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The American Team

Last post, I said that educators need to worry less about politics, budgets, and structures, and more about teaching and learning.  Today, at risk of being hypocritical, I’m going to indulge in the wrong stuff.  Sometimes, the moments that jump out at you have to be dealt with when you see them.

In listening to President Obama’s latest speech on how we need to “out-educate” the competition, I was struck by an image of an as-yet-unmade documentary in my head.  In it, the words of the president echoed out over applause, as he spoke of the need to invest in education, keep our priorities straight in spite of our budget crises, and turn to education to light the way out of the American recession.  At the same time, on the screen, you’d see images of local and state leaders calling for huge cuts to school budgets, legislature to destroy collective bargaining for teachers, and angry vilification of schools as places where waste and self-service rule the day.  As I watched this movie in my mind, I saw the yawning chasm between the national rhetoric and the local reality.  And I was struck by just how little we were all working together in this country at the moment. Here’s the video if you have a few minutes, and here’s the text.

It’s not unusual to criticize a school for not promoting effective collaboration among its teachers, and it’s not unusual to criticize administrators for not communicating effectively or being willing to work with teachers.  In fact, one of the things I do at my job is develop Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), which revolve around both the expectation that teachers will collaborate and giving them the time they need to do so.  If America was a PLC, it would be a colossal failure.

I’m haunted by that unmade documentary.  Obama praised Intel for their willingness to build new facilities in America and hire Americans trained in science and engineering.  Naturally, for a nation to produce skilled people of science, there needs to be a solid foundation in the schools, and education to give these scientists the tools they need to succeed at advanced levels.  The President reminded us, “If we want to make sure Intel doesn’t have to look overseas for skilled, trained workers, then we’ve got to invest in our people — in our schools, in our colleges, in our children.”  In the movie, this is what you hear while you see newspaper headlines of local budget cuts aimed squarely at education– cuts that slashed $820 million from New Jersey schools last year or a proposed $1.5 billion in New York.

In another scene the president says that he wants to create permanent tuition tax credits and revitalize community colleges so that students can attend them more easily, without crushing debt– over the backdrop of headlines of colleges losing massive amounts of funding, substantially increasing costs, and of states cutting scholarship opportunities for students who know that college is the way into a productive life, but can’t take on a mountain of student loans.

And while I applaud the president’s vision of an investment in education, much of the way we’re going about it is misguided.  In Obama’s speech, Race to the Top was called “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”  So far, 11 states and DC, the winners of RTTT, have won substantial sums of money to aid their schools.  And what about the rest?  They lost this “race.”  Their residents are faced with a very hard educational future, and they’ve gotten the message– your local governments didn’t measure up, and you’re out of luck.  Obama lauded that RTTT  “has led over 40 states… to raise their standards for teaching and for learning. And these standards weren’t developed in Washington — they were developed by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.”  He conveniently left out the part where these new, rigorous standards soon may not have left anyone qualified to teach them effectively.  I’m all for healthy competition, but I know what works better– collaboration.  Have an incentive system where people are rewarded for winning a competition and what you’ll get is a game.  I played sports in high school (they’d be pay-to-play now, of course) and I know what I did to win those games– I attacked, deceived, fooled, and ran over my competition, and I didn’t care about them on my way to the goal.  I may have even cheated a bit.  I emerged bruised, bloodied, and exhausted.  And at the end of the game, of course, there’s only one winner.

I’ve also been part of collaboration.  I shared what I knew with others, who then taught me what they knew.  We all learned, we all got stronger, and we all agreed that we would continue to share what we learned, to improve our performance.  This is what teams do.  In his speech, the president admonished us, “We are all on the same team — the American team.”

I agree, coach.  So stop making us fight each other.  Start rewarding cooperation and collaboration, not competition.  Make Race to the Top about how many other states you share with, not step on. Find a way– I don’t know how, but it’s your job to find out how– to get local, state, and federal funding schemes to work together to continue to fund schools while still solving local budget crises.  It can be done; it just requires innovation– the way how hasn’t been discovered yet.  The kids we teach now will one day solve the problems we face today.  They need our team to get its act together.  I grew up playing hockey, so there was always only one time-out.  I’m using it.  Let’s figure out a game plan, because we’re getting close to overtime.

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The Three Steps to Problem-Solving

Every day, I see school problem-solving efforts started and stopped, and started again and stopped again. Or they meander, with no one being sure exactly what should be done first.  Or one person burns out after carrying too much of the load.  Or projects fizzle out because they lose shape and the people involved lose track of who’s supposed to be doing what.  The English teacher in me wants to quote Yeats:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

That’s one of the most ominous lines of poetry ever written.

There are so many good ideas for solving what-seem-to-be-intractable problems whizzing around schools, but so few turn into anything actionable.  I see good projects implode at three times: the start-up phase, the refinement phase, and after it’s been running for a bit– the “loss of inertia” phase. I’ve found that there are three steps that need to be taken when problem-solving.  Following them, I think, can turn a good idea into action, and keep it up beyond the honeymoon, when everyone’s excited over what’s new.

1) Collaborate

We as a society are miles beyond the need to address our problems on our own.  We work in schools with dozens of professionals, and hundreds or thousands of kids.  We can connect to other teachers and school leaders through email, Twitter, Diigo, wikis, Facebook, and an endless list of educational journals.  There is great wisdom in crowds, as James Surowiecki and Francis Galton know, and solving problems together harnesses the brainpower of everyone involved.  I had been a life-long individual problem-solver, and until recently I wasn’t convinced about the wisdom of crowds.  But after working on deep, entrenched problems like achievement gaps, outdated curricula, and ineffective, teacher-centered instruction, I’m convinced that one person can’t do it all, can’t see every possible solution, and can’t have every experience on which to draw.  There are giants on whose shoulders we can stand, and there is great power in collaboration, networking, and teamwork.

2) Articulate

Teaching vocabulary and literary devices made me see the power of articulation.  My students could always read definitions, but not until I forced them to put things in their own words did they truly grasp what an unusual or complex word meant.  The dictionary definition for irony always fell flat, for instance– but try articulating it in your own words, and it becomes understandable to you.  Or try poetry.  Or metaphor— and you can’t use the phrase “without like or as.”

Until you can articulate exactly what’s wrong and exactly how you think it should be, you can’t effectively work on a solution.  Putting things into words has power– witness anyone who’s ever written down their thoughts in order to see how they really felt about something (Author’s note to himself– insert mirror here).  Articulation lets collaborators define the problem, map out specific solutions, and be on the same page in their efforts.  This might be the hardest of the three steps, but it’s the fulcrum on which the others hinge.

3) Sustain

Good problem-solving efforts are only as good as they can be sustained.  If you’ve created a wonderful student rewards program that has students reading like never before in exchange for points they can redeem for more books, you’ve created every educator’s dream.  What you haven’t done is make sure that the program continues once you leave the school to become an administrator, or a writer, or a teacher somewhere else.

So how do you ensure sustainability?  The best way is to find ways so that more people have a stake in the project.  If it’s just you, you are the project.  If a group is responsible for the work, there’s more structure and stability.  If everyone is invested in the solution– here’s why school-wide buy-in is so essential– the solution can be more intractable than the problem once was.

Another provocative line from Yeats’s poem is

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

If that’s not enough to motivate you, what will?  Problem-solving is never easy; every school has unique challenges and roadblocks to get through before success.  But we must be up to the challenge, and find not just the necessary passionate intensity, but the kind of systematic collaborating, planning, and following through that changes the unchangeable.

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