Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and supporting the Arlington, Virginia chapter of YearUp. YearUp is a non-profit organization helping at risk youths get out of a lifetime in minimum wage jobs and toward a career path with a living wage.
They not only teach marketable skills, but supplement it with the personal and business soft skills necessary to be successful in business. They have particular focus teaching computer hardware skills, help desk, and basic finance. They understand and address employer needs: “We know you hire for skills, and fire for behavior in the work world.” By learning what companies and bosses expect, these youths are able to better understand what it means to be a professional, provide more value to their employers, and justify earning a higher salary.
Both FMS EVP Michelle Swann-Renee and I have met the students in person to discuss what employers seek and how to differentiate oneself positively in the workforce. As employers, we need people who arrive with skills we can’t train: honesty, work ethic, personal drive, high standards and expectations of one’s performance, getting along with others, ability to accept constructive criticism, writing and speaking skills, common sense, etc. Specific technical skills can be taught and change over time; those basic skills and character traits are difficult for a company to train. We’ve been impressed with the dedication of the staff and eagerness of the students to take the opportunity to learn and succeed. Those who make it through the program are very likely to be successful in a career and further education.
For the last few years, I've had the honor to serve on the Fairfax County Public School Superintendent Dr. Jack Dale's Business and Community Advisory Council. It has given me an opportunity to learn about the challenges of leading one of the largest and best public school systems in the country with a budget of $2.2 billion and 180,000+ students.
Last week, we had our first meeting of the school year. Our existing education system remains tied (some say hobbled) to early 20th century techniques, yet students need to be prepared for the 21st century. It's not easy to create and apply new teaching techniques on real children. I was pleased to witness a presentation on FCPS taking a leadership role in trying and testing new teaching techniques incorporating new technology. FCPS is forming a partnership with the George Mason University School of Education to create a "laboratory" to test these ideas to see what techniques are effective at providing the services without increasing the budget. A PDF of the presentation is provided here: Patriot Innovation Academy. This is well beyond the discussion stage. The Academy is being created at Lake Braddock Middle School with an initial group of 200 students. The principal, teachers, and parents met over the summer to plan the changes which are expected next school year. A lottery will be created for admission which is expected to be open to everyone.
Here are my impressions. First, I think it’s great that FCPS is revamping education for the 21st century and adding technology to help. That's important to teach more effectively and the reality of future budget constraints. Second, I'm impressed that FCPS is willing to attempt such an entrepreneurial venture. Education is a very risk averse culture, and with good reason since the futures of children are at stake. It would be easy to continue to repeat what has worked in the past and change gradually. Instead, innovation is being embraced with a willingness to fail since not every new approach will be successful.
But applying technology effectively is not easy. We have had great advances with technology over the last few decades without students making similar advances. Yet, technology can be used to provide personalized learning with immediate feedback. We also need to teach 21st century skills and not use technology to teach 20th century skills better. Here are some future trends I think we need to consider and address:
1. Facts are Available Instantaneously, Everywhere
People can already look up information on Wikipedia from their smart phones; this has already changed the way people argue. Future technology will search information automatically on a device that is already monitoring the conversation or what you are reading (think smart glasses). The implication is that the memorization of facts will be much less valuable. Knowing where to get it, and how to validate it will be more important. That means teaching history must be focused on WHY and not what events occurred. Life is turning into an open book test, or more accurately open Internet access. This transformation is similar to the advent of the written language which eliminated the need for elders to orally pass information to others.
2. Science is Multi-Disciplinary
I applaud the effort to teach subjects in multi-disciplinary ways. This makes the content relevant. Science is often taught in a cold, isolated manner that is difficult to connect with the real world. We need to transform teaching science from word search (looking up specific facts in book) into active synthesis and idea generation. Hopefully, they'll also include computer science as part of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) or at a minimum, allowing computer science to fulfill the language requirement, since this is relevant to all fields in the future.
3. Babel Towers are Crashing
This is where I feel the proposed academy is short-sighted. Teaching "world" languages is a great pre-21st century skill. English is THE world language today. It’s not like Thomas Jefferson needing to learn other languages because everything important was written in non-English languages. Being able to read other written languages is a challenge already solved for free by Google Translate,Microsoft Translate, and many other providers. No one can learn all the languages these online services offer instantaneously. Writing in other languages is also becoming a commodity. Speaking remains a challenge, but it is a matter of when, not if, this is solved. We can then be trained and speak in all sorts of languages one phrase at a time. There's no need to waste thousands of dollars and hours to train a child to perform worse than what a free device will provide for a dozen languages before they graduate from college.
On a related note, requiring all high school students to devote 3 years to learning another language is a huge waste. People say it's important to learn other cultures. I don't dispute that. If that's the goal, let's teach that rather than memorizing the narrow vocabulary and grammar of one language. If we really wanted to teach cultures through language, then make it a year each of Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish to cover most people in the world rather than being mediocre in one language and ignorant of most.
4. Non-STEM Subjects are Important
STEM subjects are important, but that's not all our society needs. Writing and public speaking are critical for conveying one's ideas and influencing change. Fields that let kids push their individual limits such as playing an instrument, art, and drama should also be available. Analyzing philosophy, ethics, and moral reasoning are critical life skills, highly analytical, and important. Middle schoolers will make dumb decisions. The question is whether they learn how to recognize those situations in advance, to minimize them in the future.
5. Online Teaching is Good and Getting Better
More and more high quality online teaching is available for more and more subjects. Much of this is free, and it's getting better and better each year. Being online, the content is available 24/7. This trend will not reverse. In fact it is accelerating. Over time, school districts and traditional teaching cannot be competitive with this online content. Whether it's the Khan Academy or edX and its Harvard and MIT content, students can watch and practice on a platform that's much more interactive and comfortable than classrooms.
Local schools can also leverage this. Numerically half the teachers (and students) are below average. There are good teachers and great teachers. With the dropping costs of video, storage, and transmission, schools should be recording their best teachers' instructions so they can be replayed later and shared. It is not fair for students who are not assigned a great teacher to lose out on the experience. It's not the same as being in the classroom, but kids in other classes and schools should be able to benefit. Other teachers can also learn from them.
For a teacher to provide the same content year after year, is a huge waste of time and resources. Why not do it just once or just have the best teacher do it once for everyone?
6. Teachers are Evolving into Coaches
Recording great instructors and replaying them scares some who think this will replace teachers. That will not happen. Teachers remain critically important, but their roles are evolving into coaches in a world where information is freely available. Online training will only provide a portion of the solution. Just like teleworking is not replacing offices and face-to-face interactions, online teaching will not replace classrooms. Teachers can help and motivate students in a way that impersonal online videos can't.
Teachers should supplement technologically provided instruction (facts) with hands-on focused refinement that can't be provided by a recording. Technology does not support social interactions and the skills necessary to present ideas and convince others. It is also very weak in supporting creativity. One could argue it actually prevents creativity.
No football team is considering eliminating the role of the coaches. Technology helps them take their instructions to a higher level. Over time, this trend may even help teachers earn more because they can be more productive by delivering more value and serving more students.
7. We Cannot Predict Future Careers; We Need to Teach the Tools to Achieve Success
Many of the fields today's middle school students will work in probably don’t even exist today. My whole career (PCs and later the Internet) didn't exist when I was in college, so it’s hubris to think we can predict what middle school kids today will face. What's important is a child's ability to set high expectations, a willingness to try new things, and understanding that failing is a key part of learning to be successful. No one gains self-esteem and confidence by being told they did a good job when they know they didn't. Self-esteem comes from working hard, overcoming obstacles, and achieving goals. Kids do this very well with video games. We need to transform academic instruction similarly. Rather than focusing on a particular mistake, it's the response to the failure that's most important and helping students learn from them. Teachers/coaches play a critical role in helping students achieve higher than they originally expected. That's what is critical to life and acquiring a resiliency that prepares youths to confidently face challenges their parents and teachers never
Overall, I think the attempt to revamp educational delivery with technology is a move in the right direction. Creating a separate academy is the correct method since it shouldn't be squeezed into the existing system. Applying existing technology and anticipating future technology that will impact and improve teaching is very critical. I'm concerned that the STEM emphasis will prepare kids for today's tech jobs at Northrop Grumman, Microsoft and IBM. Nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, the future jobs are being created at technology companies like Apple, Google and Facebook where non-STEM skills have played a prominent role.
Will those companies remain leaders in two decades? We want our students to be engaged and successful in fields that don't exist yet. We want them prepared to analyze and adapt so that when opportunities arise, they recognize them and are willing to try, fail, and succeed. There is lots of work and many issues to consider. Our country spends over a quarter million dollars to educate each student through high school. Coming up with innovative ways to gain a higher return on those taxpayer investments is critical to our country's future. I'm glad to see our county playing a leadership role and taking action. What we learn from the academy should be quickly shared across the county, state and nation.
Software System to Manage Impact Aid Suvey Forms for Department of Education Funding
See how our Microsoft Access database application is helping the Washington DC Public System (DCPS) more efficiently and accurately secure their Impact Aid funding from the US Department of Education.
What is Federal Impact Aid for Primary and Secondary Education?
Many local school districts across the United States include within their boundaries parcels of land that are owned by the Federal Government or that have been removed from the local tax rolls by the Federal Government, including Indian lands. These school districts face special challenges — they must provide a quality education to the children living on the Indian and other Federal lands and meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, while sometimes operating with less local revenue than is available to other school districts, because the Federal property is exempt from local property taxes.
The Impact Aid law (now Title VIII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) has been amended numerous times since its inception in 1950. The program continues, however, to support local school districts with concentrations of children who reside on Indian lands, military bases, low-rent housing properties, and other Federal properties, or who have parents in the uniformed services or employed on eligible Federal properties. The law refers to local school districts as local educational agencies, or LEAs.
To secure this funding, school districts send survey forms to their students' parents, collect the results, and submit the claim to the Department of Education.
Helping the Washington DC Public School System Process their Federal Impact Aid Survey Forms and Secure Funding
As you can imagine, the federal government has a lot of workers and property in Washington, DC that don't pay local property taxes to fund education.
The Washington DC Public Schools (DCPS) consists of over 100 public elementary and secondary schools and learning centers. Each year DCPS sends out survey forms to determine the residential and parental employment status of their students. This information is used to determine Impact Aid funding for students who live or have parents who work on federal property.
Database Software Solution
By automating a process that was previously performed manually, FMS helped DCPS achieve increased efficiency and accuracy with an easy-to-use, easy-to-deploy, and easy-to-support, multiuser Microsoft Access application.
Professionally designed and deployed, FMS created reports and processes to help DCPS identify a larger number of federally connected families, and file the forms to obtain federal funding.
The application increased funding which more than paid for our services and allows DCPS to devote more resources to their classrooms. The payoff will continue year after year.
Let us know if your school systems could benefit from claiming these Impact Aid funds with our database application.
We at FMS have always been passionate about education and have provided a wide range of software solutions for the education community at all levels. Over the past several years, I’ve served on a Business and Community Advisory Board to the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. The public schools in Fairfax County are among the best in the nation with 180,000 students, making it larger than 12 states (by student population). I currently serve as the school board representative on the county’s Information Technology Policy Advisory Committee (ITPAC) to the Board of Supervisors where we review major technology projects for the county.
Tying teacher performance to student achievement
At the beginning of the school year, I was appointed by the superintendent to participate in the county’s Teachers Performance Evaluation Task Force. I’m one of two outsiders on this committee of 35, which includes some of the best teachers, principals and administrators across the county. To meet the waiver requirements of the Federal No Child Left Behind statute, the State of Virginia is requiring teacher performance to be tied to student performance. The state department of education is recommending a 40% weighting. They are not defining on what to base student performance, but state standardized test scores immediately come to mind.
As an outsider who has never been evaluated as a teacher, you can imagine my surprise to discover that while principals were judged by their school’s student performance, student performance is not part of a teacher’s performance evaluation in our county (and probably state). 0%Are you kidding me?
I’ve learned that there’s a lot of angst around this. We all recognize that not all students are equal, and we don’t want to have a system where teachers are evaluated solely on student performance because the incentive would be to only want to teach good students. Good students may perform well in spite of bad teaching, so raw scores are not a good indicator of performance. The fairest testing evaluation system seems to be the concept of “value added” measurements. That is, as a teacher, you’d have students coming in at a certain percentile, and leaving at another percentile at the end of the year. If your students move up, you’ve added value; if they’ve moved down, they would have done better with an average teacher. Sounds good in concept, but this has practical problems such as kids moving in and out of classes within the year, impacts on kids outside teacher control, whether the test is a good measurement, multiple teacher collaborative environments, etc.
That said, 0% is still not acceptable. Nor is scrapping the whole concept based on a few outliers or issues. Especially compared to the current evaluation system where a principal or administrator sits in a classroom for less than an hour each quarter, and huge challenges removing under-performing teachers who don’t improve with training.
What have I learned?
I have been very impressed by individuals on the committee who get it. They understand that it’s in their best interest and that of their profession to set high standards and meet them. Failure to do so not only harms students but undermines political and taxpayer support for public education. Change is coming from the federal level down, and taking a leadership role has long-term benefits.
In our fast-changing software world, we need people to constantly gain new skills and improve their productivity. Performance with old technology last year may not be relevant this year. We can’t rewind each year and evaluate people on skills, client relationships, projects, etc. since so much changes each year. However, in education, the inputs each year are essentially the same (it’d be nice if student performance continually improved but that’s not changing significantly).
In spite of all the shortcomings, there are actually lots of objective measurements available to judge teacher performance. Almost all academic courses have existing pre-tests and post-tests for classes, and of course there are standardized tests. Those opposed to tying teacher performance to student achievement tend to be the ones least interested in providing any measurements for doing so. Propose alternatives if the existing ones are not acceptable. We can’t treat teaching like an art that can’t be measured.
As I pondered the issues around teacher performance, it always boiled down to philosophical issues. What does it mean to be a good teacher? Average class performance? Performance of the best kids? Raising the weakest kid? What if you can’t get a kid to engage and be interested? Whose fault is that? We’ve always known there are great teachers who many people love yet others passionately hate. Who’s best to judge, the students, administrators, peers, parents? Everything has shortcomings.
Who benefits and pays the most for good or bad teaching?
Over the holidays, I started thinking of teaching in a totally new way by considering: Who benefits and pays the most for good or bad teaching?
Well, the students do of course, but no one is eager to have students evaluate teacher performance directly due to the many conflicts of interest.
Parents? They certainly have a stake but being a parent myself and being around other parents, I would hardly consider parents qualified to really know what’s going on with individual classes — they should stay focused on evaluating their own children.
Bureaucrats? Whether at the federal, state, or county level, I think they’re hard pressed to come up with specifics for evaluating a particular teacher. They can design what should be taught and offer resources and training, but evaluations taking into account each school and class’s unique situation is too detailed to do with broad requirements.
An alternative paradigm: ‘Teachers are the Customer’
I’ve now come up with a whole new way to look at teaching. Essentially, a teacher receives kids from upstream, trains them, and then passes them off to their next downstream teacher. Looking at it more like a production line, the teacher is a huge beneficiary and victim of good and bad teaching, more than anyone else in the system other than the student. Teachers should be empowered to define expectations and evaluate their upstream teachers for their performance. Done properly, this creates a positive feedback loop and automatically addresses any unique issues within a school. After all, doesn’t every teacher want to grow and deliver the best batch of students to their colleagues? Looking at it from this perspective, the teachers I discussed this with all knew exactly which teachers upstream from them they thought were good or bad overall and for different types of student personalities. In fact, several said there were teachers they would want or avoid sending their kids to. Wow, wouldn’t it be great to include the input of downstream teachers in a teacher’s evaluation? Isn’t that an important person each teacher is serving? I felt I made a mental breakthrough.
Feedback from the administrators
So I introduced this to the Teacher Performance Task Force last week. And while they appreciated my new perspective, I didn’t receive an immediate endorsement. They raised some issues such as teachers were not trained to do this, and how new teachers could properly evaluate more experienced teachers. I took their feedback under consideration.
At last night’s meeting, I mentioned my idea to the superintendent. He liked my approach and asked how it was received within the task force. It then occurred to me that the feedback there was not acceptable. The concept that more junior downstream teachers would evaluate more senior upstream teachers may be too foreign and frightening for some to accept, but that’s a resource which should be utilized. Training to do it properly is just training. You have to serve your customer. I’m not saying a teacher’s entire performance is based on that or that experience isn’t a factor (it is), but the next teacher plays a unique and important role in evaluating performance.
Overall, I appreciate the committee welcoming and encouraging my feedback and treating me as an equal, given my never having been a teacher. We all share a goal of improving public K-12 education with a fair teacher evaluation system, and I recognize I’m naive about these actual evaluation processes. They’ve asked for my out-of-the box thinking and applying best practices from outside the education community. That’s how I reached my teacher focused paradigm. Teachers have the most at stake with creating an evaluation system that at the very least, identifies and removes poor performers that training fails to improve. Teachers are very concerned with the new evaluation system, so empowering them in the process should be positively received. In the end, teachers pay the highest price if improvement doesn’t occur. First in their day-to-day classroom efforts dealing with under-prepared students, and longer term their professional reputation and taxpayer support. Removing under-performing teachers, doesn’t even reduce headcount. It gives an opportunity to someone who is eager to teach in the school system and has above average promise (if not, that’s a recruiting problem). Beyond that, the evaluation system should focus on professional development to help teachers identify areas of improvement. There will probably be a different process for evaluating rookie teachers who are expected to gain skills initially versus more experienced teachers who should already have those skills and falling back to “rookie” level would not be considered acceptable.
We have a few more meetings before the task force needs to finish and make its recommendations. They are hoping to put the new system in place for next school year. Wish me luck.