put kids first

3 People (Besides Teachers) Who Play a Role in Students’ Success

As someone who train educators for a living and have written books about following “the calling” to become a teacher, I do believe in the power of teachers to make an impact, both positive and negative, on their students.

But what about “superstar teachers”?  You are probably familiar with the concept, particularly since it is perpetuated in popular culture through movies like the classic Edward James Olmos film “Stand and Deliver” and 2012’s “Won’t Back Down.” The idea is that with the right teacher – a committed, bright, in-tune, talented teacher – P-12 problems like the achievement gap and high dropout rates will cease to exist. If only every student had a standout teacher like the ones portrayed in these shows, the very P-12 system as we know it would be transformed for the better.

I do think that teachers make a difference – but I cannot put all of my faith in these “superstar teachers” to reform the education system the way that is truly needed. In this article, I will focus on three other types of people who can have a serious impact on the success of students.

  1. Parents: Perhaps the most obvious influencers of all, parental involvement can have positive impact on the students’ ability to learn. While the clearest benefit of parental involvement is more time spent on academic learning, there are other benefits too. Some of them include parents better understanding where their children may struggle (and not just hearing it secondhand at a teacher conference) and better attendance and participation for kids who follow the enthusiasm and good example of their parents.

Unfortunately, in this day and age it is difficult to get parents involved. A study done by Stanford University found that the number of U.S. households with two working parents nearly doubled from 25 percent in 1968 to 48 percent in 2008, and that doesn’t even factor in parents who have part-time jobs, health issues or other children that vie for their time. This leaves parents with less time to be involved in their children’s activities.

  1. Principals: Increased attention at both the local and national levels on improving student learning has resulted in a growing expectation in some states and districts for principals to be effective instructional leaders. Consider these statistics: nearly 7,000 students drop out of U.S. high schools every day and, every year approximately 1.2 million teenagers leave the public school system without a diploma or an adequate education. There are 2,000 high schools in America in which less than 60% of students graduate within four years after entering ninth grade.

The situation is not much brighter for students who do earn a high school diploma, and enter two –year or four-year institutions. In community colleges, approximately 40% of freshmen (and approximately 20% in public, four-year institutions) are in need of basic instruction in reading, writing, or mathematics before they can perform in college-level courses. It is vital that principals advocate for these students and provide leadership to reverse this appalling educational outcome.

Here are some issues principals can help with: aligning instruction with a standards-based curriculum to provide a good measure of achievement and effectively organizing resources. Principals must use sound hiring practices, ensure professional development is available at their schools, and keep abreast of issues that may influence the quality of teaching in schools.

Principals do face some obstacles though, and that includes having relatively little ownership of their problems or the proposed solutions to them. The district (or state) defines the existing instructional issues in their schools, which often leaves some principals feeling powerless to make changes.

Often, many principals spend much of their time finding ways to work around the district office, rather than with them. To obtain the support they need, they often decide to avoid hiring protocols and develop “underground” relationships with individual staff in the district office.

All that aside, when a principal has the support of district leaders, principals can actually focus on supporting the teachers in their school.

  1. School counselors: Consider this: one in five American high schools do not have any school counselors. And to First Lady Michelle Obama, that needs to change.

The First Lady addressed 2,000 attendees at the American School Counselor Association in 2014, and spoke of the role counselors play in encouraging further education.

She said that, “The national average is one school counselor for 471 students.”

Obama highlights that school counselors are key to her “Reach Higher” program. This initiative encourages children to continue education after high school graduation, whether at a professional training program, a community college or a four-year college or university.

Evidently, parents, principals, and counselors are not the only people who play a role in how our educational system runs. However, by focusing on just these three kinds of people who can help, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that teachers are not the only ones responsible for the success of students.

Can you think of other people (or entities) who play an important role in P-12 education?

Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.

5 Keys to an Effective School Mission

Instructional leadership offers administrators the opportunity to create a shared vision of learning for the entire school environment – allowing both educators and support staff to get behind a common goal. That common goal is most often articulated in the form of a school mission statement, which must be built effectively in order to be compelling.

What are the characteristics of a good school mission statement?

1.    Academically Focused

A school’s mission must be academically focused, as after all that is the primary function of the school environment. While there are other functions that a school serves, other roles that it plays, the academic growth of the students is where it all starts and where it should ultimately lead. The mission statement serves as a reminder to all members of the school community that strong academics are the prize.

2.    Objectives are Clearly Expressed

In order for all stakeholders to have the opportunity to participate in the school’s model, the objectives must be clearly expressed in writing. The language has to be clear and something that everyone can understand, from teachers and administrators to parents and support staff. Students should also be able to access the mission statement so that they can become participants in their own education.

3.    Clearly Displayed

A mission statement does no one any good if it’s kept locked up in the office or just posted on a web page. In order for a school’s mission statement to be of any use, it must be displayed in places all over the school environment. In hallways and on distributed materials, discussed in classrooms and assemblies. If a school wishes for its mission statement to drive the school culture, then it must be part of the school environment and conversation.

4.    Present in the Classroom

Besides being displayed and talked about in the school, the mission statement should be the primary driving force for teachers when they are planning and implementing lessons. This is something that can take some acclimation for teachers, who are might be reticent to change their focus when planning lessons. However using the school’s mission as a focus and a trigger point will help students to have a unified educational experience, which will help them to solidify their learning across the school setting.

5.    Actively Modeled

In addition to all of this, the mission must be expertly articulated by the school’s top administrators. If the mission has an academic focus, then that needs to be actively backed by the administration. Stakeholders will have a hard time pushing the mission of the school if they believe that there is a lack of integrity in the execution of it, for example if the mission pushes academics but the school more actively focuses on sports or societal concerns. Of course even with that academic heartbeat that’s driving the school’s mission, there will continue to be ancillary projects and activities going in in the school, but with that the pulse must still be academic, and that pulse is derived from the actions of administrators.

Applying Research to Mission Building

Instructional leaders should apply research to their mission building strategies. One key way to do this is to ask questions about the mission statement as it is in development and then later as it is implemented.

  • Are the goals clearly articulated and easy to understand?
  • Are the goals visible throughout the school environment?
  • Are they familiar with all of the stakeholders in the school?
  • Do the goals apply in the day-to-day activities at the school?
  • Do instructional leaders consistently and actively reinforce the misson’s goals?
  • Do all stakeholders in the school support the mission?

The Importance of the Mission Statement.

Direction-setting in the school environment is an essential aspect of instructional leadership. Framing and communicating the school’s goals through a mission statement is the perfect way to communicate the direction and focus of the school environment. Clear, measurable and time based goals are at the heart of the school experience. When these goals are communicated and achieve buy in from stakeholders within the school environment, then the school’s mission becomes attainable. Too often goals are not active drivers in the school community, but rather are sidebar considerations that don’t get much attention from school personnel. The mission is a wonderful tool to help create an effective school environment.

Nearly every school has a mission statement, and it can be a powerful tool that helps to codify and give direction to the enthusiasm, passion and expertise that educators bring to the classroom. Or it can be a jumble of letters that are posted on the wall of the office and left unnoticed. The choice is up to the leadership of the school environment. One thing that administrators must realize is that good goals, good mission statements that are well articulated and actively communicated, offer the possibility for radical change and success.

The Benefits of Browsing: Why Teachers Should Indulge in Online Social Networking

The Internet is not just about consuming – it’s also about connecting. Forums and other forms of online social networking provide opportunities for educators to come together and commiserate, encourage, and share information.

Online social networking encompasses different online communities of people who share common interests. It allows members of that community to interact in a variety of ways. They can conduct live chats, or they can leave comments in blogs or discussion groups.

These communities are shaped by different profiles of individuals who link to each other. Each member of the community creates a personal profile that can include pictures, personal information, audio, and video files. Others can access this profile and can connect to it by requesting a friendship with the other member. Almost all of these social networks have security settings, so each member can accept or deny access to their information and profile.

An example of an online social network is Facebook. This is a worldwide tool that allows individuals to connect with friends, classmates, coworkers, and teachers. This network also includes a feature that allows you to look for individuals by name. Facebook is creating a worldwide network, connecting people around the world and allowing them to rediscover friends and family members not seen for years. Other examples of social networking sites include Tumblr and Google Plus. Teachers have taken advantage of these tools. Using Facebook, for example, they can develop small group projects, build a classroom community, and present discussion boards for students.

Something to be aware of is the fact that, when you become involved in online social networks, you are highly exposed to students and parents. Educators must be very careful not to have “inappropriate” profiles, pictures, or postings. A teacher cannot post personal opinions about students and must be very careful about the pictures they include in their profile and the kind of communication they have with students.

Communication and information access have also shifted. New online tools give teachers and students immediate access to millions of gigabytes of information, available in seconds. International news is heard and watched virtually live. One of the leaders of this change is YouTube, an online video clearinghouse, where any user can watch, upload, and share online videos. Almost any subject matter can be found in this site, from homemade video to footage captured by cell phones to comprehensive film productions.

E-portfolio or assessment tools allow students to store their work in web-based portfolios, so teachers and students can have access to it. This is also a feature included in blogs. Teachers can permit students to upload their work to the blogs for other students to watch and review. Students not only get the opportunity to publish their work, but they also get opinions from fellow students all over the world. Knowing that other classmates will be reading their work, students tend to invest more time and effort in their writing.

Online social networking is a massive opportunity to expand your network, pick up new tips and techniques, and find support and friendship. If you haven’t already, take some “you-time” to peruse the various social networking sites available to you and check out what they have to offer you as a teacher – and a person.

Read all of our posts about EdTech and Innovation by clicking here. 

Teaching and Politics: Behind the Scenes of Common Core Wars

By Matthew Lynch

As more and more governors and local politicians denounce Common Core initiatives, and more states officially back away from the standards, the debate over the place and effectiveness of Common Core heats up.  In fact,Indiana’s Republican Governor Mike Pence made headlines when he announced that his state would soon abandon the Common Core standards.  But what is really going on and how does this affect those who matter most—the teachers and students?

What Indiana did may have appeared groundbreaking to outsiders, but anyone following the Common Core debate knows it is just the tip of the iceberg. There have been a significant number of bills filed in the U.S. that deal with ways for students to become college-ready. Of those, 100 are designed specifically to slow, halt or overturn Common Core requirements. So there are a lot of non-federal entities that feel their legislative toes have been stepped on when it comes to K-12 college readiness curriculum and testing.

Federal versus State Rights

Beyond academics, the Common Core requirements are at the heart of a war that has been waged between state’s rights and the role of the federal government in uniform K-12 standards. On the surface, it does appear that Common Core standards are meant to give federal authority. In truth though there is some wiggle room for states to make the standards their own and places like Tennessee, Mississippi and Arizona are doing just that. If implemented in the way they were designed, Common Core requirements will actually put more control in the hands of the states and not the federal government.

Are Teachers Happy about It?

There seems to be a lot of conflicting information when it comes to what teachers think about Common Core standards – and what they think matters. After all, they are the people who are most accountable for any standards and testing systems that are put in place. They are also the ones who see firsthand how education policies impact students. So what is the truth about what teachers think about Common Core testing?

  • 75 percent support Common Core, says a May 2013 American of Federation (AFT) poll that surveyed 800 teachers.
  • 76 percent strongly, or somewhat, support Common Core based on an Education Next Survey from 2013.
  • More than three-fourths support Common Core Standards “wholeheartedly” or with some minor reservations, according to a September 2013 National Education Association member survey.
  • 73 percent of teachers that specializes in math, science, social studies and English language arts are “enthusiastic” about the implementation of Common Core standards in their classrooms, from a 2013 Primary Sources poll of 20,000 educators.

Beyond those numbers, a higher amount of elementary teachers are optimistic about Common Core than their high school counterparts. A survey conducted by The Hechinger Report Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that just 41 percent of high school teachers are positive about Common Core standards. A recent survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that more than 80 percent of principals (out of 1,000 from 14 states) say that Common Core standards have the potential to increase student skill mastery, create meaningful assessments and improve areas like conceptual understanding.

It seems that the basis of Common Core is a solid one, then, when it comes to the people who understand teaching the most. Today’s teachers are in overcrowded, underfunded classrooms with higher accountability standards placed on them than ever before. If there truly was an unfair setup, teachers would certainly be the first ones to point it out.

What do you think is really going on?  Are the common core debates simply political or do they hold water—academically speaking?



Parental involvement in early childhood learning: A stitch in time saves nine

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

By Khaula Mazhar

In today’s increasingly busy world, parents have less and less time to spend with their young children and often miss out on this extremely important time in a child’s life. Children are developing more and more behavioral problems. They are stressed out at ages when they should be enjoying their childhood.

Research has shown the positive effects of engaged parents on a child’s academic success as well as on the emotional and physical well being of a child. It has also shown the advantages of early childhood learning and just how much young children can literally sponge up information and then be ready for even more.

There are vast amounts of reading material on the subject of early learning, hundreds of books by dedicated professionals in childhood education, but I am going to give you the experience of a normal everyday mother. Myself. The reason is when I read those books, it was to improve my skills as a teacher, curiosity and also just because I am a voracious reader. But when I saw another mother, like myself, use those wonderful things she learned on her own child, it was a whole different story. It is something I sincerely wish every mother and father would do with their child. They can if they are provided with the opportunity to learn how to, something governments can do quite cheaply, and it will open the door for enormous pay backs. We must help empower the parents and we must educate the parents first.

When I started as a teacher I was in the school library every free minute I got. They had an incredible resource of good books and I wanted to take advantage of them all. Although I read many, the ones I came to fall in love with were Glen Doman’s.  I renewed “How to Give Your Baby Encyclopedic Knowledge” so many times it needed a new sign out card. Yes way back when those cards were still used. My daughter was four and my son was two. I had never imagined that a two year old could read, let alone recognize countries on a world map. They can. My kids were my test subjects although I didn’t know it at the time. Now that they are teenagers, I see the results.

The techniques are simple, and don’t take a lot of time. Working mothers can do it with a little prioritizing. I managed to do it with my job and two small children, and I was not exactly a skilled multi-tasking professional. It was simply a matter of investing time wisely, and nothing is a bigger investment than our kids.

Glen Doman’s Method involved facts cards. Fact cards can be made for everything from colors, animals, countries and key reading words to dot cards (for numeracy). Those are about the only materials needed, the cards can be obtained cheaply in bulk and pictures of everything can be found in old national geographic magazines. Whatever is to be taught can be done so easily by flashing these fact cards to children as young as eighteen months. Ten cards at a time, two or three times a day. Children think it is a game and are happy to spend time with parents “playing”.  I started out with just colors, keywords and dot cards, but the “game” became a favorite and I soon added historical figures, musical instruments, animals, monuments and countries. My kids could not get enough of it, my two year old son not only knew where China was but he could tell you interesting tidbits about it. You just needed a translator to understand what he was saying.

Once they started to read I had an endless supply of books that we explored together.  Years later their teachers came to me and told me how my kids knew the most interesting facts and added positively to all the class discussions. They were interested and eager learners. I finally convinced the head of the pre-primary section at school to let me go ahead and try it in my pre-nursery class.

It was a great experience. Parents would come to me at home time and tell me excitedly that their kid knew what an isosceles triangle was or had told them all about African elephants. They wanted to know what we were doing in the class. Unfortunately that is where I could have empowered those parents, instead I just told them we were trying something new.  It never occurred to me to suggest that we do a workshop on the technique for parents. I really wish I could go back in time and act more wisely.

Most parents today don’t have the leisure of going through large amounts of reading material to find out all the things they can do to give their child the early advantage. But schools can help by offering free workshops focused on simple techniques that parents could implement at home with their children. If these type of workshops were provided to parents every year they could make an enormous positive change in the futures of so many children. Not just academically but behaviorally as well. Imagine an entire generation of less stressed, positive youth all geared up to run the world in a more constructive manner.

There are many other techniques and systems out there besides Glen Doman’s awesome fact cards system. This is just my experience with this. But what I have learned is how much the right thing at the right time can affect a child’s positive attitude towards not just learning but life in general. Engaged parents teaching kids their first lessons is very important to build confidence and a positive attitude in children.

Khaula Mazhar, children’s book author, has a ten year teaching experience from Pakistan where she also wrote for Dawn Newspaper. After moving back home to Canada she continues to pursue her writing when she can. She blogs at Blog Her, MuslimMoms.ca and writes articles for Examiner.com.

The Vicious Cycle of (un)Education in Pakistan

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding a P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

By Khaula Mazhar

In Pakistan there are basically three levels of schools. The top ranking schools, the middle ranking schools and the lowest ranking schools.  Unfortunately the ranking has more to do with how much the Pakistani parent can actually spend on education rather than academic results. In Pakistan education is a privilege, not a right.

The sad fact is the top ranking schools are extremely expensive private schools owned by business savvy entrepreneurs whose main interest is to keep up their personal prestige as well as finance their round the world trips.  That being said however, these private schools are mainly O-Level Schools in urban and suburban areas. They have to adhere to certain standards, if they wish to remain affiliated with the Cambridge system, resulting in a higher standard of academics. O-Level schools charge the highest fees, so remaining in the Cambridge system has a huge monetary attraction. The students are encouraged and supported to maintain their grades and in most cases the teachers are well-trained, dedicated individuals. At least that is how the school starts its journey.

The problem arises when the school attains an impressive reputation for academic excellence among its competitors. As with the rise of empires there is always the inevitable fall, it is true for private schools as well. The growing waiting lists for admissions into top schools are inversely proportional to the academic standard in most cases, especially where there is sole ownership rather than a board of directors. The culprit is greed, misuse of authority and the loss of dedication to working for the coming generations.

To keep up with the demand to give more admissions to more students, the private school owner must supply more buildings and more staff.  This should be a simple enough task however the reality of the expenditure can be daunting especially when it infringes upon the comfort of the school’s owner. Expenses must be cut elsewhere. Unfortunately it is the staff and students that ultimately pay. To meet the expenses current staff must forgo the yearly salary increment, mediocre teachers lacking proper training are hired on minimum salaries and fees are hiked a good percentage on a yearly basis. Not to mention the one-time admission fee (costs and arm and leg for the average upper middle class working father). It only takes a year for the standard to slip, and since the students are required to maintain a certain level of grades so as not to tarnish the school’s results. Parents have no choice but to pay for tutors or look for another school if their child is removed, in which case they would have to pay admission fees to any school willing to give an admission.

The reality of this situation is clearer when we see the average salary of teachers as compared to the monthly school fees. In one top ranking school (now on a steady decline) the average monthly fees for one child in Pre-nursery to grade two is around RS 16 000 ($157) and reaches up to RS 20 000 for higher grades. The average Pakistani family has at least three children. Sending them to school is no easy feat.

The average teacher’s monthly salary ranges from RS 13 000 to RS 20 000 only ($127-$197). So for teaching to a class of at least thirty, the teacher is paid the equivalent or less than the fees of one single student. Teachers quit on a regular basis burdened by the work load and the pathetic salaries. The teachers that do stay on don’t exactly have the incentive to give it their best.  In the end parents end up paying dearly for school fees plus tuition fees in the hope of providing their child with a proper education. And they are the lucky ones.

The average middle class family can’t afford a top ranking school and has to settle for the neighborhood private schools, which follow the Matric system. The lower fee structure although more reasonable, is still quite an expense with monthly fees ranging around RS 5000 and up per child and the average salary being RS 50 000. If there are three children, that comes to RS 15 000 at least. That is 30 % of the total household income.

The teacher’s qualifications range from Intermediate (what would be grade 14) to Bachelors, mostly with no teacher’s training at all. The training is done on the job. Students come home from school and then study with tutors, usually of equally mediocre capabilities. Getting an admission into any post secondary school of worth is a large improbability for most of these children. And so the cycle continues when they go out to get jobs.  Unless one has a degree from a well-reputed academia one must settle for a second-rate job.

The lowest ranking schools are the government schools. The government spends an embarrassing 2% of the budget on education. Due to the insignificant funding there is a lack of motivation among the under-qualified teachers, who are regularly transferred on the basis of prejudice and nepotism. The lack of teaching staff causes an overload of work on the remaining teachers. All this results in a poor and sometimes even hostile environment which encourages students to bunk.

Children who do attend are faced with sitting in dilapidated classrooms, sometimes without electricity or even desks. The majority of the children won’t ever complete their schooling, will end up working less than minimum wage jobs then try to raise a family on that. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Khaula Mazhar, children’s book author, has a ten year teaching experience from Pakistan where she also wrote for Dawn Newspaper. After moving back home to Canada she continues to pursue her writing when she can. She blogs at Blog Her, createmyapp.com and MuslimMoms.ca and writes articles for Examiner.com.

The Call to Teach: Urban Legends

Each day 8,000 American students drop out of high school. Over the course of a year, that amounts to 3 million total students who give up on the American right to education through 12th grade and decide they will be better off without a high school diploma. Within those numbers are even more telling statistics that show students of color and from low socio-economic brackets are dropping out in much greater numbers than their white middle- and high-class peers.

In my new book The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching I explore the “real world” of teaching, particularly how new educators are ill-prepared to face the challenges of teaching in urban settings. Traditional university programs for K-12 educators do not adequately prepare students for what awaits them in the urban schools of America where the achievement gap and dropout rates are highest. So how can this problem be remedied? In three ways, as a start:

Target urban backgrounds. Teachers with connections to urban locations and educations are prime candidates to return to these schools and make a difference. Universities are not doing enough to find these qualified future educators and then place them on specific tracks for career success at urban schools. There needs to be greater customization when it comes to college learning for future educators who understand firsthand the challenges that urban students face – and then job placement programs need to be built around the same concept.

Require urban student teaching. All educators-in-training should spend at least a few hours in an urban classroom, in addition to their other teaching assignments. Seeing urban challenges firsthand must be part of every educator’s path to a degree, even if he or she never teaches full time in such a classroom. I believe this would not only raise awareness of issues that tend to plague urban schools (like overcrowding and the impact of poverty on student performance) but may also inspire future teachers to want to teach in those settings. College programs must expose teacher-students to real-world urban settings in order to make progress past the social and academic issues that bring urban K-12 students down.

Reward urban teachers. The test-heavy culture of American K-12 classrooms puts urban teachers at a distinct advantage when it comes to resources and even lifelong salaries. If a teacher whose students score well on standardized tests is rewarded with more money and access to more learning materials, where does that leave the poor-performing educators? Instead of funneling more funds and learning help to teachers with student groups that are likely to do well, despite the teacher, urban teachers should be receiving the support. At the very least, the funding and attention should be evenly split. In almost every case, failing urban students and schools should never be blamed on the teacher. That mentality is what scares away many future educators who may otherwise have given urban teaching a try. There is too much pressure to perform and that leads to many urban teachers leaving their posts after the first year, or not even looking for those jobs in the first place.

Strong teaching in America’s urban schools is the key to overcoming dropout and achievement gap issues. With the right guidance, urban K-12 students can rise above their circumstances to be stand-outs in academics. They may even return the favor as teachers themselves one day. For urban teachers to succeed, however, they need more support and encouragement from their industry, government and society as a whole.

What do you think can be done to recruit more inspired educators into urban schools?

Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.

Is education killing imagination?

By Judith A. Yates

As a criminal justice instructor in a career college, I gave my students an assignment that relied on 75% imagination and 25% research. They were so lost that I was shocked. “What are we supposed to do!” They were frantic. “How are we supposed to work this?” I wondered why they had no idea how to use imagination, or what creativity encompassed.

Later, I taught criminal justice in high school, and again was dismayed at my student’s lack of imagination. I began to study the system requirements and noted the curriculum we utilized did not require the students to use inventiveness or creativity, unless it was a music or arts class. Even then, the music and art projects were determined beforehand; students were taught to follow the lesson. If I made a suggestion for change, my supervisor would look at me in horror. “I am going to take them outside one day,” I told her, “and we’re going to sit on the bleachers and use the environment for the lesson.” She thought I was crazy; the idea was extinguished.

Instructors obviously cannot have students run amok in the class in a fit of anarchy, but with guidelines set in place, they could give the students free rein to complete the task, as the student sees fit. This would work well in a group project, where each individual could both show and discover their strengths and learn from their weaknesses. The instructor would give “helpful hints” along the way, but allow the students to think and solve on their own. This is how the real world works. According to a 2010 Newsweek article, “a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”

The education system is not preparing students for the real world by stifling imagination. Every workplace, every profession, relies on creativity, problem solving, and exploration of ideas. Professional athletes, architects, journalists, and accountants will go no further than the initial job interview if they say, “I need someone to tell me how to do everything all the time.”

Stifling creativity leads to problems in the classroom. Bored students stop learning: they act out, drift off, or shut down. But “getting up and doing” creates positive change. In a study conducted by Howell Wechsler, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “physical activity breaks of about 5 to 20 minutes in the classroom can improve attention span, classroom behavior and achievement tests scores.” Less that 20% of high school students are meeting this goal of such activity breaks.

A creative assignment does not have to be elaborate. For example, rather than lecture on the affects of alcohol on the body, the brain, and physical activity, I split the class into three groups.  Each group had a large sheet of butcher paper, their textbooks, and free pamphlets I ordered from Alcoholics Anonymous. They traced a fellow student onto the paper, drew in the corresponding “part” (i.e. the brain) they were assigned, and then presented on the affects of alcohol on each. For example, with arrows drawn to hands and feet, the words “motor skills” were written. With arrows drawn to certain internal organs, that group listed affects alcohol had on each organ. The students kept the pamphlets, and some gave them to family members and friends they felt needed the information. We did a follow-up and they could answer all questions, and the students did well on the test.

Within “teach for the test,” learning by memorization, and standardized curriculum, we have lost imagination and creativity. Students have learned to follow by rote and perform rather than ask and explore. Getting creative does not have to cost money or much time. Creativity is not going to take away from what we are paid to do. In the end, it will pay off, with happier students who are actually learning in a healthy environment.


Judith A. Yates is currently completing a PhD in Criminal Justice. She has taught at several schools, within the field of law enforcement; has worked as trainer, attended classes across the country, and has been a mentor in several programs. Her website can be found at judithayates.com.

Higher Accountability for College Dropout Rates

There are a lot of metrics in place that gauge the effectiveness of P-12 schooling in the U.S. and shine a particularly bright light on public schools, particularly when they are failing students. Dropout rates are just one of the factors taken into account when these numbers are calculated and tend to weigh heavily on the schools and districts who have low percentages. The same does not seem to be true once the high school years pass though. Compared to P-12 institutions, colleges and universities seemingly get a pass when it comes to dropout rates – perhaps because in the past, higher education was considered more of a privilege and less of a right. A college dropout was simply walking away from the assumed higher quality of life that came with the degree, but still had opportunity to excel without it.

That’s not the case anymore. As of 2013, 17.5 million students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.  More than ever, colleges and universities have a responsibility to not simply admit students, but ensure they are guided properly to graduation. In other words, institutions of higher education should not be able to just take their student’s money and say “good luck.” They should provide the tools necessary for students to successfully achieve a college education and anticipate the issues that could prevent that.

Authors Ben Miller and Phuong Ly discussed the issue of the U.S. colleges with the worst graduation rates in their book College Dropout Factories. Within the pages, the authors encouraged educators at all levels to acknowledge that colleges and universities should share responsibility for successful or failing graduation rates, and that the institutions with the worst rates should be shut down. Perhaps the most terrifying suggestion in the book (for colleges and universities) was that public institutions with low graduation rates would be subjected to reduced state funding.

The book was written based on findings from Washington Monthly that ranked the U.S. schools with the lowest six-year graduation rates among colleges and universities, including public ones like the University of the District of Columbia (8%), Haskell Indian Nations University (9%), Oglala Lakota College (11%), Texas Southern University (13%) and Chicago State University (13%). These stats were published in 2010 so they are not the most current available but a quick scan of the University of the District Columbia’s official page shows graduation rate numbers through the end of the 2003 – 2004 school year. The past nine years are nowhere to be found. The school boasts 51.2 percent underrepresented minorities in the study body, including 47 percent that are Black – but what good are those numbers if these students are not actually benefitting from their time in college because they receive no degree?

In the case of Chicago State University, the latest statistics show some improvement from the 2010 ones. The six-year graduation rate is up to 21 percent – but the transfer-out rate is nearly 30 percent. The school has 92 percent underrepresented minorities that attend – 86 percent who are black and 70 percent who are female – but again, what good does any of that do if these traditionally disadvantaged students are not graduating?

In all cases of college dropout factories, the P-12 institutions chalk up a victory on their end. They graduated the students and also saw them accepted into a college. What happens after that is between the students and their higher education choices.

This, to me, is a problem. The accountability for student success extends beyond the years that they are in P-12 classrooms. Graduation from high school, and acceptance into college, should never be the final goal of P-12 educators. That is not a victory. That is only halftime.

As far as the colleges and universities are concerned, higher accountability should be demanded from educators, students, parents and really any Americans that want the best economy and highest-educated population. Public institutions, in particular, should be subject to restructuring or take over if dropout rates are too high. The lack of delivery on the college degree dream at many of these schools is appalling, frankly, and has gone on long enough.

What do you think an accountability system for colleges should look like when it comes to dropout rates?



Year-Round Schooling: 3 Common Arguments against It

In my last post, I talked about the reasons I feel that teachers should get behind the push to support year-round schooling and how more consistent time in the classroom will lead to higher student performance, boosting teacher accountability ratings and accommodating a much more streamlined education process. Today I want to look at the common reasons that people are against switching from a summers-off school calendar to a year-round schooling model.

Rising costs

The summer months are typically the highest ones for energy consumption. In fact, the average electricity bill for homeowners in the summer months goes up 4 to 8 percent. The same concept would be true of schools. Having empty classrooms in the summer months means less money going out to air conditioning and prevents other warm-weather costs from hitting school utility budgets. It may seem like a minor point, but an increase in utility bills for one-quarter of the year really could hurt schools’ bottom lines.

Not enough “down time”

Some childhood development experts believe that particularly when it comes to younger students, time off in the summer months is a vital component of healthy development. The argument follows that kids are not designed to spend so much of their time inside classroom walls and that the warmer, pleasant weather of the summer provides a perfect opportunity to get outside and experience childhood. The problem with this argument, of course, is that most children are not spending their summers frolicking in fields of flowers or running around their neighborhoods, hanging out with other kids.

The days of kids spending their summers outside, communing with nature and getting plenty of exercise, are long past. A recent Harvard University study found that school-age children tend to gain weight at a faster pace during the summer months than during the school year, a fact attributed to more time spent in sedentary activities like watching television or using mobile devices instead of being outside or participating in active pursuits. Not only must K-12 students relearn the academic items, but they must also shift their mentalities from less-active, sedentary ones to sharp, alert learning models – and teachers face the brunt of this responsibility.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that by the time children graduate from high school, they will have spent more time watching television than in classrooms. What’s more – children who watch an excessive amount of television generally have lower grades in school, read fewer books and have more health problems. While some children visit summer camps, or attend child care when school is out, others stay at home, inside, with not much else to do than watch TV or play games on electronic devices. This is especially true for kids who are middle-school age or higher and are able to stay home alone when parents work. The “down time” of the summer months is really just empty time, often void of anything academically or developmentally advantageous.

Scheduling adjustments

For parents with children of different ages and in different schools, a year-round schedule could present serious scheduling issues. This argument assumes that schools would actually adhere to different time off schedules – something that seemingly could be adjusted so that all schools within a particular district or geographic area were on the same schedule. There is also the child care debate that says it would be difficult for working parents to find babysitters for one or two weeks at a time every few months, as opposed to three months straight in the summer. Again though, the market adjusts with demand and it seems to me that child care centers and camps would offer programs when students needed them. Just because those programs are not available now does not mean they would not exist when families were willing to pay for them.

The most common arguments against year-round schooling seem like a stretch, at best. They are based on assumptions that are not entirely grounded and reek more of the fear of change than of actual concern.

What arguments against year-round schooling do you hear? What ones do you agree with?