Sunday, December 18, 2011

Don't Fear the Website

A couple weeks ago, a reporter from KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids asked me to comment on a new website aimed at helping students report bullying and harassment at school. The website is sponsored by the Eychaner Foundation, which sponsors Iowa's Matthew Shepard Scholarship, as well as a minority scholarship for high school students in DeKalb, Illinois. I wrote about the organization and its founder, Rich Eychaner, in The Principal's Challenge. In addition to contributing more than a million dollars for scholarships in the last ten-plus years, Eychaner and his foundation have contributed mightily to civil rights and tolerance in Iowa and beyond.

Before the interview, I needed to get familiar with how the website works. After a kid makes a report, the school receives an email and letter through the postal service with the report. The website also includes the foundation's privacy policy and how they handle the information.

As a former principal, I first thought about how the information would be used. I immediately knew that some would see the website as a potential "gotcha game" that might be misused to label districts. I know what it feels like to be saddled with one more (tough) thing to do and to feel like you're getting peppered from all sides.

Last summer, Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass asserted that bullying data reported by Iowa districts is "unbelievably low." His comments no doubt offended a whole lot of educators who feel constantly under siege by state and federal mandates, media scrutiny, and politicians who've been convinced that running schools more like a business (whatever that means) or more testing will save America. No doubt it felt like piling on.

And yet national surveys suggest that bullying and harassment are real problems.

Hudson Superintendent Tony Voss noted in his blog last June that if the numbers reported to the state are low, it isn't because schools are letting harassers run wild, at least not in his district. He suggested it's more likely that incidents are under-reported by students. I think he's right in a lot of cases. I think there are a lot of kids who just take it. Maybe they're not sure who to tell. Maybe they're not sure how. Maybe they don't think it will make any difference.

I think most administrators in Iowa are like Voss. They mean business when it comes to school culture and climate. Like all responsible leaders, when they know something is wrong, they act to correct it. So what about the clunkers with an outdated, boys will be boys attitude toward bullying or who lack the courage or know how to address it? Well, we've got a law that prohibits bullying and harassment related to 17 criteria, a new level of attention being given to reporting, and a new way for kids to let their schools know.

So here's my take:
  • Bullying is not some powder puff issue or a weird mutation of political correctness. It's real and it matters.
  • Jason Glass may be right. The numbers may be low.
  • I think Hudson Superintendent Voss is right that kids may not be reporting what's really going on.
  • That may partially because some kids aren't sure how they should go about reporting it and/or to whom. 
  • After fighting for the Safe Schools Law and investing more than a million dollars in scholarships, it's clear that the Eychaner Foundation's interest is in supporting students, not trashing school districts or people who work in them. 
That's why the website is a good thing. Let's not get hung up on how schools find out about harassment. Let's make sure schools do find out and that they respond accordingly. Let them decide if they want to walk into the principal's office or log on.

We've got similar websites and toll free numbers devoted to everything from helping the DNR catch somebody poaching a turkey, anti-terrorism tips for the FBI, and money saving suggestions to the Iowa Legislature. This may feel like one more thing to administrators who are already spread thin. But if a hotline is a decent way to collect tips on bagging turkeys out of season, this website is a reasonable way to help kids feel comfortable, safe, valued and listened to at school.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Who's up for a little test?

The latest post on the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog is a must read. In the post, longtime teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author, Marion Brady describes a friend who did something bold. He volunteered to take the standardized tests his state requires of 10th graders and announce his score publicly.

His scores were unimpressive. He guessed 10 of 60 math questions correctly and had a 62% on the reading test. It might appear that our failing education system includes not only the slouching high school kids in your town, but also this guy, who is has a big house in a good part of town, a condo in the Caribbean, influential friends and lots of frequent flyer miles.  Two masters degrees. Somehow he has managed to overcome his stark deficits in mathematics and reading and still help oversee a company with 22,000 employees and a multi-billion dollar budget.

So what gives? Are the tests garbage? Probably. Did he forget some of the things that the tests measure? For sure. Are those things important beyond politicians' insatiable desire to show themselves as education reformers and the Testing Industrial Complex's desire to profit from know nothing students and ineffective educators? Hmmm.

 My friend and colleague Dr. Tim Gilson (@pantherprof on Twitter) told me this afternoon that the best professional development session he led in 13 years as principal happened the day he asked teachers to take the standardized tests that were routinely required of students. Apparently, their inability to answer a lot of the questions produced lively discussion about things like their preparation, rigor, and the test's difficulty. Their value also came up.

So, maybe we ought to ask our education policy makers to take this guy's lead. In Iowa, Governor Branstad has released an education reform plan that has generated a lot of discussion. It borrows heavily from Florida and talks a lot about testing.

The Governor attended a private law school (Drake University), served as a university president (Des Moines University), and was Iowa's longest serving governor, even before coming back for this current term. Those are no small feats. Politics aside, he is certainly successful, intelligent. Surely he would fare better than the guy with the condo in the Caribbean...right?

Wouldn't it be interesting if everyone decrying our rotten school system and the importance of more testing would give the tests a shot? Governor, are you up for it?

Better yet, why not pass them out at the next meeting of the Governor's Association? Invite the state superintendents/directors of education to take them. Arne Duncan. Throw some professors in. School board members. Factory workers. Wall Street execs. Moms. Pharmaceutical sales people. Teachers. Small business owners. Trump. Members of Congress, though that group would certainly need to be closely monitored for cheating. Instead of bake sales, political speak and photo ops, A national "Let's See What the Hell These Tests Are Really About Day."

If that happened, we might be starting a meaningful conversation about testing, knowledge and what matters. Until that happens, more of the same spin, posturing, and BS.