Friday, May 27, 2011

My Testimony to the Michigan State Board of Education

On Thursday, May 26, 2011 the Michigan State Board of Education hosted a public forum in Ann Arbor.  Below is the testimony I presented at the forum.

Members of the State Board of Education:

I first want to thank you for holding these public forums. It is a privilege to speak directly to you today.

I come today to speak on behalf of Career & Technical Education (CTE) and its viability within the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC).

When I first heard Superintendent Flanagan speak when the MMC was being considered, I was optimistic.  Mr. Flanagan spoke of the need to re-imagine the high school education and talked to not think about the MMC in terms of “courses” but in terms of credit.  He even gave one example specific to CTE regarding how Algebra “credit” could be obtained in a CTE class.

Now, however, as local districts and individual schools strive to standardize classes and strive to meet the demands of the MMC, it seems in many cases that the MMC has come to represent Michigan Merit COURSES!

Currently at the high school where I teach, I am witnessing the demise of a number of good, solid CTE programs.  Three years ago, our school employed five CTE teachers, last year we had four.  Now this year, we have only three.  The preliminary numbers for next year, indicate the need for only two CTE teachers.  This is in spite of an overall increasing enrollment in the school.

So I speak today not only as a teacher, but as a product of a high school CTE drafting program myself.

Early in high school I struggled with Algebra and Geometry.  But once immersed in my school’s drafting program, the math concepts I had struggled with started to make sense when used in ways that had meaning to me.

Even in college, as I majored in Industrial Education, I was fortunate to be in a program that stressed taking at least one or two classes in my major each term along with my required core courses.  Looking back, I strongly believe completing my undergraduate program in that manner gave meaning to my required core courses and was a major factor in my success as an undergraduate.

As a result, I can’t help but try to communicate the importance of having CTE classes as part of many students everyday high school experience to allow them to see the meaning and the relevance of their other courses.  My own son is an example.  He credits the CTE Robotics Program at Pinckney High School for enhancing his understanding of the core curriculum and today one year after being hired by Thetford Manufacturing, he is believed to be the youngest person ever to be selected as supervisor in the history of their Dexter Facility.

It is becoming more apparent every day, the idea of a bachelors degree as a guarantee to a successful career is no longer the guarantee it once was.  In addition, it is becoming apparent that the United States could soon be facing a shortage of skilled workers as CTE programs nationwide that provide such skilled training become fewer and much of the current skilled workforce is approaching retirement age.

Mike Rowe, of the Discovery Channel series “Dirty Jobs” recently testified to the U.S Senate Commerce Committee on this pending skilled labor problem.  His testimony included a number of important quotes but one related to the importance of CTE:

 “In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of ‘higher education’ to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled  ‘alternative.’ Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of ‘shovel ready’ jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.”
In addition, I believe many CTE programs play a vital part as a “college prep” class to many students.  For example, I have had many former students communicate to me how taking my drafting and/or CAD classes benefited them in college.
 Three examples include:
  •  A former student who studied architecture at Lawrence Tech has communicated to me how his drafting and CAD skills developed in high school gave him a distinct advantage over other students in the program that did not have those skills. 
  •  A former student who studied engineering at Georgia Tech, has mentioned to me numerous times how he feels his high school drafting classes turned out to be the most valuable class he took in high school or college. 
  •  A former student and graduate of Miami University’s architecture program has written to me how, because of the CAD experience she had in high school, she is among the most skilled CAD designers in her current firm and she believes that is a major reason she has been retained over other architects during the recession.
To conclude, members of the Michigan Board of Education, as you envision the high school merit curriculum I asked of you to seek out solutions to support and save the CTE programs across the state.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Khan Academy

I see the Khan Academy is getting much publicity and now some support from Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation.

Some people feel threatened by this technology. Perhaps it's not so much the technology, but the fear of how politicians and "reformers" might abuse this technology to downgrade the value of teachers.

However, I've been using my own self-made video tutorials in my classroom via the screen casting technology similar to Khan's since the 90's. I now mainly incorporate the videos into my Moodle courses but I've also started making some of my latest video tutorials available on a YouTube Channel.

But guess what? My students still need me as a teacher.

While the videos provide explanatio­ns and examples, once the students begin working on their activities they still need oversight and guidance plus they still have questions.

Their work still needs to be evaluated and graded. However, this tool has allowed me to give more individual­ized attention to students and has helped them to focus on the lesson.

I guess my point is that what Khan is doing is not really as revolutionary as the media portrays it to be plus I feel a bit discouraged that the media seems to focus on people that are not classroom teachers as the main drivers of "reform".

Your thoughts?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

MisterRogers Meets Charles Dickens

The following is a copy of my guest blog from April 7 featured on the "Education Week" web site.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..."
(With apologies to Charles Dickens.)
The opening of "A Tale of Two Cities"... Is there a better way to describe what is happening in education today? Let me explain.

I recently read an essay by an Oregon teacher of 34 years, "I Don't Want To Be A Teacher Any More." A number of teachers on Facebook posted the link in their status updates. While I read the essay and could relate to the issues of the author, my gut reaction, and my reply to status updates, was "But now more than ever is the time we have to want to be teachers".

Our students need us now more than ever. Parents need us now more than ever. We know we are right now more than ever. We must work together as educators to fix what is wrong with education and not allow politicians, philanthropists, and corporations to instill their baseless ideals on the America education system.

Yes, it is the worst of times. I am in my 29th year as a teacher and I cannot remember a time when the public attitudes toward teachers, media perceptions of teachers, and the political demands on teachers have been any worse than they are today.

However, it is also the best of times, because as teachers we have the facts on our side. We know those attitudes toward teachers are wrong. We know those perceptions of teachers are wrong. And we know the political demands on teachers are wrong. Research has now demonstrated over and over that these things are just plain wrong.

And yes, it is the age of foolishness. It is mere foolishness that the media gives credibility to Bill Gates and his many wild ideas on education reform without credible research. It is foolishness that the media fawns over big city chancellors such as Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Catherine Black, none of whom had any documented accomplishments of success as education reformers.

There is a reason those three chancellors were not given the title of superintendent... they did not meet the qualifications. It is foolish that Congress overrides the courts and grants "highly qualified" status to uncertified TFA teachers.

But yes, it is also the age of wisdom. The wisdom of proven research that has demonstrated merit pay systems for teachers based primarily around student achievement on standardized test does not work. The experience proving that real merit pay systems such as career ladders and bonus pay for National Board Certification are one of the first things to be cut when budgets are tight. The "wisdom" of Florida passing a merit pay program but providing no funding. It's just plain nonsense.

There's plenty of wisdom in research.The charter school concept that is all the rage with politicians and reformers has been shown to only be better than surrounding public schools 17% of the time. More than a third of charters deliver learning results significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.

The concept of school vouchers has recently been scrutinized in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the first and largest school voucher program experiment in the country. A recent study of Wisconsin state test results for the first time shows voucher students performing "similar or worse" than other Milwaukee students in poverty, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

While all of the wisdom of the research is being ignored and the foolishness of politicians, philanthropists, and corporations is being praised, teachers feel attacked, disrespected, and undervalued. What can teachers do?

Teachers must seek total solidarity. Teachers must remain vigilant knowing that they have the facts on their side. Teachers must make every effort to push back against the foolishness. 

They must counter the attacks rather than retreating. They must realize most of the disrespect only comes from people that don't know them or don't have a clue what they do. They must value themselves and each other.

There is a movie currently showing across the nation called "Limitless". The basic theme of the movie is its main character is given an experimental drug that unleashes his full inner potential and he goes on to do many miraculous things. However, the drug can be deadly and by the end of the movie he has discovered he had this limitless potential within himself without the use of the drug.

I believe as educators, we have a limitless potential within, just waiting to be discovered and now more than ever we need to find it.

When confronted with a difficult situation, I personally try to reflect on some of the most profound lyrics in popular music, written by Jack Tempchin and Bob Strandlund and sung by Glenn Frey of the Eagles:

"So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains... And we never even know we have the key."

So to my fellow educators, before I'm Already Gone, let us remember that we have the key. Let us discard these chains, let us take control of our profession and the education system of OUR country!