world.  Failure is synonymous with disappointment or lack of success.  It's also considered to be an opportunity.  Failure allows us to learn from our mistakes, reveals our strengths and areas of growth and improvement, inspires us and others, and may lead us to better opportunities.  

Failure also teaches us how to persevere by working both harder and smarter to attain goals.  If you fail, you regroup, attain support to protect yourself and whatever investments you may still have, or you simply walk away confidently and securely from the situation because it no longer has the appeal or interest it once did and set new goals and objectives.
Is Every Failure an Underlying Opportunity for Success?
Failure is also not final.  It can be experienced many, many, many times in a person's lifetime.  In fact, for many, failure is viewed as a beginning or an indication for a fresh new direction or start.

Failure is also forgiven and redeemable, especially when it is caused by an error in judgment and the person redeems themselves and proves they have learned from their mistakes.

Yoda said it best when he told Luke Skywalker, "Do or do not.  There is no try." In the real world, failure is when you don't.  Disappointment and lack of success is a lesson from which we can learn.

Isn't that what we should be teaching our students - to learn how to face failure, deal with adversity, and think critically and creatively how to maintain, obtain, or regain success?

Unfortunately, educational failure is more of a punishment than a lesson - and not one that can be easily forgiven or resolved.  Once you have an F in the gradebook, it's near impossible to make it go away.  God forbid if you have more than one F - especially if it's a zero.

However, what exactly does that F mean, how was it attained, and why was it earned?

Was the failing grade due to no success or no attempt?  Was it because the student turned in poor or unacceptable work, or did they turn in nothing?  Did the student fall far below the standard on an assessment, or make no attempt to complete the task?   Was the failure more about a disappointment with the work than a decision not to do the work?

When our students earn that F, does that F mean, "You've failed," and consider why or is it telling them, "You're fired," and move on?

What Is Educational Failure?
This is how educational rigor and educational failure are similar.  They're not simple concepts or problems that can be addressed or fixed.  Just as educational rigor consists of academic rigor (the difficulty and complexity of questions, problems, and tasks) and cognitive rigor (the level of knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness expected to be demonstrated and communicated to answer questions, address problems, and accomplish tasks), educational failure is categorized as academic failure, which is based upon quality, standard, and success of performance, and true failure, which is when there is no evidence of performance.

So how should we deal with both aspects of educational failure?  Should that failing grade remain averaged in students' grade point average or should they be given the opportunity to correct or make up for their failure?  Should we distinguish between those students who completed their work but earned a a failing grade and those students who failed because they did nothing?

I'm not suggesting we should prevent or protect our students from failing.  Failure is an experience that everyone will encounter at some point be it in their academic, personal, or personal life.  It is also a vital component of competition that drives a person to succeed, builds and strengthens character, and instills a strong work ethic.  We should allow our students to experience failure through disappointment, frustration, and lack of success not only so they learn how to deal with failure but also realize no one and nothing is ever or always perfect or successful.

I'm also not advocating for a no-fail policy that advocates for grading students with a 50% even if they do nothing in class just so the zeroes they would - and should - have earned won't have a detrimental effect on their GPA.  That's enabling and excusing failure.  Like I said, if a student did nothing, they deserve that zero.  It also does not address or support the larger issue, which is whether the student learns what they need to know, understand, be able to do and develops deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness.

However, how can we turn failure into a positive rather than punitive experience that reflects failure in real life?

We can make student performance for grade similar to paying a bill.

When I taught 11th Grade English  at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, the assignment that was worth the most points was the research paper, which was a herculean task that taught students deeply how to conduct research and investigations, document their sources, and communicate their learning in a persuasive essay.  The paper was assigned during second quarter and could make or break whether a student passed English for second semester.

It was also when my class roster would include seniors who did not pass English 6 (the name of the 11th Grade English course for second semester) and had to retake the class during their senior year in order to graduate.  Whenever I asked my students why they did not pass English 6, it was generally the same answer: "I didn't do the research paper."

When they asked me how they could pass my English 6 class so they could graduate, I would ask them, "Well, if you didn't pass English 6 because you didn't do the work, what do you think you need to do in here?" They clearly knew the answer - "Do the work."

However, there would always be that one senior who pushed the limits or didn't learn from their previous mistake and did not do the research paper.  That senior would always end up failing my class because the research paper was worth so much.  That was also the senior whose parents would come in complaining and calling for meeting with me, my department chair, and the administration because the graduation announcements had already been sent out and Aunt Molly was flying in from Idaho to see her favorite niece or nephew walk across the stage to get their diploma, and now that wasn't going to happen because they failed my class.  

I had five meetings like that my first year teaching 11th Grade English, and to be honest, I was fed up with having to defend myself for their child choosing not to do the research paper - or any of their work for that matter - and ending up failing English 6 again.

However, after the fifth meeting, I reflected upon what did I really care about?  Did I care about the grade or did I care about the student learning something?  If I failed them and didn't let them correct their mistakes, wouldn't they not only receive the F but also not learn the knowledge and skills they need for life after graduation?

I came up with the idea to let those seniors who repeated and again fail 11th Grade English to redeem themselves.  I suggested to my English Department Chair and principal that I will treat them as adults and shape this proposal I wanted to offer to them similar to what happens when you pay a bill.

Think about what happens when you don't pay a credit card bill on time.  You're penalized but you're not excused from what you owe.  In fact, you might have to pay a late fee or interest for your negligence or refusal to pay.  Generally, you're given between 30 to 90 days to pay in full until they call the creditors on you or shut down your service.

However, you're never excused from that payment.  You still owe that money.

That's when I came up with the idea to treat assignments and grading in my class like a bill.

In my classroom, the service I provided was my instruction and guidance on how to write a research paper.  Your payment owed to me for that service is the assignment or paper you have to complete.   The due date for that payment is the due date of the assignment.  If you turn the payment in on time, you'll receive the credit of a passing grade between A and D or higher than 60%.  

If you don't turn in that payment, you receive no credit.  However, you still owe me that payment.  The payment is your demonstration and communication of learning. If you prove that, you'll receive credit, but the penalty for late payment is not the full credit you would have earned.

This became not only my grading policy but also part of my educational philosophy.   It was what I offered to my students when I was a teacher, and it was what I suggested to my teachers when I was an administrator.  Initially, both parties balked.  

The students thought it was unfair that they would receive a 59.45% even if they turned in the work after the due date.  I would agree with them, but I also reminded them they had the opportunity to get full credit by turning the work in by the due date.  That was their choice.  They chose not to, so here's a second opportunity not only to earn some kind of credit but also learn the content and concept well enough to be prepared for the state summative assessment or the final given at the end of the semester.

The teachers complained not only that we were teaching kids they could "get away with doing nothing" or "being rewarded for being irresponsible".  We would engage in an Q and A with me asking them to explain what did they mean.  They would make statements how, "Kids need to learn responsibility," or how, "You can't make excuses for what you don't do," or even, "Life is about homework," and, "Kids have to realize life isn't about second chances," and,

In response to the second to last statement, first I'd give a hypothetical question about what they would think if I as their boss gave them an assignment that was due the very next day after this meeting in which they would be required to read and respond to a study on the detrimental effects of failing policies that don't allow forgiveness, to research and investigate the psychology and pedagogy behind student failure, the history of how failure has been handled in education, and solve a variety of routine and non-routine math word problems that required calculating what a failing grade can do to a student's entire GPA.  Then I would remind them this was all due to me as a report that can be presented orally, in writing, creatively, or with technology by tomorrow.

As for that final statement, I would ask, "Should I remember that when you or one of the staff members don't turn in your grades, lesson plans, or paperwork on time?  Should I consider that when I review your students' scores on the previous benchmark or when I look for growth and progress based upon the benchmarks given over the year?  Should I keep that in mind when I have a complaint brought to my office about something you did that could be considered cause for dismissal even though you apologize or promise it would never happen again?"

Those conversations never ended well nor did I intend them to transform their thinking the moment they left my office.  All I wanted was them to consider the implications of their thinking and actions, which is what the F our students earn should do.

We're required to teach.  They're expected to pass.  That's the bottom line.  How that happens depends not only on the effort of the student but also the willingness for us educators to reflect upon our own efforts to provide them with the education they not only deserve but should want and even be convinced they would want.

Life may not always be about second chances.  However, it is about learning and growing from our mistakes - and that's what educational failure should be.  If they fail for academic reasons, we need to figure out how to help them achieve and attain success.  If our students choose true failure by doing nothing, then we can give them that opportunity to learn from their mistakes.  If they don't, then it's their decision and responsibility.

- E.M.F.