Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Our world has changed (Part I)

Every now and then, just to lighten things up a bit, I will share personal stories or little bits and pieces of information that prove one thing.  Thomas Friedman was right. Our world has changed.

I'll start with this.

My six year old son has discovered YouTube.

I repeat.

My SIX year old son has discovered YouTube.

And what little gems did we unearth?

How about this.

The official White House Barack Obama Inauguration video (stuff I like to watch): One million, two hundred forty seven thousand, four hundred and sixty eight (1,247,468) views.

Alvin and the Chipmunks sing Crank That Soulja Boy (stuff HE likes to watch): SIX MILLION, TWO HUNDRED THIRTY SIX THOUSAND, NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY ONE (6,236,971) views.

I'm not making this up.

Folks, our world has changed. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The power is yours--seize it

Drums keep pounding rhythm to the brain



Wait till you have reached the age,

History has turned the page,

We still want to hear a brand new thing,

We still need a song to sing,

 And the beat goes on.....

And the beat goes on.....

And the beat goes on.....

And the beat goes on.....

And the beat goes on.....

And the beat goes on.....

(Sonny Bono, “The Beat Goes On”)


Yes it does.

The debate rages on, hot and heavy, about the relative merits of NCLB and national standards. And so it should; these are important issues that merit careful consideration and conscientious, well-informed debate. For what it's worth, I think the idea of national standards has merit (after all, 2+2=4 whether you're in Georgia or California) and I think that all schools should be held to a measure of accountability. But this post isn't about that. We'll save that particular debate for another day.

This post is about power.  

It's about what we do (or don't do) to arm ourselves with information and place ourselves in a position to make well-informed decisions about what is, and what is not, in the best interests of our schools and our children.  

It's about not allowing ourselves to be swayed by hype and hyperbole. 

It's about knowing.  

Because knowledge, as they say, is power. 


Have you heard it?

There has been a great deal of talk of late about improved NAEP test scores, particularly among African-American and at-risk students, as "proof" that our current efforts at reform are working.  Words like "unprecedented, " "historic highs" and "steady progress" have been bandied about in official press releases and in print media with such regularity that it would be easy to assume, given these glowing and optimistic reviews, that we have turned a corner and that we're finally making meaningful and substantive progress in public education. I don’t think anyone expects perfection from our schools.  But we do want to know, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that we need to believe, that we’re moving forward.

But faith is not enough.  Faith must be supported by facts, so rather than rely on an executive summary or someone else’s characterization of these scores, I decided to go to the best available source when I needed the most up-to-date data on the current state of student achievement.

I went straight to the New York Times.


I went to the official Nation's Report Card.  This is raw data, straight from the Department of Education, breaking down NAEP results in a surprisingly clear, concise and readable fashion. No hyperbole.  No characterization.

Just the facts.

And I couldn't believe what I read. 


First of all, let's talk about the word progress.  It means, generally speaking, to move forward in some way.  But when you carefully examine NAEP data, what will you see?

You’ll see:

  • A two point increase in the average 4th grade reading score from 219 in 2005 to 221 in 2007.  But this is progress, right?  Not really. Because the average score in 2002 was 219. The biggest spike in reading scores actually occurred between 2000 and 2002, when the scores went up by six points. But that was before NCLB was enacted into law.       
  • Eight grade reading scores were up by only one point, from 262 in 2005 to 263 in 2007.  But here’s the rub. The average score was 263 in 1998.  That means in spite of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on reforms targeted at improved literacy, we show no statistical improvement over the course of the past decade.  This data also shows that the gains our students make in the 4th grade are lost by the time our students reach the 8th grade.
  • Fourth grade mathematics scores show steady progress from 1990 (average score 213) to 2007 (average score 240).  But, again, there’s an issue. The biggest gains occurred before NCLB, when scores rose from 213 in 1990 to 235 in 2003.
  • The same is true of eight grade mathematics.  Scores were up by two points, from 279 in 2005 to 281 in 2007. However, once again, the pre-NCLB gains were larger, when scores increased from 263 in 1990 to 278 in 2003.

But here’s the real story. None of these improvements persist through to the end of high school. NAEP long-term test results show that since 1990, the scores of 17-year-olds have stagnated in math and fallen in reading.

So is this progress? 

Decide for yourself.  But here’s one more statistic.  And this is the one that pushed me over the edge.

Over and over and over again, we hear about how our African-American children are doing better.  That’s wonderful if true.  But is it?

Here’s one stat.  The Nation’s Report Card webpage documenting average 4th grade reading scores starts with the headline: “White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander fourth-graders scored higher in 2007 than in 1992.”  Okay, fair enough. Read further. In 2007, the average 4th grade reading score for African Americans was 203.  This is the “historic high.”

But then download the full report card.  Go to page 21, where you’ll find the 4th grade reading scale. Then note where an average score of 203 places you.

An average score of 203 is below basic!

I was so dumbfounded, so utterly flabbergasted by this, I asked my mother, a retired teacher, to look at the report.  She saw the same thing, shook her head and whispered “My God.”

Then I got angry.  Really, really angry.  (And I will try, gentle reader, not to have this blog devolve into an expletive-laced tirade).  A 203 is NOT progress.  It’s pathetic.  It’s appalling.  This is AMERICA not Guam! I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, 4th grade students in THIS country should NOT have an AVERAGE reading score of below basic. Ever.  And then to have the temerity, the unmitigated GALL, to characterize this as progress, insults even the most basic notions of reason or intelligence.

(See, no expletives.  I’m proud of myself).

Imagine this.  Imagine if a teacher said to you of your child, “We are sooooo very proud of your child.  S/he’s made soooooo much progress.  S/he’s now IMPROVED to below basic.  You must be very proud.  We are.” 

What would you do?

I’ll tell you what I would do.


Cable television……out.


iPod…….forget about it.

Air Jordan’s……don’t even look.

Jeans....from Sears.

Play time…

Bed time……8 o’clock EVERY night.

Homework…..constantly, all the time, every day until you leave my house, get a job or win the lottery.

Fuzzy wuzzy, feel good tolerance of woeful academic performance…not in my house.  Not ever.

Folks,  when I see scores like this, I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Armageddon where the Bruce Willis character is informed that the only way to save the world is to send his team of deep sea drillers into outer space to drill a hole in an asteroid and drop a nuclear bomb in the hole.  The Willis character looks at the NASA rep (played with surprising restraint by Billy Bob Thornton) and says (as only Bruce Willis can), “You’ve got to be kidding.  That’s the best you can do.  You’re NASA. You’re geniuses.  And this best you can do?  Oh God….”

That’s what I think about education.  Public education is full of, well…educators.  You guys are really, really smart.  You have PhD’s.  You write textbooks.  You study the human brain.  You passed statistics.  You get billions and billions of dollars and year, and this is the best we can do?

It is at this point that I can almost understand (almost….) some republican concerns about increased education spending. Trillions of dollars and this is our return?  A generation of functionally illiterate kids who are hopelessly ill equipped and ill-prepared to compete and succeed in the world as it exists now? This is what you give me?  And then you have the nerve to look me in the face and characterize THIS as progress?

Oh man……

So one of three things is true.  We either:

  • cannot fix public education because the problems are too deep, too entrenched, for systemic change, and no one has the gumption, the courage, to say so; 
  • can fix public education but don’t know how and no one has the gumption, the courage, to say so; or
  • can fix public education, and we know how to do it, we just don’t choose to do it.  And why should we? Public school is for poor kids anyway.  As long as our talented tenth is thriving, we still need someone to bag our groceries and to sell us Jimmy Choo shoes.  So pumping out ill-informed, uneducated worker bees into our economy suits us just fine. (Of course, we can never, ever say that…that would be positively un-American).

Whatever the cause, the effect is the same. There’s not enough work for the worker bees anymore. And with about 50 million illiterate Americans and climbing, who do you think is going to pay for all these unemployed and underemployed worker bees? Look at your paycheck.  See all those Federal, state and local deductions?  That’s right.  YOU will.  YOU will end up paying for our failure to educate our children.  Or more likely, our children will end up paying this debt.  A debt they didn’t create and don’t deserve.

Didn’t like the bailouts?  Stimulus package tick you off?  Well, if we keep this up, if we don’t fix our schools, if we keep characterizing average scores of below basic as “historic highs,” if we don’t start calling it like it is, then the looming crisis, both human and economic, will make our current economic travails look like a hiccup by comparison. 

Believe me, I am, by nature, an optimist.  I do not ascribe to the politics of fear and polarization.  But this is real folks.  It’s real and it’s happening right now. 

But please, please, please, don’t take my word for it. Don’t blindly accept my characterization.  That’s the point of this post.  Agree with me, disagree with me, tell me I’m full of it, it’s cool—but check it out for yourselves.  Arm yourselves.  Inform yourselves.

Then decide.

There are many forms of power; most unattainable to the common citizen.  But some forms of power are yours and can never be taken away should you choose to exercise that power.  One is the power of the mind.  It’s yours.  Use it.  The other is the power of information.  One of the great benefits of living in the Digital Age is that information is readily available.  There is simply no excuse for not knowing.

So take it. 


It doesn’t belong to Obama, or Duncan or your elected officials.

It’s yours.

Seize it.

The power to think, the power to decide, the power to act and the power to shape our individual and collective future.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

I'll throw it out there...

"Hey Mike, aren't you blogging anymore?"

I'm sorry. I've received several emails like this.  I have been silent for a while. 

It's not because I've run out of things to say.  To the contrary, I've probably started, then stopped, at least a dozen new blogs.  I have a great deal that I would like to say. What I've struggled with, ergo my silence, is what I should say.

I started blogging because I had all these ideas, all this stuff, just sitting in my head and on my hard drive collecting intellectual dust. I didn't know if any of it had any merit; I didn't know if it was any good, so I thought...let's just throw it out there and see what happens.  I didn't really expect much. Then I received my first comment. I was floored. Then a second, a third.  Then I started finding references to my blog that I didn't know existed; references that indicated, to my silent surprise, that some of the things I'd written moved and inspired. 


Suddenly, I began to feel a measure of responsibility.  I didn't want to just add to the white noise that too often characterizes the ongoing, and annoyingly circuitous, dialogue about educational reforms; I wanted to say something of merit, of substance.  I wanted to add something of value--especially for the teachers who I believe are on the front lines of our efforts at educational reform. And as I scanned through my first wave of blogs, I realized that I didn't really talk much about technology per se.  I didn't talk about the newest or most interesting hardware and software. I didn't identify specific instructional uses of technology.  As I read through the posts, one by one, I realized that I essentially offered commentary.

But is that okay?  Is that enough?

A few weeks ago, my company, Smart Technology Services, launched a new Smart Tech Blog "that covers technological trends, design elements, and marketing schemes that affect us in the office, on the street, and at home."  The blog is written by our marketing manager, Jeff Wichmann. Jeff writes in a concise and informative style; with his own unique wit.  You should check it out or add it to your blog roll.

Of course, this still begs the question, what do I do?  Where is my place?  What can I add that is of meaning and value?

I guess, in the end, I have to trust what's in my heart.

I could, I suppose, talk more about widgets and gadgets, but there are already a number of people doing that far better than I ever could.  I could, I suppose, focus more on curriculum design and alignment strategies, and I will certainly do more of that in the future, but again, there are already a number of bloggers out there doing that far better than I ever could.  

So I will continue to offer commentary.  

I will continue to do what I think, what I hope, has some value to you.  Because once again, I find that I have all these ideas, all this stuff, sitting in my head and on my hard drive.  
So I'll throw it out there.

And we'll see what happens.