Wednesday, January 30, 2013

RTTT - My personal angst

The following thoughts were shared with the Illinois RTTT Networking Summit on October 24, 2012.  To be honest, I was a little surprised to be asked to address the IL-RTTT districts.  David Osta and Christi Chadwick have heard more than their fair share of criticism, critiques, and concerns from me.  I do respect their leadership in IL-RTTT and  I was honored to talk about Urbana School District #116’s Strategic Plan. 

One thing that I need to explain at the very start is that I detest the name "Race to the Top.” Because the very name implies the creation and replication of larger educational gaps than currently exist.  A “race” to the top implies winners and losers, and to be honest, we are seeing that with funding structures coming from the U.S. Department of Education.  This may seem to be a petty complaint, but in order to understand my critiques, you need to understand the lens through which I view the world.  Through the lens of equity and social justice I see the concept of Race to the Top as not just a disturbing title, but an attack on the purpose of public education in the United States.  Racing to the Top suggests that only the elite schools/ districts/ students/ communities/ will survive, and the rest will be subsumed or replaced with charters or choice or vouchers.  Not only does this mean that educational reforms will increase disparities, but that the reforms will actually create larger disparities than currently exist.  That is not why I became a teacher, that is not why I have become an administrator, and that is not why my own children attend public schools.   Charters, choice, and vouchers have not demonstrated any better educational outcomes for our students than strong public schools.  All of our efforts at reforming education in this country should be focused on improving educational opportunities for all students.

I am also wary of the money trail, and the "evidence" that is cited as the driving force behind the reforms.  Much of the evidence is based on "white papers" that have been written by foundations who have paid for the research, and often are not supported by research coming out of our top academic institutions.  Don't get me wrong, I am all for private foundations and corporations contributing to the success of public education.  I will never discourage Gates and others to invest huge sums of money in educational research, educational reform, or innovative practices.  In fact, I will applaud such philanthropy, and I will work hard to ensure that the students in my district benefit from it; however, I will cry foul if the purpose of the philanthropy is to undermine public education.

Given that context, and given the reality that we are all here [at the RTTT Networking Summit] due to the RTTT IL program, and given the financial reality that 90% of the RTTT districts in the room are not in it for the money, then why I am here?  Why am I here?  Why is my district in RTTT?

Three years ago, my superintendent and BOE started a strategic planning process that took us almost 18 months to complete.  It involved a broad base of stakeholders including parents, students, and community members.  The result was a strategic plan that set our course for the next five years.  It has ambitious goals and objectives, and strategies and action plans that would help us get there.  When RTTT came along there was very little reason for us to even take interest.  However, we did.  We brought together members of association and our administrative team to talk about what it could offer.  What I saw in RTTT was a strong alignment with the objectives and strategies from our strategic plan.  You see, our mission states that we will help our students develop skills, acquire knowledge, and build character to achieve their own personal greatness. To achieve that mission, we committed to increasing the rigor in our curriculum, to provide authentic feedback and student-centered learning, and to differentiate instruction in order to help students achieve their personal goals.  We created a three-year PD plan that moves us from formative assessment through differentiation and Understanding by Design.  We are committed to become a community of learners, and as such, use student data to drive our decisions.  When we started to look at the RTTT Indicators, we found that many of them directly aligned with where we were going with our strategic plan.  That alignment is one of the main reasons I am here. 

Another reason I am here is that I am from a district that prides itself in being committed to student learning.  We have done okay on the ISAT, not so well on the PSAE, but we have been recognized two of the last four years for increasing the percentage of FRL and students of color enrolled in, and successfully passing AP courses.  We offer 19 different AP courses; we are excited about the prospect of creating STEM pathways for our students.  In Urbana, we are surrounded by partners who support us in those efforts. For the past 15 years, Urbana has put ourselves on the front of curriculum and standards-aligned work.  Now that we are in the era of the Common Core State Standards, we want to be at the front again.  Right now, that is why I am here.  However, as I have told David, Christie, and my community, the minute that RTTT diverges from our Strategic Plan, or the minute we feel that we are being asked to move in a direction that is not in the best interest of our students, we will choose our Strategic Plan over RTTT.

I am often asked, what do we get by being part of RTTT? I am always honest in my answer. We don't get money. We do get quite a bit of extra work. Right now, I can't say we get a lot, except that we get to be part of the discussion.  We want to be part of the discussion about how technology will shape instruction and student assessment.  We want to be part of the discussion about meaningful parent engagement. We want to be part of the discussion about teacher evaluation. To be honest, I would much rather be an active participant in the discussion of RTTT and PERA implementation than to be someone sitting on the sidelines. We want to be leaders in doing what is best for our students, families and community.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Born to Learn

The first draft of this post was originally written for a graduate class at the University of Illinois.  The assignment was to create a belief statement based on the classic "This I Believe" project (, that was familiar to me from NPR.  I have revised this several times, but never published before.  Feedback is welcome.

This I Believe...

When I graduated from college, I was given a t-shirt by my advisor in the education department.  It said “Born to Teach” in the same capital letter scrawl that spelled “Born to Kill” on Private Joker’s helmet in Stanley Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket.  I never saw the movie, but I wore the shirt with pride and passion for my chosen path in life. 

When I landed my first teaching job, I found myself facing a group of 8th graders who had chewed through three teachers and a substitute during the first quarter of the year.  On the first day, more than one student asked me how long I was planning on staying or what I would do if I was offered my dream job.  I looked every student who asked me that in the eye and told them that I had my dream job.

What I learned from my years in the classroom was that my passion for teaching stemmed from my own passion for learning.  I have spent more of my adult life in graduate programs than not.  My studies have been personal pursuits of knowledge as well as attempts to understand how people think and learn.  Being a student has helped me relate to my own students in ways I never imagined.  My most memorable lessons were when I witnessed students struggle to understand a concept or build an argument to defend a position.  I realized that the construction of knowledge was more powerful than the imparting of facts or wisdom, and my job was to help students construct meaning from their own life experiences and their academic pursuits.  My most memorable courses have been ones where my own ideas have been challenged and expanded.

I am now about as far removed from my dream job as I ever hope to be, but I believe in everybody’s ability to construct meaning, think critically, debate and collaborate.  I believe that as an educational leader it is my job to provide opportunities and supports for everyone to become independent learners.  I believe that everyone is born to learn.  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Introduction and Purpose: Why Write?

Why write a blog?  Why write anything? My purpose for publishing this blog is to communicate information, share ideas, and begin dialogues.  The thoughts and ideas expressed in the blog are my own, and they do not represent the views of the school district, board of education, or board policy.  I may, from time to time write about policy issues, but in doing so, I am expressing my own personal views. For the most part, I plan to share information that I believe promotes educational excellence, equity, and learning, because those are issues that have always been at the core of my beliefs as a teacher.

I write and share, because writing helps formalize and foment ideas.  I have advocated writing for years because putting pen to paper or type to screen is one of the strongest ways to engage with learning.  I have been a Project CRISS trainer for over a decade, and one of the key principles of creating independent learners is to teach students to transform information. Writing, and in this instance blogging, is a powerful way to transform information.  

I also write to be a role model.  If I ask students to write, I should be demonstrating and modeling how to write. If I ask teachers or principals to write, I need to be modeling content and process.  If I believe writing is a powerful tool for learning, and I want to model life-long learning, then I should be writing as much if not more than my students.  

This blog, like most things, will always be a work in progress.  My publication schedule will depend on my free time, and my other writings may take precedence over this blog. My hope is that this blog will help me expand my own writing and learning in a variety of ways.