Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cooperating schools?

Met today with the Man Who Knows, and the subject of professional development for independent school teachers came up.

The man is Patrick Bassett, executive director of the National Association of Independent Schools, and we got to talking about the roles that regional associations can play in providing a higher level than present (in many areas) of ongoing professional training for teachers. Although many associations sponsor pre-service or early-stage in-service training for new teachers and a good menu of special programs on specific topics, often aimed at administrators and specialists, there is, arguably, something of a gap in most regions when it comes to offerings for classroom teachers and teacher-leaders.

Back when I was just coming up, as they say, there was something called the New England Teachers Conference, a one-day extravaganza that occurred each spring (as I recall) in some more or less central place. The various state associations of New England cooperated in the planning and execution, which admittedly was a very big deal.

The NETC was a good event, sometimes very good, but in its time it was perhaps too much of a good thing. Many of my more senior colleagues in the 70s and 80s were pretty cynical about such conferences. They made no bones about having little use for "professional development," having no doubt sat through more than their fair share of random workshops--some administrator's enthusiasm of the moment--on topics that felt unrelated to their daily toil in isolated classrooms. For us newbies, there seemed to be so much to learn, and even if no one was discouraging us from trying new things in our classrooms and advisories, no one was much encouraging us to innovate, either. Still a bit hung over from "revolution" of the lates 60s and early 70s, schools weren't quite sure where to go, and it was all many teachers could do to keep students moving forward from day to day; great new ideas just weren't all that welcome.

We've come a long way from that era, and, thanks in no small part to the leadership of NAIS under Pat Bassett, independent schools in the aggregate have something resembling a cohesive agenda for their work. The publications and conferences of NAIS have identified and articulated the great themes our the last decade or so--multiculturalism and social justice, sustainability, technology, globalization--that direct much of our thought and work. Constructivist curriculum innovations that have grown out of the work of Theodore Sizer, Howard Gardner, Grant Wiggins, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Robert Sternberg, and others have shown us better ways of teaching. (I write about this work, which I have called The New Progressivism, in another blog.)

Above all, the culture of isolation that, in retrospect, tended to be more dispiriting than empowering, has gone. In its place many schools are working to build truly collaborative professional cultures in which teachers talk about teaching--the craft, not just the effort--and learn from one another. Even where this goal is imperfectly realized, the idea has taken root that teachers coming together for professional conversations about their teaching and their students is not a waste of time.

Which brings me back to the idea of ongoing, intentional programs of professional training for teachers. With so many initiatives in common, independent schools ought to be able to develop ways to capitalize on the economies of scale that could be gained from pooling resources toward the professional growth of faculties.

The old NETC model might be an idea whose time has come again; regional associations might consider ways of ramping up their programming for classroom teachers, drawing on the expertise of teachers in member schools where they can and on "outside experts" where needed. The associations have the leadership, the cachet, and the resources to coordinate this work on a fairly large scale, perhaps even in regional "in-service" days when whole faculties from many schools come together for a menu of programs, workshops, and a keynote or two.

On a smaller scale, it seems almost crazy that more schools don't get together with neighbors to do manage at least a few common tasks. The Fairchester Fellows program in New York and Connecticut is a great example of this, providing an ongoing series of programs for new teachers each year. Any school with a few congenial neighbors could fairly easily organize a similar program: a few sessions on subjects of general interest (child or adolescent development or partnering with parents, say) at "orientation time" and then a curriculum of common-interest topics and some convivial dinners throughtout the year.

Another model might be a kind of "weekend university" for independent school teachers, where teachers might come together on occasion as part of a course on a particular theme or topic, and where other parts or even the bulk of the work was done on line. I've toyed with the idea of offering an on-line course or two just on my own; provided under the auspices of a regional association or a group of like-minded schools who could stamp their imprimatur on a "certificate of completion," such courses could be a valuable professional development resource tightly focused on the needs and interests of independent schools.

Much of it comes down to will. We independent schools like to be independent, and in competitive areas, we even tend to shy away from the idea that there might be anything to be learned from our rivals. But teachers have common needs and common issues in their professional and personal lives, and it seems a shame that schools seem to spend so many of their resources on reinventing wheels whose form and elements aren't so different from school to school or region to region. Instead of one expert presenting to 20 teachers twice, why not to 150 teachers once?

So, whether it's to be regional associations or other consortium or delivery models, I'd encourage schools to look hard for ways to come together in the service of offering their faculties opportunities for professional growth. Along the way there might even develop a stronger sense of fraternity among teachers that would be a welcome development in itself.


Friday, October 24, 2008

The All-Terrain Teacher

Things are getting rugged, and change is in the wind.

But a few things are becoming more clear for educators. One obvious fact is that the diversity train has left the station in our society. No matter who becomes the next president, some things in our country and on our continent are changing, and those of us who teach kids had better be ready. I keep hearing predictions as to when "Whites in the U.S. will be a minority"--2020, 2050, it doesn't much matter, because it is the future.

But when will this racial and cultural diversity be manifest everywhere? Not regionally, not city/suburb, not public school/private school, but everywhere we go and everywhere we look and everywhere we live. Sadly, I think they date when this is likely to happen is bit farther off, as the majority has become quite adept at keeping to itself when it's in our (ouch! but yes, it's true) interest to do so.

If independent schools are as committed as most of them say they are to issues of equity and justice, and if they really want to enact the ideals in their missions, they still have some work to do. Lots of our schools are busy doing that work, discovering that the farther along they get, the harder the work becomes. Idealism of any sort requires great courage and great honesty, and humans are frail; when having to open our minds and our hearts to whole new ways of being and knowing, we are often more frail still.

A few years ago a colleague by the name of Nadine Nelson did some amazing work at our school helping us figure out how to be a better school for our students and colleagues from underrepresented groups. She had a term that has stayed with me, the "all-terrain kid." The ATK was the student who would be sufficiently curious, sufficiently self-aware, sufficiently humble, sufficiently informed, and sufficiently brave to be at home in any cultural milieu. Parachute the All-Terrain Kid into any setting, and he or she would be able to present himself or herself with respect and intelligence and to communicate on an authentic level with anyone.

The All-Terrain Kid is an ideal I still hold in my head for our students and for my own children. That's the kid who won't care about a whole lot of things that agitate our society now, and for whom newly evolving communities that truly represent the diversity of our society and our planet will be welcoming, exciting places.

I think schools should be thinking equally hard about developing the All-Terrain Teacher. However one construes "diversity," the ATT has to be able to negotiate it with the integrity, wit, and courage in all of its manifestations. Who is going to teach a generation of All-Terrain Kids, if not a generation of All-Terrain Teachers?

A while back TJX Corporation put together a diversity task force build around what they called the "arenas of diversity." I like the model, and drawing on it I would propose that the training and the work of the All-Terrain Teacher be built around these Five Arenas of Diversity:
  1. Age and generation. We've become cutely adept at naming generations and fractions of generations to differentiate them, but differentiation cannot become segregation. Boomers, Millennials, or whatever--they will represent significant diversity in an aging society paradoxically built around youth culture, and they will need to learn to understand one another and work together. This is especially true in schools, where the (relatively) old and the (relatively) young must come together for the highest of common purposes
  2. Race and culture. Whatever the other dimensions of diversity, these remain at the heart of the matter. Often visible and burdened with a long and terrible history, race matters, and so, broadly construed, does culture, especially in a society dogged by its own identity crisis, as witnessed by the fact that people can seriously ask the question, Is Barack Obama really American? and by a dangerous ambivalence on the issue of immigration.
  3. Gender and sexual orientation. How do we build a society that can guarantee security, respect, and equal opportunity and reward to all people, regardless of gender and sexual identity? Schools are already unsafe places for children who wrestle with these issues, and the achievement gap between boys and girls seems to be growing. These challenges must be addressed, and again, schools are the crucibles in which better practices must be forged.
  4. Class and status. We've been living through an era when income disparities have risen to all-time highs and when "Masters of the Universe" privilege themselves in every conceivable way. At the same time, the "middle class" scarcely knows how to define itself. Teachers and schools are going to have to face difficult issues in this arena.
  5. Ability and wellness. Issues around health care, accessibility, genetic testing, and accommodation of different abilities will continue to grow as genetic science moves forward and as our society ages. How will differences in access to services and support manifest themselves among students and and teachers, and how will schools be able to confidently address these differences? Will schools have to take stands on issues we cannot now even foresee?
The All-Terrain Teacher in the thoughtful school will need to have given enormous intentional consideration to each of these areas. Some schools may choose to opt out of this work, keeping their doors and hearts closed to certain kinds of difference, but the terrain that their students, families, and faculties will be negotiating will change nonetheless. Those who choose not to participate will surely be left far behind.

Like the All-Terrain Kid, the All-Terrain Teacher is an ideal. But the ideal can be fulfilled. It will take more than workshops and seminars, more than "diversity days" and diversity offices. It will have to begin with a systemic acknowledgment within the school that the world is truly changing, and that old modes and orders are going to be giving way to new ones, regardless of anyone's comfort with the change. To do the work will take nerves of steel and a willingness both to try new things and to learn from our blunders as we do.

Perhaps there is a Sixth Arena of Diversity, the arena of change itself. Above all, schools that want to be themselves "all-terrain" will need to master the art of moving forward like a camel in a sandstorm, amid ever-shifting conditions and the ever-present temptation to stop and rest. The goal, a world whose ideals reflect the ideals of the school, is out there right where our words and our hopes have placed it, and if we just keep it in sight, we can make it through the most rugged of times.


Monday, October 20, 2008

O, Canada!

My Canadian sojourn was interesting in all kinds of ways, from some very interesting conversations with Canadian independent school educators (including a couple of American expats now leading great Canadian schools) to the New Brunswick Museum in St. John to the flight home via Montreal over a gorgeous landscape striated by the glaciers and upholstered in green, orange, and red damask foliage. I love flying into the St. Lawrence Valley, where at some point the farmsteads stop being the big squarish lots of the English survey system and become long, narrow plats perpendicular to the river, the farm lots of the French Habitants oriented to give access to the main thoroughfare of the 17th century--the river itself.

This doesn't have much to do with schools except insofar as the landscapes remind us of the occasionally astounding differences between the U.S. and Our Neighbor to the North. I learned a great deal on my visit about the ways that independent education in Canada differs from the American sort.

First of all, provincial policies on certification and licensure make the requirements for teaching different from province to province. Then there is the matter of taxation: many of the things that in the States are regarded as non-taxable (like tuition remission) are in parts of Canada regarded as taxable benefits. In some places this extends to school-supplied housing, even in boarding schools.

Furthermore, scholarships to students have also been taxed, and may still be in some jurisdictions. (Readers, any factual help here?) Hence the tradition of financial aid is different in its nature and extent; the old concern about the wealthy subsidizing the poor is very much alive in some school communities.

Anyone who has messed about with curriculum for a while knows that Canadian educational websites were great sources of rubrics and information on multiple-intelligence teaching when such concepts were barely known in the U.S. Additionally, Canadian schools have been forward-thinking about gender equity for years. One thinks of Canada, rightly or wrongly, as progressive in many ways, which makes the scholarship situation, in particular, seem peculiarly retro. It is also clear that many of the educators who were at the conference I attended are keenly interested in expanding the reach of their schools, and so one suspects that creative ways abound of meeting the challenges of a tax system based on the principles other than those that drive the American one. (Home ownership may The Canadian Dream, for example, but there is no mortgage deduction to make it any easier to attain--a little fact that has helped the Canadian economy avoid certain aspects of the current U.S. meltdown.)

The privileges and protections given to private education in the U.S. grow out of both a revolutionary tradition of separation of church and state and a general willingness of Americans to suppport with tax exemptions the blooming of many ideas in the educational marketplace. (Avoidance of taxes, as we learn from both Sarah Palin and American history--viz. the Boston Tea Party--is the most patriotically American of aspirations.) Simultaneously radically liberal and reactionary in their origins, the tax benefits given to American independent schools allow these schools to aspire to and to accomplish relatively easily things that similar schools in more economically restrictive places--like Canada--must work hard to achieve.

I have even found myself considering whether Canada has some parts of this right. The tax privileges granted to independent schools in the U.S. may support educational diversity and choice (and indirectly they certainly support my own ability to earn a living and to receive an education for my children), but they may also make it a bit too easy for schools to thrive whose purposes are as much elitist as egalitarian. We like to think that our independent schools are engines of social mobility, a curious notion that virtually accuses our public schools of failing to play this role, but we also know that these schools can be helpful in maintaining the status quo. The anti-voucher argument that government subsidies (i.e., tax breaks) to non-public schools make it too easy for educationally savvy families who might otherwise push for improvement to opt out of the public education system holds some water. Of course, a system in which scholarships are taxable actually inflicts a certain punishment on those who opt out; there doesn't seem to be an obvious middle ground short of universal choice, a kind of single-payer education system more European than North American and thereby pretty much out of the question on this side of the Atlantic.

With the U.S. poised to elect a liberal government and Canada having just reaffirmed its commitment to conservative rule, the political polarity of North America may be for a while reversed, and it will be interesting to see how things play out in terms of tax policies and educational systems in both countries. It's quite possible that nothing much will change for independent schools in either place, but for a weekend I was pleased to be part of an exchange of ideas and points of view. It has given me something to think about, on the flight home and beyond.


Friday, October 17, 2008

"Employment At" School Webpages

I’m writing this from Canada, where I will be speaking at the Canadian Association of Independent Schools conference for school heads on the subject of “Building Faculties.” It’s hard not to have been distracted by financial turmoil as I have been putting my presentation together, with grim scenarios of hiring and salary freezes or worse spinning through my head. It’s pretty certain that we’ll see some enrollment reductions, and schools are already figuring out how to tighten their belts. “Holding Faculties Together in Tough Times” may be next year’s topic.

Maybe, in the worst cases, either hiring new teachers won’t be necessary, or maybe there will be so many people in the job market looking for anything that every open teaching job will attract hordes of qualified applicants. But I don’t really think things will necessarily reach that point.

Experience tells me, and I’ll admit that others may have data to contradict me, that tough times may actually mean that excellent teachers become harder to find. This may be because veterans elect to stay where they are or because independent school teaching looks like an economically vulnerable luxury service to young people looking to start careers. What this experience suggests to me, however, is that in a recession schools may find themselves in the ironic position of having to look even harder for teachers.

One point I’m going to make to my audience in Canada is that individual schools’ “employment at” (or “jobs at” or “careers at”) webpages are in need of some sprucing up. No longer is it enough just to list job openings, formal descriptions, and contact information. Hiring webpages need to be thoughtful, appealing, and as specific and informative as possible not just about today’s job postings but also about what it is like to work at the school.

College admission websites are pretty good models here; for a number of years now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has used student and admission-office bloggers to give something of the flavor of day to day life at M.I.T., and prospective students can find out anything they want to about just about any university by contacting someone in the admission office. While this level of response to the merely interested may not be feasible for schools’ hiring sites, the up-close-and-personal aspect of blogs written by a couple of teachers and perhaps even students seems like a great way to give candidates a sense of what it means to belong to a school community.

If the school already has blogs, virtual tours, or other interactive and “insider view” materials on its admission or other webpages, the hiring pages need to link directly to these. The same goes for online newspapers or literary magazines, sports pages, and anything else that reveals the school as it is. If the school has some great materials or information to share about teaching in particular, make these easily available for the world to see.

And even if prosperity turns out to be just around the corner, the challenge of attracting the very best teachers will remain. Schools often forget that prospective teachers make up a vital target audience for marketing materials, and, whether the future holds famine or feast, infusing the school’s hiring webpages with real vitality seems like a great way to enhance the recruiting process for relatively little cost.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Tough times: "Professional Development as R&D"

It's been a few too many days since last I posted here, and in the meantime the economic news has gone from bad to worse to worse still; one presumes that sooner or later we'll hit rock bottom so that we can all begin to figure out how we will be living over the next few years.

One large probability is that independent schools will be hit hard by tough times. The New York Times is already writing about the effects on teenagers as families cut back, and for some families it seems likely that the tens of thousands of dollars they have been spending on independent schools will begin to look like an unaffordable luxury. We hope this doesn't happen--that the "valued added" of being taught by admirable faculties is compelling as a reason to stay put--but we would be naive to think that it might not.

In straitened circumstances, schools themselves are likely to be doing some cutting back. But I urge school administrations to take a lesson from the American automobile industry, itself now teetering once again on a brink that has become their position of choice since the 1970s.

American car manufacturers have consistently blown it when it comes to research and development--"R&D," the thing for which America has been most renowned, has been more about marketing for car companies than about improving the quality of their product. In the early 1970s Ford, GM, Chrysler, and AMC (remember them?) were committed to rapid model change with minimal technical improvement even as the rest of the world (= Japan and Europe) had begun to focus on quality, innovation, and economy. Nearly 40 years later, most American car models still lag behind their non-U.S. rivals in quality, reliability, and economy. Last week there was talk of GM and Ford looking at bankruptcy. Coincidence? Of course not.

For independent schools R&D is embedded largely in work each school does in two areas: curriculum development and professional development; the two are clearly interlinked. Great schools develop and keep great faculties by making certain that the best thinking and the most engaging, provocative ideas about curriculum and instruction are a part of the school's daily conversation. These schools go to great lengths to make sure that their faculties are deeply aware of how best practices can be applied in the classroom and how those best practices are evolving in the light of new understandings about teaching and learning.

The great advantage independent schools can have in this area is that they are mission driven, and as such they can be smart and thoughtful about how, when, and whether new practices are incorporated into their school's programs. The mandate schools have to figure out how to be better and then to be so comes not from state legislatures (except in the cases of a couple of states) or Federal agencies but from their understandings of their own purposes. Independent schools, in other words, have the privilege of determining the precise nature of the value they add to the educational experiences of their students.

Schools worried about enrollment or annual giving may feel the need to make some anticipatory cutbacks, but curriculum development and professional development are core activities that sustain the "value added" (and I admit to overusing this annoying term, which smacks of "education as commodity" rather than education as experience) and more importantly the missions of their schools. Schools can only maintain program quality by keeping up the R&D that brings new ideas into classrooms and faculty rooms for mission-informed professional analysis, review, and implementation or rejection. In the great scale of things, the cost of professional memberships and publications and even specialized training for faculty is more than likely to be returned in the future if schools understand that these expenditures are investments to improve what they do and so sustain their position as attractive and worthy educational alternatives for families cautious about their spending.

"Professional development as R&D" ought to be schools' mantra as we enter an era of tough times.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Teaching standards

On my other blog I was just writing about classroom standards, but there is another set of standards that we've heard both more and less about. The media and the politicians are all in a sweat about "higher standards for teachers," but relatively few schools have gone out of their way to state what these standards are.

In independent schools there has long been a prideful sense that we know good teaching when we see it, and this is probably true. What is harder though, and what may have been doing our students harm over the years, is that many of our schools have not made explicit our standards for good teaching; when teachers have been dismissed or eased out, it has more often been for "cause"--an egregious mistake or act--or because they have been gently counseled out: something in the quality of their work has been deficient, and they are unwelcome. The match is bad, they are told, and they are urged to find greener pastures. In the meantime, some of their only slightly better colleagues stay on, doing work that is just good enough. Everyone may know who these teachers are, but the administration doesn't have the right mechanisms--or perhaps the will, in a culture of benign neglect--to tell these teachers specifically how to improve their practice.

A few years back I sat in a workshop on observing teaching conducted by my friend Steve Clem. On the connection between observation and evaluation, Steve made the wry comment, "Of course your teachers are evaluated against specific standards; all your schools have generated their own Standards for Effective Teaching, right?" A roomful of educational leaders from some of the finest schools in the region (just ask us) looked hard at the floor. By the time I was back at school that afternoon, however, I'd decided that creating such standards at our place would be a worthy and perhaps not so complicated project, and that having them in place might make it a whole lot easier to frame both an evaluation system that was then a work in progress and an increasingly elaborate and intentional professional development program.

The process of generating our standards turned out to be not so hard, and the language of our standards has become the basis for the formal "rubric" part of our evaluation system as well as part of the conceptual framework (that also includes our mission statement) on which our professional development and inividual professional growth efforts are based.

I get to work with a few schools here and there that are interested in professional development, evaluation, and building new and sustaining kinds of professional cultures. The work I do is usually pretty fundamental, and I always leave them with the suggestion that developing standards for effective teaching would be a pretty great next step. It's not that hard, I tell them, but I think for faculties unused to being well and consistently evaluated in their work or treated to engaging and intentional professional development, it looks like a daunting task.

But generating standards for effective teaching in a mission-based, thoughtful school isn't that hard, and I think that any school that needs to explain its own standards, either in the marketplace or within its own walls, ought to make the effort. Teachers who have a clear understanding of what is expected of them are liberated by this clarity, and those who want to grow and improve--and evidence is that most teachers want this very much--can focus on specific and even measurable ways to do this. Schools with clear standards can also help all teachers grow and avoid the tragedy of barely satisfactory teachers who never quite cross the line into "cause" but who yet are never shown how improve--faculty members whose classrooms become limbos not just for these teachers but for their poorly served students.

If you recognized yourself among those educators looking at the floor when the subject of Standards for Effective Teaching was raised, there's never a better time than now to contemplate a process for developing your school's own. Whether you start from scratch or base yours on existing models (the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has a great deal to say on this), a set of such standards can be a starting point for some great work in the development of great faculties.

It also occurs to me that all kinds of schools can do themselves a big favor in the public eye by developing and publishing their standards for good teaching. They should then make sure that teachers are held to these standards and given opportunities to exceed them so that they best of them become true master teachers who can lead their faculties from within even as they exemplify the school's very best work. When parents, politicians, and pundits are confident that teachers are doing the best work they can be against known benchmarks of real performance rather than externally applied measures that make little or no sense, schools and teachers will be given the support they need and the respect they deserve.