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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don't Water Your Weeds

Harvey McKay writes a weekly, nationally syndicated column that is usually found in the business section of the Sunday editions of newspapers. He has also written several best selling books that offer insight accrued from his extensive business experiences. This Blog entry emerges from one of the many quotes I have extracted from his thought provoking essays:

"Don't water your weeds!"

[spoiler alert - there will be some whining in the following paragraphs]

With resources of time, money and material becoming more scarce it seems obvious that we can ill afford to waste any of our valuable assets on issues and items that may inhibit our progress - or worse! Yet, public schools largely continue to water their weeds. I am referring to the tendency to merely sustain traditions, such as the outdated industrial, assembly line model of production relying on outmoded command and control management (not leadership) of an organization that does little from year to year other than change the date of the calendar.

Ah, you think, before asking, "How can you say that when schools boast the latest in technology and the greatest of research based instructional practices?" The retort to that question laments that we woefully under utilize technology while maintaining a relatively unchanged physical environment of school buildings. Too much has been spent on electronic worksheets or newly minted instructional tools that far exceed the staff development reaches of schools to sufficiently train teachers as users capable of harnessing and exploiting the full capacity of the devices. Textbooks still represent the coin of the realm. Learning is still expressed as work measured in the number of words written in an essay or report, or the number of pages read or worksheets completed. Policies confine the breadth of technology (try researching breast cancer for a health class project - most filters prevent the search) or stunt the depth of the impact of technology (what happens to learners from homes without computers or Internet connections during out-of-school hours/days?) when schools limit access to computers to the school day.

Not only are subject matters at the secondary level still quarantined from each other for fear of infection or dilution of academic discipline, but we are still packaging class time in forty or forty-five minute blocks as we did decades ago, despite the exponential growth of advances in science and the incredible events across the globe in social, political and economic arenas.

What are we eliminating if we teach American history today, for instance, in the same block of time that the subject was taught four decades ago? Imagine everything that has occurred in the meantime. I know, I know, what about the recent trend of block scheduling adopted a high schools, you ask? Okay, I'll reply with a question - What about it? Beyond the smoke and mirrors and the fanfare that splashes new paint on an old car, how many schools have worked with teachers to exploit the extended time (the total time for the course remains the same but in ninety minute blocks every other day instead of forty-five minute periods every day) with changes in instructional delivery? Are we merely teaching two different forty-five minute lesson in one single ninety minute block without changing the way we teach? Are the learners any more engaged as active participants? Are the classes any more relevant and meaningful? Has research demonstrated any appreciable differences in achievement? Is it yet another cosmetic alteration that offers a change in style without really precipitating a change in substance?

Regardless of the introduction of innovative teaching techniques, they are still being exercised in the all too familiar "egg crate" buildings with a long hallway separating identically constructed classrooms (or cells) located directly across from each other in two equal rows. Teaching appears as a private act performed in public, as Dan Lortie pointed out thirty-five years ago in his class book, Schoolteacher: a Sociological Study. Whole Language or Phonics, Cooperative Learning or Direct Instruction - it doesn't matter what name you call it, the game is still played in the conventional twenty-five feet by twenty-five feet room with a single teacher interacting with twenty five learners.

We need to plant seeds, not water weeds. This admonition is especially true in states like New York where funding to public schools has been frozen or decreased for three years now while the allowable number of state approved charter schools has been significantly increased. This contradictory pattern, like Dr. Doolittle's famous Push Me - Pull You, the four legged animal with a head on either end of its body, is a ready made recipe for a continued increase in enrollment figures of charter schools operating unfettered of the myriad state mandates and the decrease in public school enrollment at schools struggling to swim against a steady stream of confining regulatory practices. (Did you know there is a curricular requirement that New York public schools teach about the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800's? - That must be a tribute to a powerful politician of Irish heritage who long ago inserted the regulation into the state education guidelines in exchange for a political favor exchanged with another politician)

I am as guilty as anyone in that we are operating too much like any school of thirty years ago. Rather than point fingers at the bureaucratic imprint of the state education department, or unions, or any other readily available whipping post, I must commit to leadership that reinvents what we do and how we do it - all in support of why we do it. Failing that, I would expect to see our school, and other public schools, suffer from the gradual migration of learners to charter schools that can promise appealing alternatives to "business as usual."

I am gardener of a small patch of land, weary of watering the upturned soil that includes weeds. The faucet has slowed to a trickle and a drought is approaching. Tough choices have to be made about resource allocation.

One, albeit small, adaptation to the changing environment has been our introduction of over one hundred different accredited on-line classes (a process made more challenging by the nuances of requirements imposed by the state education department) for those high school learners willing and anxious to stretch themselves and become better prepared for college. Another attempt to grow and increase our yield has been the decision to focus more sunshine on our plants by expanding the reach of our school to consumers through a variety of social media outlets like facebook, twitter, and a blog.

What else can we do, or should we do at Heatly? We need more Inquiry Based Learning projects that integrate an important repertoire of learning skills with a multidisciplinary approach. We need to expand the school year (summer school or mini instructional camps) and school day (more extracurricular choices outside of the conventional menu of activities of sports, student council, and foreign language clubs). We need a more direct and clear link to the outside through school-to-work internships and college level classes on and/or off campus. We need to reconfigure our teachers and time to the extent possible within state regulations to adapt our responses to the wants and needs and hopes and dreams of our learners. We need to continually look around the corner and over the horizon for opportunities and possibilities if we wish to remain a viable learning enterprise as a small school with BIG ideas.

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