First Person

Editor's blog: A new way to do school

Hats off to the Colorado Legacy Foundation for beating back the acronyms and creating a compelling video to spark a debate about what constitutes quality learning – and teaching.

The foundation, which supports key initiatives of the Colorado Department of Education in the areas of teacher effectiveness, healthy schools and bullying, recently held its annual fundraising luncheon.

Expecting a dry lecture and lots of people rattling off depressing education statistics, I hunched over a very delicious chicken salad and hoped for the best. But then all 900 of us were diverted from our avocados and balsamic vinaigrette to a large-screen video. You couldn’t miss it. It was really loud.

In mid-bite, I was confronted with this question:

“Does your brain only work when your butt is in a chair?”

“Well, actually, no,” I thought to myself, chewing up the fresh greens. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if we found a way to ditch office chairs and cubicles forever in favor of exercise balls and jumping jacks or hourly dance-offs?

And then this question:

“Is there an on-off switch that tells your imagination to only have ideas between 9 a.m.  and 3:15 p.m.?”

Why, actually, no. I often work in the evening hours and may even come up with my best brainstorms while out on a walk or dancing in my NIA class. Shouldn’t students have the same opportunities?

It was such a thought-provoking (albeit perhaps too long) video I wanted to find out more about it. If we were sparked to action during a fundraising luncheon, where should we – parents, students, teachers, leaders – put our energy?

ELO isn’t just a 1970s rock band

So, I asked a few questions of Legacy’s communications coordinator Joe Miller, who informed me that the video was created to highlight the work of the state’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Initiative. Uh oh. Did I just put you to sleep? With an acronym like ELO, it certainly makes sense to do some rebranding lest we – of a certain generation – fall back on a certain 1970s rock band. Then again, the Electric Light Orchestra hit “Hold on Tight” begins with the words, “Hold on tight to your dreams.” Could work.

“We have high hopes for the video,” said Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the state Board of Education and the Legacy Foundation board who served as chair of the ELO commission.

(Watch the video yourself at the top of this page, or click here).

“People who attended the luncheon were just enthralled with that,” Gantz Berman said. “We’re hoping it’s going to hit the big-time. We hope every superintendent sees it, every local school board sees it, every legislator sees it. It really does provide a very clear idea of what education should look like.”

The Expanded Learning Opportunities Commission met and hashed out ideas for more than a year. The goal was to redefine what education looks like within the next decade. The conversation started out focusing on after-school programs for at-risk students but quickly morphed into a much bigger, all-encompassing way of looking at education for all students, Miller said.

What the report says

As the September 2011 ELO Commission report, entitled Beyond Walls Clocks and Calendars makes clear:

“It is imperative that young people in this day and age acquire a high-quality education in order to succeed in civic and economic life, and to sustain and advance America’s economic and cultural legacies. And while the American education system has indeed adapted and improved over the past two centuries as American culture and citizenry have progressed, the high-tech and fast- paced world of today requires innovative and far-reaching approaches to ensure that all students have opportunities and tools to succeed and thrive.” Isn’t that the truth.

Desired student outcomes under ELO include:

  • Customized and relevant learning experiences resulting in more students attending and staying in school and receiving personalized support to meet their individual needs, leading to improved student outcomes.
  • Learning focused on higher level thinking skills, which address the shift in thinking patterns of digital students.
  • Student ownership and management of their learning progress and needs, resulting in students who are engaged and prepared to handle the challenges of life beyond high school.
  • Increased overall competitiveness of Colorado students, demonstrated by mastery of essential content and skills.
  • Increased connections between instruction in school and the world outside.
  • Guaranteed access for all students to the best teachers and content, through face-to-face and digital means, thereby providing quality choices to all students statewide.
  • Learning opportunities available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and seven days a week.

Does this sound like your son or daughter’s school?

Miller said the commission decided the best way to share the results of its work was through a slightly edgy video rather than another white paper, webinar or press release. (Thank you!) Miller said he’s gotten several requests to share it. People are encouraged to make comments on it, and a work plan is underway to put the feedback into action.

While the video doesn’t get into real-world examples, the report does.

Real life examples of innovative schools

In Aurora, for instance, the Vista Peak P-20 campus created a schedule to meet its needs rather than sticking to the district calendar.

The school schedule includes: 90 minutes of daily planning time for staff; freedom over all instructional minutes; advisories where students work on digital portfolios, developing and managing individual career and academic plans and building relationships and mentorships; and independent study where learning is socially constructed.

The ultimate goal of Vista Peak’s innovations are  to give all students customized learning opportunities, including internships, externships, college visits, credit acceleration, and credit recovery. It also offers various programs in health and wellness, creative arts and financial literacy, along with science symposiums, tutoring, intramural sports, field experiences, challenge-based learning, and language labs.

Another school on the forefront of  ELO is School of One in New York City. The full-time, in- school math program is housed at three New York City public middle schools. School of One serves 1,500 students, with 88 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch.

School of One offers a range of learning modalities, including large- and small-group instruction, small-group collaboration, one-on-one teaching, online instruction, live remote tutoring, virtual instruction and independent practice.

The school uses technology to match students with the teachers. Additionally, School of One has created a learning algorithm that collects up-to-date data about students and available materials and creates a unique schedule for every student, every day. In this way, students’ curriculum is both personalized and adaptive, ensuring they move ahead only once mastery has been demonstrated, according to Colorado’s ELO report.

And it seems to be working. Consider these statistics:

  • School of One students in the 2009 summer school pilot acquired new math skills seven times faster than peers with similar demographics and pre-test scores.
  • Students in the 2010 after-school pilot made significant gains on the norm-referenced test compared to students who did not participate, with gains being reported across achievement levels.
  • Students who participated in the in-school pilot made greater gains on the norm-referenced test than students who did not participate.

There are other promising local examples of ELO in action.

The Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) is another  example of a school operating beyond walls. Technology and partnerships are essential to the school’s mission. Students are engaged in science and technology internships during school and after school hours.

DSST achieved the second-highest longitudinal growth rate in student test scores statewide, and 100 percent of DSST graduates have been accepted into a four-year college.

In case you were wondering, ELO approaches aren’t just for secondary students.

Fort Logan Elementary School began  operating beyond clocks when it added 72 extended school and an additional 126 hours of instructional time in 2010-11. The school uses a “second shift” of educators, including literacy staff, teachers from other area schools and community partners. Based on preliminary plans, the school anticipates totaling nearly 300 extended days and an additional 540 hours over the next few years.

Now is your butt tired?

Hmmmm. My butt’s getting tired now. How ‘bout yours? Before you get up and move, what creative ideas do you have to improve the quality of teaching and learning in Colorado? Share your ideas, and I’ll make sure they get to the right people. And remember: Hold on tight to your dreams.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.