Thursday, September 18, 2014

The future of principals in Canada

This was written by David Berliner who is Regents' Professor Emeritus at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College of Arizona State University. His interests are in the study of teaching and general educational policy. He is the author, with Bruce J. Biddle, of The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools. This post was originally published as the Forward for a national research study The Future of the Principalship in Canada.

by David Berliner

I am old enough to have learned that those predicting the future for American education are frequently wrong. As I grew up the Russians were going to beat us in everything; as I matured the Japanese were going to do the same; later I learned we were not competitive in industry. But then Apple and Microsoft came along. The futility of prediction beyond, say, the next three years became clear. But, on the other hand, strategic action calls for examination of current and future trends.

There is value in trying to understand the contemporary life of principals and to extrapolate the implications for the professional and personal life of the holders of that position, now and in the future. In order to understand the work of school leaders—as it is now and as it will be in the future— the voices of those undertaking that role must be heard by stakeholders and policymakers. With this in mind, the ensuing report focuses on principals’ perspectives from across Canada and offers remarkable insight into what needs to be done to improve this job at the personal level and to redesign the job to support efficacy.

The social contexts in which Canadian principals, as well as their colleagues globally, operate are always different and always fluctuating. Particularly in education, general findings stop being general because contexts vary significantly. For instance, schools in a First Nations community, suburban Calgary or inner city Toronto have different needs and demand different types of work from principals. Safety may be a primary concern and a powerful stressor for one principal; for another principal, stress on the job is rooted in the behavior of local parents; for other principals, scores on externally- mandated tests are what stress the principal and demand more time. Further, all educational work must take context into consideration because certain educational ideas, practices or leaders may not be right for a particular setting. Instability of context—and the need to adapt to an unstable context— is perhaps the only thing that can be generalized.

All leaders of industry and government need to monitor and understand shifts in context as they try to control their organizations’ and their nations’ future. Stasis is rare in educational systems and, thus, the question of “what needs to be done now” requires frequent re-examination. As highlighted in this report, this is part of the complexity inherent in school leadership: the principal has a critical role to play as the “change spotter” and leader of accommodations to change in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This is work that is both very hard and very important, and upon which communities and nations depend.

The effects of shifting contexts and trends require understanding by those who choose to become principals and, even more so, by those who judge their performance.

This study on the Canadian principalship highlights the burden that too many directives from above place on school leaders. This corresponds to data from the USA, where, for example, school leaders in the state of Massachusetts, in the years 2009-2013, received 5,382 multiple-page documents—around three documents a day—from the state and the federal government. These documents required action by local school districts and frequently demanded the time and attention of school principals. That reality makes Kafka’s worst descriptions of bureaucracy seem benign!

As long as the bureaucracies in which principals work inundate them with memos and mandates, neither American nor Canadian school leaders will be able to meet the needs of their students, parents and communities. Principals in both countries have to contend with almost endless needs to which attention must be paid; among the most galling of these are the ‘top-down’ mandates, which often imply that principals and teachers are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, or that they are super men and women who can do whatever is asked of them, regardless of their other responsibilities.

From the perspective of an outsider and researcher who has worked across the globe, the Canadian provincial and national systems seem to be shifting toward an organizational culture where there is diminished trust and much greater external accountability. The way around this issue was put well in this report: “At the risk of sounding simplistic, more trust and less accountability is required to make schools more engaging for our students and staff.” In fact, Finland has a system much like this, and it works.

What this report makes clear is that the principalship is a paradox. While it is a nearly impossible job, it is done remarkably well by most practitioners—even though they are usually understaffed and under- resourced—given the demands that are made on them.

If wisely acted upon, the findings in this document can be used to support and sustain a better principalship across Canada. If that is done, the profession will likely attract and keep the kind of leaders who can effectively shape the schools and communities serving this increasingly diverse and complex nation. But we need to remember that the challenges faced by our principals cannot all be addressed without also attending to the social context and the issues that exist within it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

5 ways to better support Principals

A national study on The Future of the Principalship in Canada takes a thoughtful look at what is happening to principals across Canada.

The study identifies five ways forward for principals to overcome the challenges they face and move toward their ultimate goals for their schools and students.

Way Forward 1: Teach and Learn for Diversity

“Diversity” encompasses an enormous array of cultural backgrounds, needs, interests and opportunity structures for Canadian students. Schools work to recognize and meet the needs of all kinds of diversity, and three key “ways forward” emerged from the comments of school leaders:
  • Support new Canadian families, particularly in English language learning 
  • Strategically engage and teach First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) students and develop better partnerships with families 
  • Strategically address growing mental health issues in children and young adults 

Way Forward 2: Collaborate and Build Professional Capacities in School Staff

Although some principals in this study discussed the importance of collaboration in their schools, many more appeared to carry the leadership burden alone. Participants noted the following strategies related to collaboration:
• Implement mentorship programs
• Foster leadership development to encourage school principals to draw on the strengths and talents of their teaching staff, moving toward distributive leadership models 

Way Forward 3: Build Family and Community Relationships

School principals and teachers need new ways to connect with parents and communities. There are both short-term and long-term “ways forward” to foster family and community relationships:
  • In the short term, support professional development that will help school leaders with negotiations, dispute resolutions, and boundary-setting 
  • In the long run, work to build community-level partnerships 
  • Advocate for integrated service models that house an array of family services in the school to benefit students and families directly, as well as to strengthen relationships in the community 

Way Forward 4: Use Technology for Creative Learning and Good Citizenship

School principals and teachers see both opportunities and social costs in the growth of information and communications technologies. In society and mass media, technology is largely taken up in an uncritical manner. This inspires the following “ways forward”:
  • Recognize and assume a significant leadership role in teaching children and young people to use technology responsibly and thoughtfully 
  • Continue professional development for school leaders and staff regarding technology in the classroom 
  • Balance technical skills with sensitivity to the pedagogical and social consequences of technology for students’ learning, social development, and well-being 

Way Forward 5: Promote Continuous Leadership Learning

Participants mentioned the need for more reflection and more collaboration with colleagues and clearly desired opportunities to work with their teachers to improve practices. Despite this, a specific vision for leadership development was not evident in these findings. Nonetheless, researchers drew the following “ways forward” from the participants’ responses:
  • Continue articulating leadership frameworks and competencies for school principals 
  • Advocate for conditions that will not crowd out leadership learning with managerial competencies

Monday, September 15, 2014

Blogging with my grade 8 students

I created a new blog to use with my grade 8 social studies classes.

Here's the post I used to explain how and why we will be using our blogs this year:

The purpose of your blog is to make your learning visible. This will include:
  • improving your thinking and writing skills
  • learning new things and re-thinking the things you already know
  • sharing your blog with others so that others can learn from you and you can learn from others
Sometimes I will provide you with something to write about and other times you will choose the topic of your blog posts. Sometimes you will pick when to write a blog post and other times I will pick.

Sometimes we will use the school's computers and sometimes you will use your own devices. There are lots of apps you can download that will allow you to blog on your device, and if you want to, you can access your blogs from home.

Sometimes we won't have access to computers or the Internet, so sometimes we will first write our blog posts on paper and then later put them online.

Your blog posts will often include:
  • thinking and writing
  • pictures
  • video
  • links to other websites and blogs
Here's a blog post that I wrote that shows how I used a video, excerpts from books, links to other websites and a picture to help support my own thinking and writing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Too much time in school an economic waste

This was written by Zander Sherman who is the author of The Curiosity of School.

by Zander Sherman

Last week, as Alberta’s students headed back to school, some were probably wishing they’d had a longer summer holiday.

Easily overshadowed by other issues, the question of our academic calendar and its number of vacation days has long troubled educators. Those who say we should spend more time in school often suggest cutting into the summer break, when kids were once needed to help hay the fields. Because we no longer live in farming times, the tradition is irrelevant. If such reasoning is meant to sustain an argument, it might be pointed out that what we call school today was also invented during the same timeframe—and no one is arguing the irrelevance of it.

While it still eludes Alberta, all-day kindergarten has been adopted to Ontario’s educational legislation, with similar initiatives gaining momentum in other parts of the world. In the US, extended learning has become a central tenet of the charter school movement. In the UK, politicians are campaigning on a proposal that would legally force public schools to provide 45 hours of education a week for 45 weeks. Lengthening school days and cutting holidays is said to be “the perfect election promise.”

Proponents argue that their plan would create more “successful” students. To find out whether this is true, let us first agree that “educational success” is the reason we go to school. Sadly, the phrase “educational success” has come to be defined by a third party. The OECD is a global economic organization that administers PISA, the standardized test taken by all 15-year-olds. Because of the correlation between PISA results and a nation’s gross domestic product, PISA is academia’s raison d’ĂȘtre: If students do well on the test, it means their country is doing well financially. (This is why governments obsess over test results. They indicate a country's rank on the global stage.)

If educational success is the reason we go to school, it will be surprising to many that more time in school does not necessarily lead to it. While there is correlation between PISA outcomes and GDP, there is little correlation between PISA outcomes and the number of hours we spend in school. Consider, for instance, how Canada spends roughly the same number of hours in a classroom as the US, but as a whole does a lot better on PISA than they do. China and Japan spend about the same amount of time in school and come out at or near the top, while India also spends approximately the same number of hours in school and comes out at or near the bottom.

Clearly, instructional time does not lead to better PISA outcomes.

If more classroom hours have little to do with educational success, what does? School’s terrible secret is that students’ “success” is determined long before they enter a classroom. Wealth is the single greatest predictor of academic grades, and therefore of students’ future earning potential. This is true in many ways. Wealthy families have more resources, and can afford private tutors and expensive test prep courses. Wealthy parents have more time to spend with their children, and so engage them more. Poor families view post-secondary education as unattainable. Poor parents are often under chronic stress, which in turn affects their children.

If more time in school doesn’t equal educational success, it only makes sense that we should spend less time in it. It is a principle of economics after all that where there is no benefit to a proposal, it is wasteful to continue using it. The province of Alberta’s education budget is $7 billion per annum. Exams, snow days, and PD days notwithstanding, Albertans spend about 190 days in school. That’s about $37 million a day. For cost reasons alone, school days are precious and not to be wasted. (And that doesn’t include other reasons to avoid over-schooling such as student stress, teacher attrition rates, and the growing number of pediatricians who say that the school day begins too early in the morning—all problems that could be avoided with a shorter school year.)

To those who would shorten our summer holiday, let this be among the first lessons of the year: It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend behind a desk, merely how rich you are. There can be no denying that over-schooling is an economic waste. With that in mind, more vacation hours would solve the problem of spending too much time in school.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bring Your Own Device: It's awesome except for the inequity

It's the end of my first week at my new school and it has been awesome!

I'm teaching six classes. Two grade 6 social studies, two grade 6 language arts and two grade 8 social studies. 

For grade 6, I am teaching two classes language arts and social studies, so I told them to just call our class humanities -- that way they never need to ask me if we are doing language arts or social studies because we are usually doing both.

As we start up the school year, we discussed what we will and won't be doing in our classroom. Some of this included the physical space, which I blogged about here

One of the big topics of discussion was electronic devices. 

My school has a free guest wifi network that has no password, and the school rule is that students may use their devices in class if they have their teachers permission. I told my students that if they are using their phone appropriately then they have my permission -- even if they didn't officially ask -- but if they are using it inappropriately, then they do not have my permission, even if they did ask.

This led to a discussion about texting. Here's what we came up with.

If they are using their device in class and they receive a text or a notification, we agreed that it only takes 2 seconds to read it, so reading it is ok. But we agreed that they would not reply to the text or the notification unless it was an emergency. If it's an emergency, they are to come and speak with me and then together we would decide on whether an immediate reply is appropriate.

I told my students that I can't be looking over their shoulders to make sure they follow through with this. I told them that I trust them, which I do. I'm prepared to trust kids until I am provided with evidence that suggests that I can't. I also said unlike when they are holding an actual book or paper, I can't easily identify what they are doing, so they may need to show me their screen and explain to me what they are up to.

It's been two days. Here's what I've seen.

During silent, free reading not every student that had a device used it, but some did:
  • Jackson went to Wikipedia to read about small engines and how they work
  • Brayden researched the history of books and how they were made and printed
  • Lots of students are using an App called WattPad to read free stuff. I downloaded the App and started playing around with it. Looks like its free and offers tons of different genres for students to read. Lots of potential here.

When we were designing our portfolios (plain manilla folder), many students searched for things they wanted to draw. They placed their device on their table so they could look at the image and draw it on their portfolio:
  • Mike found the NHL logo
  • Ty found some Native art
  • Maggy found some cartoon eyes
  • Tim found the Vans logo
At lunch time, a couple students took turns Airplaying songs from their Apple devices to the Apple TV.

This was all very cool. I can't afford, and neither can the school, to buy all of the books that interest my students. I can't afford to have Wikipedia on my bookshelf, so I love it that they can access all this great stuff via their device. 

It's also important to note that some of these students are prone to misbehave because they might not know how or what to draw. I felt like the devices set my students up for success.

Even though things have gone well so far, I have two concerns:
1. I'm not naive enough to think that students will always use their devices appropriately -- and when it happens, I will see it as a teachable moment (not a punishable moment) and work with the students to learn how to use their device appropriately.
2. There are huge inequities with bringing your own device. I have students that have no devices and unless I provide them with access to a device, they might go the entire school year without. Because great schools are built on equity for all (not excellence or elitism for a few), this is a problem that must be addressed.
For now, my classroom will be a hybrid between Bring Your Own Device and school supplied devices.

Now, I'm off to the library to see how many school devices are available so that I can make my classroom more equitable. 
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