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Education Salvation?: PLCs, CFAs and Other Soup

29 Jan

“The renovation of nations begins always at the top, among the reflective members of the State, and spreads a lowly outward and downward.  The teachers of this country, one may say, have its future in their hands.”  [William James (1907), Talks to Teachers on Psychology, p. 3]

“Inevitably, a theory (stated above by James) of such radical conditioning requires that power, however used, always emanate from the top down.  Thus James called the school, not common or public schools, but . . . the State school system.”  [Rousas Rushdoony (1976), The Messianic Character of American Education, p. 112]

This blog is not about seeking Superman.  It is not about becoming Superman.  This blog is not even about putting on a cape.  Beyond a moment, there is not enough motivational rhetoric that can convince mere humans of the need to be something other than what they are in their own strengths.  Despite all the pressures placed on schools, teachers are not the social saviors of the futures of children.  Education is not the salvation of our nation.  Teachers are not the saviors of a generation, but both are complementary and quite valuable.

“We teach children, not subjects!”  (Carol Cummings, 1990, Teaching Makes A Difference, p. 13)

Educational fads are not the saviors and cures for what ails education today.  New programs are really nothing new.  Those of us who have been around while have seen fads come and go.  But wait!  We’re told this fad is here to stay and that it is not going away ever!  Education is not a fad.  It is not gimmickry and results-oriented only.  Education is first and foremost about people.  It always has been and always will be.  This is the reason I choose to be part of this so-called profession.

We are part of the problem, though.  All of us share in the problems that have led to the problems in education.  One of the major reasons that education is in such a mess in public schools is because the bureaucrats and secularists have made certain that schools cater to children.  Schools have done more than support families, as they have done in the past.  We are being told now that schools are the places where students are raised, fed, and patted on the head for a job well done.

Last year, 2009-2010, we were told about the merits of the PLC and how it could help students test scores.  This year we are being motivated by psychology and “moral purpose,” to stay the course.   But to this point, Fullan writes:  “The argument is somewhat subtle, so let me make it more direct.  If concerns for making a difference remain at the one-to-one and classroom level, it cannot be done.  An additional component is required.  Making a difference, must be done explicitly recast in broader social and moral terms.”  (p. 11)

Schools know what to do to raise test scores:  Give assessments along the way.  Teach to the assessments to ensure good results, and we conclude that students learn.  Tomorrow, do it again.  Along the way, Caucasian teachers are now being told that they do not understand the cultures of students of color and that it is the white dominant culture that needs to understand, change, and accept responsibility for the past discrimination.  Teachers are being told that we are the heroes of kids and that we touch the future.  We are being prodded to learn what motivates students and touch that part of their educational lives.  How in the world did we go from a professional learning community to motivational experts in human development to saviors of the system?  Schools are not the places to experiment with all sorts of things to simply raise test scores and graduation rates.  Moral purpose comes from home.  It is where teachers learned it.  It suddenly does not appear from thin air, or at graduation for a teacher-training institution.

Things Have Changed

Schools that have to raise children will never be the places of higher learning and achievement they need to be.  Things have changed.  In over thirty years in education I have seen so many changes in schools and families.  Families that entrust schools to raise their kids will never be the bastions against negative culture that they need to be.  I suggest working together with the majority of the emphasis on children at home.  If children are supposed to be the focus for us at school, then I ask these same children be the same focus at home.  Parents, they are YOUR kids, after all.

The old gray mare,
She ain’t what she used to be
Ain’t what she used to be,
Ain’t what she used to be
The old gray mare,
She ain’t what she used to be
Many long years ago. (Anonymous)

Just yesterday, I, along with 1700 other teachers and administrators, were subject to the following topics in required seminars (see me own sarcasm in parentheses that follow each:

  • Is education good enough for “your own child” principle?  (I’d ask if the children’s home lives were good enough for my own child.  What is fair is fair.)
  • What if we teach like we really mean it?  (How many of us are just there for a check?  I don’t know any in my sphere.  What if students were raised by parents that meant it?  What if students studied and acted responsibly as if they meant it?)
  • Norms of a meeting are extremely important and groups should hold each other accountable.  (Norms police, but we don’t dare do that to the students who truly need policing.)
  • Collaboration is a systematic process in which we work together interdependently . . . (A process established by whom?  “Are Schools, departments, and local “professionals” already knowledgeable and are they free to establish them?)
  • Focus on results more than process.  (But we are supposed to touch the future.)
  • Dream a Dream and be a kid’s hero.  (I am a hero to my own children and family and that is my first priority.)
  • Ensure that all of our students learn at high levels.  (There is no way possible to do this.  Students miss school.  Families do not ensure what it takes to work together to achieve this.)
  • Impart confidence to students.  (They have to choose confidence, take risks to grow it, and demonstrate it.  I can only model it.  I cannot impart anything as a human to another human who must choose to own it.)
  • Analyze small and formative assessments (Pieces demonstrate memory for the moment.  Real learning without using linkages from days past is only piecemeal)
  • Do all things similarly in pacing, decide what knowledge is important, use same tests to measure these.  (Cookie-cutter education, replicating from an autocrat removes what is probably best for students at any given time.  No two groups are the same, so the pacing might very well be different.  If pacing is different then so too are the tests. Students are all different and cannot be assumed to think the same way about facts and content.  If a student “thinks” and comes up with a wrong answer, if he penalized for not “knowing” the right answer?)
  • Teachers determine the weather in each classroom.  (True to some extent.)
  • Motivate discouraged students.  (Motivation is momentary.  Relationships last well into the future.  People who are not coaches are being asked to motivate?  Think about a football team that did not want to play.  What could a coach do to motivate the players against their wills?)
  • Do whatever it takes and approach work like it’s a religious experience.  (If I could, it would be moral, spiritual, consequential, and purposeful.  So, is “one nation under God” all right to use?”)
  • How would we rate our own personal intelligence?  (Psychology to identify with students.  No one thinks they are below average)
  • How do we respond to students who do not care?  (We care.)
  • Build strong relationships with all students.  (Impossible to do in 50 minutes a day, with over 40 per class.)
  • Changing mind sets.  (I can change no one.)
  • Think like a mediator.  (Why?  I am a teacher.)
  • The 100-point, A-F grading scale is flawed.  (Just because someone says so?)
  • Use standards-based grading.  (Why?  Is there nothing else a student should learn?)
  • Create quality instruction.  (No, never!  Everyone I know creates crap and teaches it thusly.)

Families Need Help

Families are not doing their jobs at home.  Is it any wonder that schools can do theirs?  Look at this list.  Schools and teachers are working harder and harder, with less and less return on their work.  Children are coming to our schools with serious and deep concerns.  If schools were just failing, that would be one thing.  But there is a decline in the American family structure and it is little wonder that this decline is seen in the children of these same failing families.  Where is that in the list?  Instead, we are supposed to find ways to go around the real issues that affect our classrooms.  Schools represent communities.  Are schools meant to be the places “of” community?  Solid families have solid values.  A family that values education is obvious.  Families are looking to schools for help today, unlike in generations of the past.  I implore families to stay together until their children are raised.  Place personal gratification on the back burner.  You expect teachers to center on your kids, yet you don’t convey that they are as important by chasing personal desires.

Whom Do We Believe?

If we are to believe the media, then adults are more concerned about their sexuality and orientations than they are about the effects their revelations have on the families.  If we are to believe the children we teach, then parents are more concerned about their personal relationships than they are making sure homework is finished.  If we are to believe the state, then millions of non-English speaking illegals are receiving all sorts of tax-payer funded entitlements.

The truth is that students come to school unprepared in many places across this nation.  Families are frightened in inner cities just to let their children go to schools.  These things are not the schools’ fault.  How does one even talk about a “professional learning community,” in terms of academics with so much community-at-large baggage?

There is no teacher and no school that can make up the deficit that exists in communities such as these.  Families make up communities.  Men and women have children.  Children have children.  Families break up.  Abusive relationships, along with addictions and cultural cycles mark educational terrain across this land.  Whose responsibility is it to ensure the success of a child?  What professions are stepping up to ensure such success?  President Obama wants “Win the Future.”  But is winning the future with such a diverse and heterogeneous population just more rhetoric?  China, Japan, and Korea are quite homogeneous and place the teacher in roles that are quite unlike where teachers are in America.  Where the student is front and center, and not the teacher, what is the result?  I went into teaching to do just that.

Schools are expected to teach students by somehow meeting the needs that are best met by families, minus the discipline and self-control that are required for adulthood.  How in the world can students learn these very important traits, if they are not being modeled at home, and we are forbidden by law to do what is truly necessary to endure their occur in the classroom?  How can we inculcate and motivate beyond cultural differences, when we are told to celebrate cultural differences?

Teaching right from wrong is supplanted by secularism.  Judeo-Christian ethics are replaced with “it’s all about the child-centered environment” of self, and not love your neighbor as yourself.  Cultural differences breeding loud-mouth kids that back-talk and show belligerence–all while being told teachers don’t understand and appreciate certain cultures–press things beyond the pale.   Generally, students show disrespect for adults, they use language that, at one time, would get them expelled, come from families that have been taught to “tolerate and mediate,” rather than discipline, and own a host of “technological toys” that are their rights to use as they see fit.  Contemporary pop-culture impacts students more than classrooms and teachers.    Teachers know all of these things and yet we are told that we are responsible to make sure students learn and that they learn at rates that show marked improvement.  Does anyone ever stop to ask us what is needed?

I Never Give Up!

Please note very clearly that I love my work, I love my students and hold the highest of affection for my colleagues and the school where I am employed.  This is not about one or two localized issues, or schools in the inner city.  There are real battle zones in this nation, that’s for sure.  No place is perfect and as long as I am anywhere in this world, imperfection will be the norm.  But make no mistake about it; I will never give up on anyone.   I am not alone.  However, this is about so much more that those that care and refuse to give up.

“The Building block is the moral purpose of the individual teacher.  Scratch a good teacher and you will find a moral purpose.” [Michael Fullan (1992), Change Forces, p. 10.]

What’s It All About?

It is no great secret that I have spent my entire working career in the field of education, in various positions.  Most of my years have been spent in secondary education, with adjunct work at university a close second to that.  However, I have taught every grade level from first grade through graduate school, in my tenure as an educator.  I have been privileged to have spent time in both private Christian and public schools.  I have a vast array of education experiences, personally and professionally.  Although I feel somewhat qualified to address common issues across the national landscape, I always keep in mind that experts are labeled by others, not selves.  Be that as it may and take it for what it is worth.  I am about to embark on a serious critique of my “profession,” so-called.  Such a critique is not the first and it certainly will not be the last.

We have many problems in our nation today, and education is just one of many.  Problems are not the same at all levels of education, so a one-size fits all is not the answer for what ails of national’s education system.  But, unlike other areas, education affects children and adults, families and friends, and touches the present with implications for the future.  Education is essentially about people and always has been about people.  I am afraid that today’s brand of education is becoming less about people and more about people as a “product,” and “new-and-improved” commodity to refine into a better product, all supposedly measurable by a formulaic process.  So, this is about the latest educational fad to come down the turnpike.

The Professional Learning Community

A professional learning community is made up of team members who regularly collaborate toward continued improvement in meeting  learner needs through a shared curricular-focused vision.  Facilitating these efforts are:

  • Supportive leadership and structural conditions,
  • Collective challenging, questioning, and reflecting on team-designed lessons and institutional practices/experiences and
  • Team decisions on essential learning outcomes and intervention/enrichment activities based on results of common formative student assessments.

http://www.wcpss.net/evaluation-research/reports/2006/0605plc_lit_review.pdf

In education today there is a movement sweeping this nation that is top-down, autocratic, and uncompromising in its expectations and foisting of requirements.  We are being told in education that this model is the only way to get students to where they need to be.  Elementary, middle and high school districts are adopting this model.  There is also great resistance to this model–particularly at colleges where there is a movement toward professional development schools, in teacher education training institutions.

Has anyone stopped to ask whether education is a profession, or not?  Has anyone ever stopped to consider who decides what is to be learned at schools, and why someone’s notion of community is better than someone else’s’ notion of the same?  Consider Fullan, as he writes about “change” in education:

. . . the old and dead wrong paradigm is still being promulgated, such as Beckhard and Pritchard’s (1992) recommendations for vision-driven change.  There are four key aspects, they say:  creating and setting the vision; communicating the vision; building commitment to the vision, and organizing people and what they do so that they are aligned to the vision.  (p. 29)

Fullan describes the PLC phenomenon quite well in his words above and he describes such a model as “dead wrong.”  After adopting the PLC model, districts are told to adopt others models to massage into the previous model.  RTI (Response To Intervention), ILPs (Incentive Laden Programs), CAHSEE and SAT Prep and tutorial programs, etc., are all safety nets for a variety of students.  It is all about passing a test to raise rates.  In some states, there are tests being administered to students that do not match their grade levels, so as to enable passing rates.  This is not sensible.  Students are coming to us with a host of problems never seen before, yet test scores rising is an indication that our school is “performing” well?

May we please step back and ask some serious questions?  I know the “powers-that-be” get their way, but we do have a responsibility to question validity.  In all of my years in education, I know without a doubt that programs come and programs go.  I also know that not one idea or “revelation” fits all schools in all states at all levels.  Would anyone want to dispute those pieces of knowledge?  I doubt it.

Some states are adopting the education model in question, others are not.  Leaders are raking in millions of dollars writing books and training the masses in things they have always done, yet somehow it is all brand new.  Administrators are the ones who always seem to present at seminars.  Teachers are never asked to present.  I have my reasons as to why this is the case.  One of these reasons is that teachers view hierarchies from the bottom up, and work together.  Administrators in the PLC have already said it is top-down requirements that work.  Think for a second.  How professional is it to tell teachers it is all about their importance, require them to make it all about student learning, and do not live them a say as to whether they wish to be lock-step in such a “community”?

Colleges are not concerned with the PLC model, as it does not fit their “style,” of education to their students.  So, what do students benefit from when they go to college and realize that testing is not the measure of their learning and that from one year to the next is suddenly is not all about them?  Many high schools do not like this model, as it is quite restrictive.  As a secondary educator, an education expert with a Ph.D. in teaching and learning, I have serious reservations and major concerns with the “Professional Learning Community” model.

Concerns With The Professional Learning Community Model

I ask one question at the front of this section.  If bureaucrats removed annual test scores, or NCLB went away–or teachers did away with conventional grades in favor standards’ achievements, what then do we make of the PLC phenomenon?

We are told that the teacher is the most important person in the classroom and in the lives of students.  We are told this, yet education is all about the student, student-centered this-and-that.  Student learning is important–so much so that if they do not learn, it is our fault, as teachers.  I find this ludicrous.  Is it the coaches fault when the quarterback did not learn his plays, or throws an interception?  How about when the quarterback knows everything and is the best athlete, but gets sacked by a better team’s defense?  What is the conclusion then?

What I really think rhetoricians mean by their double-speak is this:  Teachers are the most important person in the classroom and this importance is demonstrated by their environment that caters completely to student-centered learning.  Teaching is not the focus, student learning is the focus.  Silly teacher that I am.  I thought both were important and came with responsibilities implicit in both.  But the responsibility placed upon the teacher is greater.

I cannot hold tardy students accountable for work.  I cannot hold absent students accountable for work if their parents excuse them for a trip to an amusement park on a school day.  I cannot hold students accountable for their lack of attendance in class.  Suspended students must be able to make up work, even if the reason they were suspended was a refusal to comply in one of my classes.  You know, it’s all well and good that people say the most important person in the classroom is the teacher, but it is not the truth here in California.

In California, we are legally responsible to educate so many illegals that it is no wonder the budget is a mess every year.  Education is just one of the many entitlements that illegals receive.  Governor Brown has threatened to cut education to the bone, reduce our incomes, and affect our pensions if we do not vote in favor of increased taxes this next election cycle.  So, as illegals sit in our classes and receive all of the benefits of American citizens, including mandated foreign language communications, conferences, and many other perquisites, does anyone want to argue it is all about the student?

Would anyone please point to another profession that gives transportation to illegals, feeds them at no-cost, or little cost to them, and provides text books, allows them to participate in athletics, graduate, and occupy seats in colleges, buy homes, etc.?  If you say medicine or law, then the state pays for these considerations as well.  It only adds to the problems.

I am not against people in any way.  Legal status is the issue.  There is no teaching strategy that can overcome students going to Mexico for 6-weeks just because family wants to.  There is no legal accountability for students whose families keep them home, excuse them from school for a variety of reasons.  So, please do not even imply that the most important person in the classroom is the teacher.  The student is the most important.  Students do not even remember what we teach them the next week, let alone the next year.  But there sure remember their dances and games, the jokes and social fun times.  It is all about them.

Along comes this professional learning community and tries to sell us a bill of goods that teachers are the focus.  Just look at the name of this fad.  Why is it not named “professional teaching community”?  We are professional educators, or professional learners?  Student learning is what it is all about.  Boiling student learning all down to a test, or series of tests called common formative assessments, is the focus.  And if a student does not do well on tests, he or she can take them as many times as needed.  In addition, we are all supposed to consider changing our current grading system because Yale University came up with it many years ago and it is unfair to students.

Teaching People

Teachers teach people.  Students are taught by people.  Who is directly responsible for the learning?  Right now, it is teachers who are directly responsible for the learning.  Annual test scores have to show improvement or the community thinks the teacher, or school is “bad,” or underperforming.  The state sets parameters of growth and targets of this growth.  If schools do not hit these targets, then can they be considered as underperforming?  Teachers and schools take the hit for students who underperform.

Testing

We were told that students should be able to test the “essentials” as often as then need in order to pass.  We were told that this places the learner first, and is the way it is in the real world.  Learning does not present itself on multiple choice tests, or in one-to-five questions every session.  Many times second chances are not offered.  Failure occurs. Success occurs.  We are late on bills and we are most often fined when we are caught speeding.  I teach high school, so this “retaking” concept is viewed a bit different than it would be viewed by elementary teachers.  Brain development and human biology will both play differently into the picture.

I have a serious beef about tests.  I had this discussion with a colleague who said that a teammate wrote a serious of tests in language he used, rather than in language the rest of used.  Good luck coming to a consensus on language for assessments and questions.  Add to this the possible answers and everything can be confusing.  Can you see how a teacher’s style of teaching, use of terminology, and style of thinking, can cause others who take the test great concerns?  It is not true that students who know material can answer pretty much any question on the way it is worded.  All students are different and such outcomes can cause teachers to think students do not know the material, all while they do.

Another point to be made is that I have absolutely no idea whether students have learned material, by getting the right answer on a multiple choice test.  I learn by asking students in person, or as they explain on paper, something I ask them about.  Common formative assessments are too often in multiple choice, easy-grading format.  Then the data is tallied, discussed, and many times we conclude something about which we speculate and other times have no idea.  Giving all students the same test, after the same length of time of learning, and concluding they learned something is way too risky.  I contend all students are not common, even if the information is.  I contend they all test differently, and that real-life does not throw the same tests at everyone on the same day to provide learning opportunities.  Colleges do not do this, and we are doing a disservice to high school seniors especially, if we do not wean them from the CFA (common formative assessment) quick-approach.

Dropouts

Students drop out for a variety of reasons.  The numbers change according to certain ethnic and racial groups.  I will use California for the sake of discussion.  Observe the following recent data:  http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr09/yr09rel073.asp

Comparing Dropout Rates Chart

Type 2006-07 2007-08
African American 35.8% 34.7%
Asian 9.0% 8.4%
Latino 26.7% 25.5%
White 13.3% 12.2%

Tracking California Students Chart

Type Percentage
Graduates 68.1%**
Dropouts 20.1%
Other*** 11.8%
Total 100.0%

Beyond PLCs, we are now being told that unless there is a program of intervention for students, that our school and PLC is coming up short.  It is not enough to endure student learning.  We must now directly intervene to make certain of school attendance, assure every effort possible to enhance student achievement, improve graduation rates and reduce dropout rates, and a bevy of other “social” awareness.  What is not a centerpiece is that the groups in trouble need to step up and do their part, as well.  Regardless of race and ethnicity, dropout rates are problematic.  But can I ask the magical question:  Where is it written that everyone should finish high school and go off to college?  If parents do not seem to care enough about their students, and teachers do as much as possible–and STILL dropout rates remain high, what are schools to do?  Is it the school’s fault?  Is it the student’s fault?  Is it the community’s fault?  There are many factors for student’s dropping out of school.  For a large group of them, I think the sitting in rows model just isn’t their thing.  For others, gangs are alternatives.  I could go on.  But what does an intervention program and a PLC have to do with students making choices, at the legal age and without parental guidance?  Should we spend more time on those who learn and want to learn? I am just asking the questions.  PLC/Intervention groups now want to burden schools to ensure that kids graduate, as well as learn.  Where the parents are and what shall they graduate to?  Colleges do not care one iota about the group that high schools lose every year.  The work force does not care.  Families do not seem to care.  I submit that something has to be done way earlier than at secondary levels.

Some Other PLC Concerns

  1. PLCs cannot change poor attendance habits by students.  Absences and cuts drag down entire classes and reduce overall learning.  This show up on each and every assessment.
  2. PLCs cannot force student to do anything against their wills.  Students today are soft when it comes to studying.
  3. PLCs cannot change family dynamics for students.
  4. PLCs cannot work all that well across content areas, as standards at the secondary level and grade levels are not consistent.
  5. PLCs cannot convince colleagues of certain temperaments to buckle down simply by enforcing norms.
  6. PLCs cannot expect that using previous data of old adequately informs instruction for new students.
  7. PLCs cannot expect that test results actually indicate what students learn or did not learn.

Good Things About PLCs

  1. PLCs force colleagues to meet with each other and participate in discussions.
  2. PLCs use data, attempting to analyze problem areas and issues across schools.
  3. PLCs can assist toward changing instruction for the better, if a student group is identified as below proficient.
  4. PLCs enable colleagues to become better at writing common formative assessments.
  5. PLCs promote team-oneness across content areas and bolsters academic purpose.

In closing, I offer the following terms for consideration:  For Teachers . . . Practical and Relevant Teaching Community.  For Students:  Purposeful and Responsible Learning Community.  For Parents:  Hold You All Accountable Community.  Psychology as it is, moving anyone from the “I choose not to do something, ” to “I choose to do something,” is no small matter.  Owning the choice after it is made is another story altogether.

“The future ain’t what is used to be.”  (Yogi Berra)

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