Sunday, November 22, 2009

Are We Really Losing the Global Education Game

We often hear concern within our media that the U.S. as a nation is losing its educational edge. The pundits fear that we will cease to be competitive and our mighty economy will stumble. Are our college graduates all doomed to live in their parents basements until the ripe age of 40 or are the pundits full of crap? After all when is the last time you heard a business argue that they are moving their factory to Mexico because of the great public education system. As Catholic educators should it concern us that the talk of globalization is often framed in the context of "competition" rather and the context of increased "cooperation". Which framework is more helpful in solving what are now global issues? As members of the first international organization (the Church) where is our voice in the growing debate?

ASCD recently published a book by Michigan State professor Yong Zhao titled "Catching Up or Leading the Way". The book moves beyond international tests (TIMSS and PISA) or achievement and looks at the outcomes and reform efforts in each country. Having been raised in China and educated in both the United States and China Zhao's perspective is definitely worth a look. Zhao points out that China is racing to reform their educational system to be more like the United States while we are (at least in terms of NCLB and the recent work of the Department of Education) reforming our system to be more like the traditional Chinese system. In general the traditional system in China contains an emphasis on drill and kill activities and rote memorization. Culturally the college entrance exam in China is the ticket to social mobility with the benefits of citizenship often only applied to those who hold college degrees. This myopic focus on one test comes to shape the entire culture. Saturdays are no longer reserved for family and activities but rather math camps and grammar rodeos fill the weekends. The outcome is as predicted: high test scores but low ability. Recently Premier Wen called a national conference lamenting the Chinese system's inability to produce creative thinkers. The majority of patents in the world in the area of invention and new technology are still awarded disproportionately to Americans. This does not bode well for China who longs to become more than just the world's factory and inexpensive labor pool.

American education certainly celebrates the wide spectrum of human ability. Ask any high school principal what their evenings are filled with? It's not grammar rodeos and math camps but rather the wide-array of co-curricular activities that are part of the American high school experience. We know football, basketball, music and band can often steal the show and perhaps garner too much attention. Look at your football budget compared to your science department budget. Zhao argues this balance allows on one end a truly American focus on the importance of the individual but also argues the confidence achieved in one area flows into others. This courage to do your best and to push the envelope is what often defines America and it has served us well.

So China is racing to become more like the West in terms of education while our national reform efforts seem to sap the joy out of any school. Teacher-proof scripted lessons and weeks of preparing for the annual graphite dance on the bubble sheets may raise our TIMSS score but at what long term cost?

Below are three links that are worth a look. One is Zhao delivering a summary of his work. The other is a link on how Asian students are flocking to Liberal Arts schools in the U.S. in pursuit of learning critical thinking and problem solving skills. The third is a slide share presentation that summarizes the book.

Link to Zhao's presentation

Link to Article on Asian students and Liberal Arts Education

Link to slide share summary of the book.

I'm not one to be content with average performance and I don't mean to push off accountability efforts with this post. But until we frame school reform around an agreement about what knowledge and skills our graduates really need our efforts will be empty. I'd argue producing young men and women who think critically, live humanely, lead effectively, and can operate in a paradigm of global cooperation (not competition) would be an excellent start. A thorough grounding in Catholic moral and social teaching would be a nice base as well.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Teaching the Lower Track

For years our school has split our curriculum into three different tracks. We've called these tracks by various names and have adjusted the terminology from time to time. Currently we have three tracks: modified, regular, and honors. Students are placed into these tracks through scores on the placement / entrance exam. As of late I've begun to worry about the students in the low track.

Does tracking beyond honors and regular actually increase student learning? I see two sides to the situation. We are about to embark on a massive curriculum revamp as part of a switch to a trimester and 1:1 computing model. The debate around modified courses is about to began.

To give the context we track in four areas: math, science, social studies, and english. On one hand the observation is made that our staff at the modified level is not specifically trained to teach with different methods for students of lower academic ability. In a school of 850 each class has about 20 students tracked into the modified lane. A large percentage of these students have IEPs for various reasons but many do not. These students spend the entire day together moving from class to class with the exception of a few electives. Concern has been raised that by grouping our lower scoring students together for four years they continually reinforce to each other low expectations. Some argue that if we placed these students into regular classes they could manage to make it through if teachers were willing to differentiate their instruction to address the learning needs of these students. This group believes students would be better served by being placed in the regular lane.

On the other hand a number of our staff are opposed to eliminating the modified track with the concern that by placing these students into the regular lain the curriculum would be watered down. That teachers would be forced to teach to the needs of the lowest students. This group believes adamantly that eliminating tracking at this level would have a profound negative impact on the school as a whole.

My personal feelings are mixed. I'm curious as to our students thoughts. As soon as school kicks back up in the fall I plan to collect some student opinions on the matter. I can see some merit to the views of both camps. I'm curious as to how other Catholic high schools address these issue. Perhaps we are in the minority by tracking perhaps were not. Maybe it would be better to place these students in regular classes but assign them to a special study hall and delay the foreign language elective for a couple of years. I'm sure a number of schools have addressed these issues and have come up with a solution.

Some make the argument that Freshmen and Sophomore year should be untracked and admittance to the AP / Honors lane be determined only by academic performance during the Freshmen and Sophomore year.

Please take the survey link here and share your practices and ideas. Link Here

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reflecting on Year One of Technology Integration

During the past school year we implemented a plan to give all of our instructors Apple Macbooks. We also greatly increased the strength and bandwidth of our wireless network. Our newly formed director of instructional technology took on the challenging task of teaching and implementing technology goals for the 2008-2009 school year. Below I reflect on what worked, what didn't, and what we learned in the process. Our hope is others can learn from our efforts or give us some great guidance as we move forward. This post is inspired by Scott McLeod's latest post on urging school leaders to take seriously their obligations to advance technology integration through Leadership Day 2009.

1. Upgrading the wireless: Well it worked and it worked well. We went from a network that often slugged around at paces so slow checking email was a chore. The upgrade for the building all told cost around $30,000 for a high school of 800. I'd tell you are square footage but I don't know it. What we learned: design with the ability to add access points to handle 1:1 depth. Having a great network guy and team player helped enormously. After all its always about the people in the end.

2. To filter or not filter? Once the network was up and blazing what to do about filtering. We take a rather open approach at PND and aren't concerned with blocking social network sites, youtube and the like. After all why block what can be used for educational purposes. The "fear" card is too often overplayed and shouldn't be. Live a little. Of course we block the porn and other soul ruining sites, gambling etc. What we learned: blocking educational tools is a waste of time and more importantly creative talent. We encourage teachers to use facebook for their class nor personal communication with students. Here are some examples. Link to art page, school facebook account.

3. Choosing appropriate goals: Obviously giving teachers a laptop comes with the expectation that they will be used. What we often find is fear can get in the way. We also know that the worst way to do technology development with staff is to make them all sit in a room or lab at the same time. The problem is everyone is at a different level. Some teachers can easily create websites, blogs, and use social networking. Others struggle to create a powerpoint. With this in mind we created the position of Director of Instructional Technology to work individually with teachers throughout the year on their two identified goals. Teachers were given a number of options. Overall I would say this worked well. Not very well for some faults on my end. What we learned: I presumed all the staff would be pretty much a self starter in making their appointments and times. Those 5% of the wayward souls often need some more direct over sight. It will be provided next year. A year end survey of staff helped account for progress. I also made the mistake of assigning our Director of Instructional Technology to teaching too many sections not leaving enough time to work with the teachers. A great wiki was started about tech shortcuts and all and building PLNs with a number of staff was incredibly valuable. Once again it is about the people and our director did a great job in a challenging and new role.

This coming school year we are gearing up to prepare our staff for teaching and working in a 1:1 environment. Much work must be done between now and then but we are looking forward to the whole process.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Those Parking Spaces Close to the Building

I've been thinking lately about our Catholic mission and some of our fundraising practices. With the economy dipping and all of us fearing late tuition payments and falling enrollments the importance of annual appeals and third source fund raisers becomes even more critical.

One common practice is to auction off certain naming rights or privileges. We frequently auction off annual naming rights for our gymnasium and of course the two parking spaces closest to the front doors. I don't know why but as of late these practices seem to bother me. Maybe it's because I recently finished E.F. Schumacher's "Small if Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered" (It's a fabulous read and I highly recommend it) Maybe it is just the effects of a long Lent. I wonder though what message it sends when the first impression we often make to our visitors is here are the parking spaces for the rich children or here is the gym named for the local business. We claim our mission is to make the world a better place - where the Gospel message radiates the love of Christ through our own lives to those around us. I wonder how this practice helps accomplish the mission.

Philanthropy is great and I don't mean to discourage our community members from supporting our mission with their donations. We all know these families could just as easily spend these dollars elsewhere. Obviously we are thankful for all the gifts we receive. We need their support but I sometimes wonder where the line needs to be drawn. What if we put a sign over the closest parking space that said "Reserved for the Least Among Us." It would be interesting to see who takes the space at the next sold out basketball game. I suppose in some ways this type of giving and public naming might encourage others to give - a type of positive peer pressure.

We are gearing up for a building campaign and these issues will become critical over the next three to four years of our school's existence. I suppose it is to dreamy to imagine the science wing donated to the anonymous giver or the "we give because we care" performing arts center.

I realize I am a total hypocrite as I recently purchased at my local grade school's auction the first rows for my sons' upcoming first communion. The price was only $48 but then again that number rings a little too close to 30 pieces of silver. I've been assured it isn't simony to sit in the front row but then again somehow I feel like one of those money changers Jesus came chasing after.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Economics and Catholic Thought

With the potential collapse of capitalism happening in our life times I've been giving some thought to how high school economics classes are taught. I'm specifically interested in those being taught in Catholic high schools. Financial literacy is becoming an extremely important topic. This years events have provided much fodder for discussing economics. The time seems very ripe for open minds to perhaps consider some alternative economic theories that both understand human freedom and the right ordering of goods.

We have a great history to stand upon from numerous papal encyclicals to the work of Dortothy Day and others. G.K. Chesterton and others have dabbled in the theory of distributism as an alternative to communism, socialism, or capitalism. Graduating students who have a depth of understanding regarding the right ordering of society and economic rights and responsibilities is perhaps a key step to rebuilding our countries financial institutions. Our students are tomorrows leaders. I have to believe students steeped in a thorough understanding of "fiat" currency, monetary theory, and the historical debates regarding the concept of an economic system built on "interest" will go a long way towards forming a more just economic world.

Most states require an economics course for high school students. The secular books we use rarely if ever mention alternative economic theories. As Catholic schools we count on our staff to add the deeper context and meaning required to look at economic issues through the Catholic world view.

Here are a few helpful resources to begin the conversation:
Papal Document Pacem In Terris
Papal Document Quadragesimo Anno
Small is Beautiful by Schumacher

Below is a video to help understand the current financial crisis that your teachers may find helpful.

The Credit Crisis - Animatic from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

This vide is long in length but if you find yourself with 47 minutes and not much to do I think you'll find it fascinating. I don't personally agree with everything in the film but it is intriguing.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Watching Web 2.0 Deepen Learning

Every now and then as a principal I have the chance to get out and teach a unit here and there. For the past couple of years I've really enjoyed teaching an economics unit on futures trading and the role futures markets play in price discovery. We spend five days on the topic and the project culminates with the creation of a mock futures exchange with students wearing trading jackets screaming and yelling bids and offers back as they respond to market conditions being periodically broadcast. At this point we have a firm grasp on the role of hedgers and speculators in the modern market place.

It is a fun project but certainly not unique. What helps add to the depth of the learning is the integration of web 2.0 tools into the project. To create a true market experience we invite friends from all over the country to participate by watching our trading through ustream. These customers then call in orders direct to our student brokers via their cell phone or yahoo instant messenger. These clerks take the orders and hand them into our floor brokers who execute the orders on their customers behalf. It's a good time for all and proves to be a very valuable and memorable experience for our seniors.

What surprises me is how these tools can catch fire with other instructors. Our talented art teacher has begun using ustream and skype to work with Doug Lenuig of Purpose Driven Art on an upcoming project advocating for the importance of clean water. These tools are bringing our art students into contact daily with a world class artist. It is certainly exciting to watch and see our students so engaged in their learning. It is especially edifying to see after all of our efforts to bring macbooks to our staff, blazing fast bandwidth to our halls, and a liberal attitude towards implementing these technologies. It is paying off and our students are reaping the benefits. Now we can set our sties on a 1:1 within two years.

Below are some short vids of the projects in action. Apologies for the audio quality on the second one we forgot to plug in our better mic.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Systematizing our Values

Over the weekend I was privileged to attend the Educon 2.1 conference in Philadelphia hosted by the Science Leadership Academy. SLA is into its third year of operation as a join project of the Philadelphia Public School System and the Franklin Institute. A large part of the success of the SLA rests with their visionary leader and principal Chirs Lehmann. The Educon conference is hosted by educators for educators with no corporate sponsorships. It is a volunteer run conference with some heavy hitters in the progressive movement even chipping in to collect garbage and clean tables. If you can get away to one conference next year I highly recommend Educon 2.2 in beautiful Philadelphia.

Chris offered a session during Sunday about connecting values with systems that continues to leave my mind spinning. We are often pushed to espouse our values. Our mission statements invoke them we plaster them all over our schools on laminated colored cardboard but how do we know we live them? If we can’t point to systems in place that make these values a lived reality odds are we only pay them lip service.

This made me think about our own values in my high school. We list seven: faith, individual dignity as a gift from God, family, service to others, personal responsibility, teamwork, love of learning, and tradition. Yet there seems to be a few we only pay lips service to.

We value teamwork but we don’t seem to do too much of it in regards as all the various constituents working together. How many team settings do we have that involve administrators, teaches, students, and parents? I’d argue none unless you count attending an athletic event or some type of year end picnic. We have a school leadership team that blends teachers and administrators (more on this later) to solve common problems together but we rarely have invited students into the discussion. We seem to relegate their role to that of detainees to be managed instead of co-owners in the work we do.

In reflecting on this a few ideas come to mind: what about a student – faculty composed appeal board for disciplinary decisions? A student who truly perceives their offense and consequence as an outrage against fairness could appeal to a board of peers. The devil is always in the details but this would further develop our values of teamwork and responsibility.

I like this idea of identifying and creating systems that implement what we claim to value. Give the exercise a go in your own building and see what your analysis is.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On Line Learning and the Catholic Secondary School

Technology is changing the world. There are still some pockets of resistance out there. I point to a local administrator who refuses to use email and sends all non verbal communications through the fax as an example. Most of us have accepted that technology has and will continue to radically change our daily experiences. The most recent Harvard Education letter chronicles the rise of on-line learning and its potential impact on bricks and mortar education. The Florida Virtual School is a noted example and forty four states tout online learning requirements. I would argue an online course or two is par for the course with most four year college experiences.

Many of our schools already utilize online learning as a way to supplement our own educational offerings. We have a handful of students taking advanced math courses through Stanford. We provide the computer and the time and they take the course. Critics are apt to point out that the experience of school: community, relationship, diversity of experience, can often be lost through an online learning environment. This is true perhaps in the sense of one to one teacher to student interaction only. Technology has advanced with break neck speed and the ability for groups of students to collaborate online through blogs, wikis, nings, and group skype calls is changing this isolated dynamic.

We are tinkering with the idea of offering a few "blended" electives for next year. What we mean by "blended" is a handful of our teachers will offer electives in an online plus face to face method. Course content will be made available online through the use of free content sharing services like slideshare and A classroom wiki will provide the place to chronicle and share collaborative work. The teacher will be available for skype conferences at certain times each week and the students and teacher will share a working lunch (lunch + homeroom) once a week for further clarification and discussion. The students course schedule during the day would not be altered too much with the exception of a study hall period being added in some cases. Better is the study hall actually has access to the web. Cost wise the majority of everything in terms of software costs is virtually zero if you have instructors who understand web 2.0 technology. Trust me, some of them do.

Information is no longer scarce. The world of "Google" and being connected 24/7 has changed much of what we do. The sage on the stage model tied to a world of information scarcity is quickly being done away with. Clayton Christensen captures the shift in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns "People will still go to a school building, but much of the learning will be offered online, and the role of the teacher in the physical classroom will change over time from sage on the stage to the guide on the side - to be a mentor, motivator, and coach....It will be a very different system, but it should be a much more rewarding system for everyone."

There are many different formats online learning can utilize. This "blended" approach does not usurp the brick mortar model but would free up some scheduling options for our students. In addition we'd have a form for testing new electives and make it easier to allow our teachers to experiment with electives they feel passionate about it. I'm personally interested in piloting one of these classes but picking a topic in line with my own interests and theirs may be a little difficult. I wonder how many takers we'd have for a class titled, Advanced Derivative Trading Strategies for Seasonal Grain Markets . But you never do know.

Kaplan University (for profit) has released some powerful ads that pay tribute to the shift online learning is causing. I've always taken issue with their ownership but hats off to the compelling advertisement. What do you think of the blended approach and what are you currently doing in your building with online learning initiatives?

I don't personally know much about Kaplan and their model. The sharing of the video is intended to reflect the scope of the change that is upon us not a recommendation for their individual model.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Putting the Fun in Fundraising

For most of us who hold leadership roles in secondary education our thoughts can often come to rest on financial matters. How do we finance the undertaking of Catholic education? Our lay staff demand competitive and just wages, our students deserve the latest and greatest in terms of technology, and our families shouldn't carry the full financial burden on their backs in terms of astronomical tuitions. We want our schools to be elite not elitist.

There is event driven fundraising (auctions, golf outings, socials, galas, etc.) and the myriad of development work (major gifts, annual giving, etc.) and a few of us our even brave enough to bridge over into the world of student based fundraising as well. Our charges sell wrapping paper, magazines, food, or some other highly desirable object. What if instead of treating our students as a budding door to door sales force we treat them as entrepreneurs capable of generating real returns?

A pastor in our diocese tried this with his own parishoners with great success. The Rev. Ric Schneider took $18,000 in donated funds and distributed in $100 lots to 1800 willing parish members with the marching orders of finding creative ways to return the original plus any earnings. Did it work? Absolutely. In the end the seed money was parlayed into $60,500. A percentage of the funds were distributed to a poor sister parish in the Appalachian mountains. Besides the impressive return of 236% the range of actions taken by the parish members is amazing.

What if we took Father Ric's idea and applied it to our own high schools? Would giving groups of hard working students some seed capital produce some big returns? I've got to believe with a little guidance and support Catholic high schools might find similar success. From the administrator's end this would be much more engaging than getting hit up for the annual Christmas wreath and cookie dough sales. Any thoughts or comments? Hats off to Father Ric and his parish for being so creative.

picture credit:

Thursday, January 1, 2009

7 Things and Pop-Tastic

I’ve been tagged for the “7” things meme by Ed Shepherd from Learning to Collaborate. The idea is to share "7" things about you that readers of your blog wouldn't know about you unless you told them.
1. I have a twin sister who is also religious sister. She is a Franciscan nun. I call her sister – sister. She likes that better than penguin. Even though we didn’t grow up in Peoria in a funny way we now live a few blocks apart. Her convent is around the corner in West Peoria a lovely town referred to by locals as the “Catholic Ghetto”.
2. In a former job I worked with a soybean option group on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. I loved it but felt compelled to work in education. I still trade commodities on the side to make some extra scratch and I manage a handful of accounts for friends and family. I also teach our seniors every year about futures markets and how they work. We have a great time with the “PND futures project”.
3. I’ve driven a cab in the summers to make extra money. It’s a cash business and actually pays surprisingly well. The hours were a little rough 6 pm to 6 am and all but I did have a great time while doing it.
4. I love when telemarketers call I really do. I have so much fun with them. It cracks my wife up and makes my kids snort chocolate milk out their noses. I try to be nice as I play with them but it is a stitch to watch.
5. I attended Wabash College and changed my major four times. Biology to psychology to economics and finally theology. Wabash is a small liberal arts school in Crawfordsville Indiana and it is one of two all-male colleges left in the United States. Wabash also has the longest school song you’ve ever heard of. I played football and baseball there although “play” is a strong verb for my contribution to the team.
6. I’m only 31. People give me a hard time for being a principal at this age. They might be right. My hair is already turning white and I enjoy the endless parade of calls at home about non-important issues. I’m getting an unlisted number. But I love what I do and find it incredibly challenging and stimulating.
7. My kids are better dancers than me hands down. I’m a really, really, really, awful dancer. I agreed to dance the tango in last year’s spring musical play. In the second showing I fell on my ass and tried to sell it as if it was scripted. Thankfully it has been captured on video for all to see.
I’m supposed to pass this along and tag 7 others but to be honest I’m on the late end of the tagging and now that I’m it as I look around most the bloggers I can find have already been tagged. If you haven't been tagged then "tag" you're it.


That’s right I’ve been nominated by Paul for a pop-tastic award for having an intriguing blog with a small but growing audience. Thanks for the props and as part of being the receiver I will pass the award along to the following six bloggers who always keep me stimulated and coming back for more. I read a lot of great education blogs but part of pop-tastic is choosing blogs that you don’t find on everyone’s blog roll. They are:
Claire Thompson
Jan Borelli
Michael Parent
Mike Smith
Ed Shepherd
Bill Farren