Dear Educational Publisher/Vendor: We Care About Our Data, Even When You Don’t Seem To

I’ve been in several conversations lately where publishers and vendors have taken an awful casual approach to identity and student data management.  The front end of their new “digital textbook” looks great.  HTML5 and everything.  Plays nicely with an iPad, or a Chromebook or any other screen on any other device.  As they should.  I get excited.  

And then I get a look at the user database or authentication tools they provide for managing accounts and student data for the product.  And again and again and again, I get a little sick to my stomach.  No way to authenticate against our identity databases.  No way to actively manage and/or sync data from our databases to theirs.  Duplicate accounts.  Terrible data management.  Shockingly disappointing attention to issues of privacy or student ownership of the work they do.  

The worst part isn’t that they don’t get it – educational software and publishers are often a little behind cutting edge when it comes to enterprise level technology.  I get it.  Many school districts are behind on this, too.  It’s when we raise questions and express our concern that I get upset.  Because we get one of two types of responses:

1.  This is “the first time anyone’s ever asked these questions,” we’re told.  As if we should be excited that we ask new questions that no one else is asking.  That’s scary.  

2.  “Well, we understand your concerns, but other school districts don’t want these things, and we don’t feel the need to develop them,” I hear.   That’s worse.  

I can’t fathom why publishers and vendors are so willing to play fast and loose with precious data – student personal info, their schoolwork and creations, etc.  But it’s not okay.  And worst thing is when, in spite of our concerns, we hear things like this:

“Well, the front end is so beautiful and high quality.  Would you really allow your concerns over this other stuff to prevent you from giving these amazing resources to your teachers and students to use?”

My answer to that question is always going to be yes.  A pretty thing on the other side of a glass wall of awfulness will keep me walking right on through the universe of options. I’ll pick the resource that’s not as good if I know I can keep my students safe and our data reasonable to manage and protect.  The “it’s only one more account” for a student to learn or use argument is no good when there’re only five or ten or more accounts for folks to actually have to learn in order to do their jobs.  

Let’s do better.  Let’s demand better.  

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On Skinned Knees & Lessons Learned

It’s skinned knee season in our home, with two girls riding bikes of the two and four-wheeled variety, and a third toddling along just behind – ready for far more than she’s capable of.

And I’m not one to stop someone who’s trying to make progress, even if that progress might be dangerous.

So we’ve been through lots and lots of boxes of Band-Aids for hurts both real and imagined. And we’re quick to wash out wounds and make sure that we keep them looked after.

But no matter how well we wash and watch, some of them are going to leave permanent marks. Like the time Ani discovered that you can’t make a ninety-degree turn on a bike. Or the time that Teagan realized, in a most unfortunate way, that you cannot stop a tricycle like Fred Flintstone could stop his car.1 Quinn forgets, sometimes, about “down.” She’s still kind of new.

Each of those moments hurts. But hurt can have an upside. In fact, some would tell you that hurt, or pain, has an evolutionary advantage. It tells us when we hit a limit of some kind.

And those marks will help them remember the stories of the injuries one day. They’ll proudly show the little scars and blemishes that never quite go back to normal and explain that they rode a bike early, or took a chance on a curb or wrestled with a cat or went head over handlebars in a moment of panic.

But hurt, like fear, well, it just hurts. And to know someone you love is hurting is the worst kind of pain, a pain of helplessness and empathy and doubt.

Oh, how I wish I had a suit of Nerf and armor that I could force my children to wear when they go out into the world, or want to wrestle that cat. To be able to ensure the safety of my children, be they walking to school or traversing a steep hiking trail along the edge of a narrow cliff, would make my sleep come much easier.

But I don’t. And the marks and memories would be hard to accumulate from inside an impenetrable shell of foam. I also suspect it’d be mighty difficult to hear with all that Nerf so close to one’s ears.

There are plenty of days I want to say “Today, let’s stay here, where cars and cats and cliffs and sticks and stones and words can’t hurt us.” But I can’t. Because that’d be parental malpractice. As a dad, it’s my job to listen and bandage and help my children to be brave, to not stop when it’d be a whole lot easier and may well hurt a great deal less and be more safe to just stay still. Being brave? It’s important. And I hate it. Oh, there are days I very much dislike that job.

As a teacher, that’s my job, too.

I hope you’ve got a kit full of peroxide and Band-Aids with you as you take your charges out into the world. I hope you, and they, are being very brave.

  1. Of course, Teagan would have no clue who Fred Flintstone is. Or was. Whatever. But I do find it interesting that “Flintstone” is in my Web browser’s dictionary. []
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On Being Afraid

On Friday, Converge did a quite nice write up of some of our district’s work with technology. I found it to be a splendid piece. Specifically, a large portion of the article featured some of the work we’ve been doing with the Digital Learning Collaborative. If you need a one sentence summary of that work, well, Paige does a fine job:

It was awesome and scary for some to be in charge of their learning.

I think that pretty much sums up what I’m seeing with regards to the way that we’re asking teachers in the DLC to take control of their own learning. It is scary for many of our teachers to take control. And it is awesome, delightful even, when it happens.

More often than I’d like in the DLC, the teachers that we’re working with, and we work with the leaders of the teams, folks identified as teacher leaders in their schools, so chew on that a bit, are afraid, or unwilling, or unable, to take control of their own learning. These teachers, quite fine and thoughtful people, are often waiting for Michelle or I to tell them what’s worth learning and/or doing. That’s troublesome1.

This is mostly a rhetorical question, but I’d encourage you to consider it anyway – what’s happened to teachers and teaching that it’s so difficult for teachers to feel they have agency enough to follow their own lines of inquiry and learning?

And why in the world is that okay?

  1. And the word “troublesome” is quite the understatement, I think. []
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I Can’t Give That to You. No One Can.

This post lived in the depths of my drafts folder. I brought it out tonight because it seemed the right time.

Too often lately, I’ve read statements from teachers that sound something like this: “We have to give students voice” or “We have to give our students control over their learning.”

Sure. Students should have voice. And control. And agency. And plenty of things.

But, well, a student’s voice just isn’t mine to give.

By that, I mean that there’s a big problem with “giving somebody” their voice. As a teacher, I can’t give you much of anything that you don’t already have. Nourish it? Cultivate it? Help develop or refine it? Sure.

But give? No. Because that would mean that someone took it away in the first place. And that’s not okay. Further – that would assume that such a thing was mine to take.

And any time we assume that we must give our students those things, or that teachers, too, must be given those things, we make it that much more difficult for the exchange to happen. We get the entire power dynamic backwards when we are handing out voices. Or power. Or control. Human beings have those things, anyway. With or without our permission. We would do well to remember that in the classroom. And plenty of other places.

Teachers, and students, have voices. And agency. It’s up to them, to all of us, to use those things in the service of what’s important1.

Don’t work to “give” students voices. Help them find the ones they already have.

  1. And, yeah. You’ve got to decide what counts as “important,” too. No free lunches here. []
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Determining Failure

I’m off again on a short vacation, but I couldn’t let this paragraph escape at least a word or two.  Over the weekend, Bill Gates was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.  From the piece:

One of the foundation’s main initial interests was schools with fewer students. In 2004 it announced that it would spend $100 million to open 20 small high schools in San Diego, Denver, New York City and elsewhere. Such schools, says Mr. Gates, were designed to—and did—promote less acting up in the classroom, better attendance and closer interaction with adults.

 

“But the overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about—whether you go to college—it didn’t move the needle much,” he says. “Maybe 10% more kids, but it wasn’t dramatic. . . . We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.” Still, he adds, “we think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them.”

Now, there’s lots to say about the “success” or “failure” of the small schools work done by Gates and others.  And I know that Bill Gates has said that small schools offer more than just college readiness.  But I suppose what I’d like to contribute here, or at least to push back with, is something like this:

Perhaps the metrics used to evaluate the effort were the wrong metrics.  College attendance may not be the right way to measure whether or not small schools are good places for our children.  We might want to investigate some other metrics and see how they tell us about the experience of students in smaller schools.  I’d wonder about things like safety.  Or the knowledge that students in a small school are members of a cohesive and human community.  Were these students well looked after and mentored by grown ups who genuinely cared for them?  Were they engaged in work that was meaningful and purposeful?  Did what they did each day matter?

You can say those schools failed – but let’s make sure we know what your criteria are. The more someone1  is pushing to tell me what counts as a “good school,” the more I’m finding I’m willing to say -

Hang on.  Wait.  What do we want our schools to be?

And just what do you mean by failure?

I think those’re some of the kinds of questions that the folks who are organizing the Save Our Schools March are asking.

If I could be, I’d be there in Washington DC as they congregate to push for change. Perhaps you will be.  Take good notes.

  1. “Like Bill Gates,” I want to say, but it’s not about him.  Like anyone who wants to tell you what’s working or what’s not.  Dig deeper.  Ask more. []
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Crap Detection: #ISTE11

I’m writing this morning from the Blogger’s Cafe at ISTE 2011 in Philadelphia, PA.  I’m looking forward to three days of learning and thinking and conversation with lots of smart folks from all over doing interesting work to improve teaching and learning with technology.

But I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t remember that this is also a giant trade show.  People here are eager to sell me on plenty of things – their products, or services, or consulting, or that their work is really, really neat.

And that may well be.  The products, services, or other stuff may well be important and useful and interesting and engaging and worth spending time and money on.

But not necessarily.  And it’s easy to forget that in the middle of the craziness.  Folks get excited.  I get excited.  And I sometimes, willingly or otherwise, suspend my disbelief.  And that’s not good for anybody1.

So as I sit here gearing up for hearing and sharing and listening and talking and writing and exploring so much with so many people, I’m reminding myself in public that I’ll need to have my crap detector fully functional and powered up throughout the conference.

If I run into you and ask you a question or two, know that I’m not asking to discredit you or make you uncomfortable, I’m asking because I owe it to myself and my employer and the students and staff I’m responsible for to make sure that I’m doing my due diligence.

There’s plenty of snake oil here at ISTE.  And plenty of good stuff. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t aware of the potential and the good.

But there’s no rule that says the junk has to be clearly labeled.  And usually, it’s not. So my crap detector is spooled up, and I’m paying attention2.  Here’s to a great ISTE 2011.

How are you working to make sure you’re approaching what you see and do with a mind for what’s important?  How’re you working to improve your crap detector?  Let me know in the comments.

  1. Well, actually, it’s good for the bad salespeople.  The ones who want to sell you something that you don’t need, want, or could benefit from. The good salespeople, the ones I enjoy doing business with, are the folks who ensure that I actually need their product or service.  I dig good salespeople.  Lots. Sales is not evil. []
  2. Or trying to, at least.  Keep me honest. []
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Letting (Them) Go

Richard Elmore:

I wonder, finally, what would happen if we simply opened the doors and let the students go; if we let them walk out of the dim light of the overhead projector into the sunlight; if we let them decide how, or whether, to engage this monolith? Would it be so terrible? Could it be worse than what they are currently experiencing? Would adults look at young people differently if they had to confront their children on the street, rather than locking them away in institutions? Would it force us to say more explicitly what a humane and healthy learning environment might look like? Should discussions of the future of school reform be less about the pet ideas of professional reformers and more about what we’re doing to young people in the institution called school?

via What Would Happen if We Let Them Go? – The Futures of School Reform – Education Week.

I wonder, often, about what might happen if we ended compulsory schooling.  Glad to know I’m not the only one.

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Patri: What we needed as children, children still need.

Rediscovered these lines from Angelo Patri while in a conversation today.  Good to see them again:

What we needed as children was someone to show the way.  Someone who knew us and valued us.  Someone who would live with us and for us.

What we needed as children, children still need.

The teachers and I, conscious of the dangers that come to an active child from a random seeking to satisfy his desires, tried to make the people whose children were about us realize their responsibility while we ourselves did our share.  We knew the children needed the older folk. We knew that we had only limited means of gathering and holding these young people together.  All we had was the school and we were fast losing that except as a drill machine running eight hours a day during which time two schools1 in turn tried to master the prescribed book facts.

Slightly later in that section:

The school, after all, narrowing down to routine, was such a faraway place, far away from the actual lives of people.  How could we get close, so close to each other that we would be part of the people and they a part of us, and be “folksy” together?2

Our schools are communities.  Or should be.  Rich and vibrant and healthy ones.  It’s a really good and useful book, as I’ve noted before.  Might be time for a reread.

  1. Patri’s school at the time shared its facility with another. []
  2. Both quotes from pages 80-81. []
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Still Nothing New Under the Sun. We Pretend Otherwise.

It’s funny.1

I’ve been working with some folks to write about the centennial of English Journal, which is this year.  One hundred years of writing about teaching and learning language arts.  We’ve been focusing on the way that technology has been addressed in past issues of EJ, looking back at articles from the last one hundred years and exploring past brushes of technology and pedagogy.  It’s been a fascinating trip back in time.

My hunch going into this work is that we would find many, many similarities between the issues of yesterday and today.  I expected that we would always see that the transformational technology was right around the corner, and that things would be better if only we would adopt it. 2

What I also expected, but have been both inspired and disappointed by, is that so many wise teachers from our past saw what we really needed to focus on.  They saw that it wasn’t the technology, but the purposes that we put it to, that were what count and what matters in teaching and learning.  And their words were praised.

And then forgotten.

And now many of my contemporaries make the same great arguments.  Arguments that have been made before.  Here’s one:

The tragic lack, as I see the present social order, is that of understanding and intelligent sympathy. Our ignorance makes us indifferent and cruel. We are preoccupied with ourselves.

Sounds like a critique of today, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  These words are 78 years old.

Further on in the same piece:

If English instruction can help in the substitution of creative effort for scheming greed, if it can substitute social co-operation for selfish individualism, if it can help in the development of men and women sensitive to human suffering and bent on furthering human happiness – in a word, if it can make beauty a dominant factor in contemporary life – the aim not only of English instruction but of all education will have been accomplished.3

Right then, and right now.

As I think about the challenges of today, and the arguments that are and aren’t occurring in schools and about schooling in these United States, I wonder why we forget these voices that have come before.  I worry that they may have figured out much of what we needed to know then and need to do now.  But we moved on4 without them.

So why aren’t we doing it?  What’s holding us back?  Will we do things differently, or will someone stumble across our words a hundred years down the road and wonder similar things?

It’s enough to make me mad.5

 

  1. Or kind of sad. []
  2. Be it microfiche, radio, television, word processors, computers, or even typewriters.  All are represented as the next great thing in the articles I’ve read. []
  3. Stella S. Center, Past-President, National Council of Teachers of English, from her Presidential Address, “The Responsibility of Teachers of English in Contemporary American Life.” November 24th, 1932.  Published in The English Journal, Volume 22, Number 2, February, 1933. (pp.97-108) []
  4. Perhaps not forward, but on. []
  5. But we know what to do with the mad that we feel, don’t we? []
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You CAN Do More with Less. But Only for So Long.

Yesterday, Colorado’s new governor made some announcements regarding his budget proposal to the state. Specifically, he announced about half a billion in proposed budget cuts for next year, which wasn’t a huge surprise. What was a surprise, at least to me, although I should’ve seen it coming, was that he directed most of those cuts at K12 education.

That’s disappointing, but almost understandable1. What kills me, though, is that the budget scenario will probably be good political cover for an unfortunate move being made in the school district where I live, my children go (or will go) to school, and my wife is a teacher.

Basically, they’re going to ask2 high school teachers at three of the city’s schools to teach another class per semester. It’s a kind of peer pressure move. 3

I’ve been following this story for a while – it first surfaced last fall, and I traded email with a district assistant superintendant on the plan before Christmas. But I didn’t think I’d need to say anything. I had thought, perhaps naively, that the plan wouldn’t come to pass. The move is based on faulty logic and poor math4. Surely, I thought, the human filters would be thoughtful and wise. I mean, come on. This was a school district that understood the importance of teachers having meaningful time in their school day for professional development. For collaboration. For individual and small group student contact time outside of class.

Or so I thought.

As this plan has emerged, and opposition from the high school teachers who, rightly, believe this will harm the quality of their instruction as well as their ability to meaningfully build relationships with students, I’ve heard, quietly, from elementary and middle school teachers in the school district. They’ve not had the same time without classes to interact with students and each other. These middle and elementary school teachers, or at least the vocal ones5, aren’t willing to advocate for something that they don’t have themselves.

The whole thing’s a mess. All teachers should have time to be meaningfully thoughtful and human to their students. Every day. 6

Perhaps my biggest concern with the entire deal is that it’s easy to hide behind big words like “efficiency.” While I’m a fan of efficiency when it makes sense7, I’m thinking that some of the most important work that teachers do, and do quite well, isn’t about being efficient. It’s about being available. It’s about being human. Patient. Kind. Thoughtful. Reflective.

Those are hard things to be when every minute of your work day is full of teaching and you’ve now got an additional class to look after during your grading time at home.8 We should be looking to have our teachers, all of them, “teaching” less and learning more9.

My friend Zac wrote a while back about a scary kind of school: The kind that are breaking teachers. Those are the kinds of schools that look good on a balance sheet or a collection of test scores. They’re probably, at least on paper, very, very efficient.

They’re the ones where on the outside, everything looks great. But then you open the place up, and you see that stuff’s pretty rotten. And will only last so long.

In this time of tightening budgets and scary realizations, I hope that central administrators, classroom teachers, parents, students, politicians and everyone else realize this:

We can do more with less. And good folks, if asked to, will do so. But, if the “more” isn’t very good, then maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe our leaders should say “let’s do fewer things better rather than so many things poorly.”

As next year starts to take shape for educators and legislators, let’s hope at least a few folks are considering that position.

You probably know of stories about folks being asked to do more with less. This is one of ours. One I can’t quite wrap my head around. These stories are complex and difficult.

I’d look forward to hearing yours, and how you think we can work to make things better in a difficult time.

  1. The Governor did acknowledge that K12 is a huge line item – and one that has flexibility, compared to say, giving prison guards a month of furloughs. Of course, this is Colorado, where we amended our state constitution to provide additional monies for education, and the legislature used some creative math to circumvent that constitutional requirement as the economy worsened. So funding’s never been pretty. []
  2. No. They pretty much told. []
  3. Hey. C’mon. The other high school in town is doing it. I’m sure it’s good. []
  4. It seems that, according to one district source, asking a teacher to teach one additional course would only mean twenty minutes more of teaching per day. I don’t get that. Do you? []
  5. And there aren’t many. This is a divisive issue. Unfortunately. []
  6. I wish that the teachers in the district where I work had more time to be thoughtful. I spend a great deal of my time seeking ways to carve out that time. It’s hard to do. But worth doing. []
  7. And it does make sense. But at what greater cost? []
  8. The fact that teachers are spending so much of their time grading at home is of larger concern. But no one seems to want to talk about that much. []
  9. I know. The Finland comparisons are tired. But, at least in the area of professional development and how teachers spend their time, I think they’re worth making. Finland does teaching and learning differently. And it’s worth exploring. []
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