Ed Potosnak on Innovation

Ed Potosnak has a great post on innovation over at downwithtyrrany:

http://downwithtyranny.blogspot.com/2010/03/dont-be-deceived-by-new-jersey-democrat.html

“As a technophile and science nerd I may be biased, but I believe America’s economic stability depends on how seriously we respond to the challenges presented by an increasingly technological global economy”

Read More:

http://downwithtyranny.blogspot.com/2010/03/dont-be-deceived-by-new-jersey-democrat.html

U.S. National Curriculum Standards – for the future of the Nation

Liquid Density

Science is science, anywhere in the Nation.

The following is a blog post from Luke Laurie’s Blog: Teacher Blog.

https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

In this post, I explore reasons why implementing a National Curriculum is a vital piece for future educational and economic policy. I also discuss some of the guiding principals that must be adhered to in order to make a National Curriculum functional and applicable.

Why National?

The vastly different expectations for students in each of the fifty States is archaic and parochial. The technological, scientific, and ethical challenges our nation faces are not regional, they are universal. This is not a liberal or conservative issue. This is an issue of national security.

We need to look beyond the old notions of townships community schools serving the needs of the local community. The vast majority of our students won’t be working on the family farm or taking over the mom & pop. They will be out there, in the world. They will move to where the work is. They need concrete knowledge of a complex world, and preparation for a workforce in an uncertain future.

What do we say by NOT having National Standards?

By not establishing and implementing clear national guidelines for curricula, we have tacitly accepted that what we teach our children really isn’t that important, and that States and localities are equally qualified to determine what form of education is best suited to the future of the United States of America.

By clinging tightly to the totem pole of local control, we are denying pursuit of progress that’s in everyone’s best interest. Ironically, by passing the buck to lower tiers such as school districts to develop curricula, we impose undo burdens on these resource-strapped institutions. This blessing of local control becomes a curse of endless cycles of trial and error in curriculum development in small, isolated geographic regions. Some districts have found success, only to see their work destroyed by another cycle of textbook adoptions. Others continue to find a cohesive program that works, and would welcome a functional curriculum structure. In scattered schools and districts across the U.S., we’ve invented and destroyed the metaphorical wheel, thousands of times over, and we still can’t make it roll.

A balanced approach to National Standards would take away some of the guesswork in designing instructional programs, and save the time and effort of education professionals for the more innovative and creative tasks associated with delivering instruction. How many creative educators have spent years designing units, programs, or courses, only to see them swept away by changes in policy, funding, or curriculum? A national curriculum could provide the stable foundation that educators need on which to create innovations in education.

Every day we hear policy makers and academics talk about how to improve America’s schools and the “school system.” But until we have a common framework between states, we have no real “system” to improve. That framework should begin by deciding what should be taught. What we have now is a failure to decide.

No Unified Vision on Which to Base a National Curriculum

If we are to implement a National Curriculum, we need a clear set of guidelines for what education is really for. The curriculum should fit the larger vision eduction vision, and the education vision should, in turn, fit the national vision. But foresight is not an American value, and it’s certainly not a defining property of our public policy.

The following quote comes from Clyde Prestowitz, President of the Economic Strategy Institute, who served as counselor to the Secretary of Commerce in the Reagan Administration. From his Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission from 2005:

America needs to recognize that many of the assumptions guiding its economic policy are at odds with the realities of today’s global economy. Its performance in a broad range of areas—including saving, education, energy and water conservation, critical infrastructure, R&D investment, and workforce upskilling—is far below the standard of many other nations. America needs to understand that its refusal to have a broad competitiveness policy is, in fact, a policy. And it gives leading U.S. CEOs no choice but to play into the strategies of other countries. This policy, according to its proponents, leaves decisions to the unseen hand of the market. Actually, however, it leaves them to the highly visible hands of lobbyists and foreign policymakers. It is a policy that ultimately leads to impoverishment.

In other words, our failure to modernize education and to make an effective tool in encouraging scientific and technical innovations, and to create a capable and appropriate workforce leaves U.S. industries and finances in a reactive position. In the immortal words of Rush (the band, with lyrics by Neil Peart, not the talk-radio windbag) “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

I don’t typically chime in on the scare tactics of xenophobia, but in this realm, the U.S. is completely vulnerable to the whims and intentions of other, more deliberate nations. There’s no invisible hand in China. Nor should we trust the invisible hand to fix our most valuable institutions.We don’t need to fear China and other rising economic powers, we should fear ourselves for the lack of backbone, commitment, and foresight to lead us to create national policies that will enable the U.S. to survive and thrive in the future. 90% of Americans attend public school for a large portion of their lives. There is no other institution so clearly capable of shaping the future of the nation.

A National Curriculum must be based on a national vision for public schools. Agreeing on such a vision has been avoided by policy makers throughout the history of public schools, because of the existence of so many differing viewpoints on the matter, and the acknowledgement that we have designated schools as the catch-all social institution. Schools are tasked not only with academic education, but are also responsible for health and well-being, drug, alcohol, and disease prevention, and fostering cultural changes; i.e. tolerance education, sexual harassment prevention, and dealing with any issue that is not be addressed in the homes and communities of students.

Some believe our schools exist to make good citizens of a democracy, others say to achieve individual economic potential, and still others claim that public schools are the great equalizer, fulfilling a civil rights role. Learning is inevitably part of each vision, but agreeing on the primary purposes for the learning will influence how we go about teaching. Teachers themselves, possess different philosophies on their role and purpose, and consequently approach their work in different ways. In addition, various policies and legislation have added additional tasks, often well-meaning, but overreaching the limits of resources and time. Note that I am not arguing the virtue of these goals, they are all valid societal objectives. The issue here is that we have created an undo burden on a single public institution.

Consequently, we arrive at a situation where schools have been tasked with seemingly impossible goals. They exist to educate all students academically, while simultaneously overcoming any shortcomings of the family, community, or the nation. They are to do so with extremely limited resources. And even when they succeed in some areas, they will inevitably neglect others. It’s not just the raised bar that makes schools “fail”, it’s that there are hundreds of hurdles, and no one can even keep track of all of them.

In essence, schools have the function of providing for nearly every need, for nearly everyone, until they reach the age of adulthood. The inability of any adult to function in society or to have requisite employment skills always reflects back on their education.

Where to Start: A National Vision

A National Vision for Education needs to acknowledge that schools will inevitably serve a variety of purposes, but these goals must be carried out within the context of serving a unified national purpose. Education should be by design, not just a result of historical peculiarities. Developing such a vision will not be easy, and is most certainly not the work of a single individual or organization.

So what is this vision? What does it include? How different is what we should do from what we are doing? What new topics must be addressed? What historical baggage must we shed in order to evolve?

(See also my previous post on National Curriculum Standards: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/national-curriculum-standards/)

Speech- Uncertainty and Opportunity in Education

I gave the following speech at the BTSA End of the Year Seminar.
Thank you. I am honored to speak to you today.

Introduction

I started teaching 12 years ago, before BTSA, I think. If there was BTSA back then, I didn’t go. Was there BTSA? Am I in trouble now?

I was trained and credentialed to be an elementary school teacher, but somehow found myself becoming a junior high science teacher running a robotics engineering program, and working in the U.S. Congress.

One’s life and career path can be difficult to determine. We face obstacles, we have opportunities. We make choices, and the paths of our lives are made. From where I began, I could have in no way predicted that I would be where I am now, in my career. I was sure I’d be teaching upper elementary.

I didn’t even get an interview in the districts I thought I wanted to work in. I went from a long term sub position in a bilingual K-1 combo, and two weeks later, I was a Junior High Teacher, and I have been ever since. I’m happy where I am, but along the way, there have been many factors outside my control.

When I started, I entered a teaching world that was a maelstrom of chaos. My school was busting at the seams. A junior high with over 800 kids. We were on four track year-round. We had 6 periods a day. I taught 2 periods of math, 2 of science, and one of PE. Everything I had was on wheels. I changed classrooms every month for two years. I belonged to three departments. My colleagues were full of great, innovative ideas, and long held traditions about how things should be done. But I had little time for any solid mentoring. I was treading water. And just when I got to know someone, they went off-track.

My BTSA was something of a trial by fire. We didn’t have the Williams Act back then. I got to use whatever math books I could find, whatever everyone else wasn’t using. Same with the science books. My support provider was Rogelio, the night custodian, who would talk to me when I was still at school at 6:00 PM. I had a degree of autonomy that I probably shouldn’t have had. I had the liberty and the obligation to design my own program. I didn’t have much direct guidance, but at the same time, my instruction wasn’t genius-proofed either.

On my first day on the job, the principal came up to me and said “You’d be a great MESA advisor.” “What’s MESA?” I said. It’s an engineering program. You’ll get paid 500 dollars for doing it! 500 dollars, “Wow!” – I thought. Little did I realize that the stipend was equivalent to minimum wage at the time. But I’m still doing MESA to this day. Teaching engineering and working in extracurricular programs became an important part of my career. I said yes to a lot of “opportunities” and I still do, probably more than I should. But each of these activities, workshops, conferences, mentoring and other programs I have done taught me something. Most importantly, by interacting professionally with colleagues outside of my classroom, I have been able to interact with fantastic teachers from throughout the region.

There’s more order to things now. More order in teacher preparation and mentoring. More order in our school district with a conventional calendar and smaller schools. No Child Left Behind has certainly put things in focus; perhaps an extremely narrow, myopic focus. I still teach three different classes, but they’re all science now, and they’re not all on the same day. But there are still many factors outside the control of classroom teachers. California’s budget crunch may undo the progress we’ve made. I may have 38 students in my classes next year, 38 adolescents crammed into a room and expected to learn science- a situation I have never had to face.

The greatest struggles, in our lives, and in our careers, are rarely the ones we expect. But the opportunities can be equally unknown.

Innovative Teaching

From the time I began my career as a teacher, I wanted to be an innovator. I saw education as a broken machine that needed to be fixed. I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to do them better. But, I also assumed that no matter what experiments I tried, or new methods I developed, I would face conflict and resistance from my colleagues and administration at every step of the way.
As is the way of youth, I was wrong, about many things.

My initial forays into innovative education included teaching kindergartners about astronomy, turning a junior high math class into a stock market, and having my science class spend weeks building insect collections. I was never quite sure of the kind of reaction I would get for my different approaches, so I didn’t always advertise what I was doing.
I was shocked at times by the degree of autonomy I was given, and the latitude I had for experimenting with pedagogy and content. I was strongly supported and encouraged by my colleagues and my administration. I was surprised that people had faith in me.

One day, while my students and I were on an unscheduled field trip to the park across the street, swinging around insect nets, my principal came walking across the street. I was sure I was in trouble. Thoughts ran through my head — Was it the homemade insect nets made with sharp bent metal coat hangers? Was it the poisonous acetone we were using to kill insects? Was it the fact that we were off campus without permission? But then she took out her camera and started taking pictures. She was so excited to see the kids outside, exploring their world. She said this was the kind of thing our students needed more of.

I took this to heart, and continued to develop my teaching skills and acquire resources that would help my students learn things they might not learn anywhere else. Working with technology. Building robots. Learning to program. Camping. Visiting colleges. Making movies. All of these things became a regular part of my work.

I’m not very good at some of the ordinary things about teaching. I can’t stand grading papers. I’m not so good at teaching writing skills. I don’t make very good use of the materials that come with the textbooks. I have a very hard time using anybody else’s lesson plan or science lab. So, I build on my strengths. I’m good at building LEGO’s. I like technology. I have a knack for motivation and discipline. It took me a long time to reconcile the fact that I will not be good at all aspects of teaching. As my 8 year old son says to me, “Get used to the facts, Dad.” But there are many ways of being a great teacher. So, I have taken my strengths, and avoided my shortcomings, and built a teaching style that I am comfortable with, but one that has also earned me accolades.

I didn’t teach to the test. I threw out traditional methods in some cases. I didn’t do things by the book. I invented my own units, my own class even. In 2000, I received a Crystal Apple Award. In 2005, I received the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence.

Faith-Based Education

There’s a Sidney Harris cartoon, where two scientists are facing a blackboard, on which there are two sets of equations. There is a tangled web of mathematics on the left, and another on the right, and in the middle, bridging the two sets of irreconcilable formulae are the words “Then a miracle occurs.”

This is an apt analogy for our system of education. The mess of mathematical expressions on the left side of the board can be imagined to be public education: the courses, curriculum, and structure of schools. The right side of the board and its formulae can represent one’s life and career – the output of our educational system. But the path by which we arrive at the solution to this equation cannot be expressed scientifically. I call this “Faith-Based Education.”

We provide a certain finite set of inputs through the structure in schools, often insufficient resources, funds, staffing, and offerings —and then a miracle occurs, —and then our students are ready for college, their careers, and their lives.

But what is that miracle?

It’s you. It’s us.

Teachers are the Key

In the mess of standards, lesson planning, curriculum materials, and benchmarks, sometimes we lose sight of the simple fact that the the fundamental unit of education is the interaction between the teacher and the student. Teachers and the things they do make everything else possible. Teaching is a human interaction, a social interaction, a personal interaction.  It is magical. It is unique. It is unquantifiable. I used to go to an Indian restaurant where the waiter and I talked often. He told me “Teaching is the Path of God.” I didn’t argue. Culture continues, and evolves through us, and Youtube, and FOX news. There’s a teacher in a public school classroom who has knowledge, skills, and wisdom; and there is a student, who is in dire need of that knowledge, those skills, and that wisdom. In a classroom, we work to impart those things to that child, or 38. Everything else is peripheral.

You are that pivotal piece. You are needed. You are vital. You are the key.

We face impossible odds, all the time. We do the impossible.

But there are some fundamental flaws in a system that relies so heavily on the self-sacrifice of individuals, the altruism of a few. The faith that we will do much more than we are payed to do. The faith that we will make something from nothing. The faith that we can do without some of things and some of the people that budget cuts have taken away.
When we rely solely on faith, that all these wonderful things will continue to happen in schools, sometimes they don’t. In schools where morale is low, where salaries are insufficient, where staff have been cut, where class sizes are unmanageably large, sometimes the miracle doesn’t happen. Volunteerism thrives only in a stable environment. Our faith is not misplaced, there are just limits to what it can do.

NCLB HQT

In 2003, I faced total uncertainty about my future as a teacher, along with many teachers across the country. It was at this time, that we began to implement the No Child Left Behind Highly Qualified Teacher Requirement Nicklby-Cutie. Anxiety spread when the initial information we received implied that most Junior High Teachers in Santa Maria would lose their positions or even their jobs, if they couldn’t quickly acquire new credentials.

I wasn’t satisfied with the information I was receiving at the time. I couldn’t believe that the new regulations would be so draconian. So I began my first experience in researching education policy. I contacted the State Department of Education, began reading documents issued by the Federal Government, and wrote a policy analysis that I presented to district administrators and others. I discovered several alternative routes for teachers to become highly qualified that were not being made available.

In the process, I faced backlash from my superiors. I was disciplined. Ultimately, the information I discovered became, more or less, statewide policy. In our district’s haste to be compliant, we didn’t give the powers-that-be the opportunity to get the policy right. Some teachers did end up changing positions, some unnecessarily because of confusion and misinformation, others jumped through the required hoops. I hit the books, and picked up an Earth Science Credential.

I didn’t exactly change policy, but I did do everything I could to understand policy, and use the information to protect my colleagues. This experience helped pave the way for a new opportunity that I could not have dreamed.

Einstein Fellow

In 2006, I was selected as a finalist to become an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. An Einstein Fellow.

I was flown to D.C., and interviewed at length for several possible positions. About 15 Einstein Fellows work each year in several government agencies and in the Legislative Branch, selected from Math and Science teachers from across the country. Ultimately, I was chosen to become a fellow on Capitol Hill. Ironically, the conflict I had with my district about NCLB was considered a strong feather in my cap by the interviewers, who believed I had the knack for legislative work.

After many interviews, I was fortunate to find a spot working in the office of Congressman Mike Honda, Congressman from Silicon Valley, who was once a science teacher in a school very much like the ones in Santa Maria. I also interviewed for two hours in the Office of Senator Barack Obama, amongst others, and they never turned me down, but I didn’t wait for their reply. I wanted to work in the House. Congressman Honda’s office was a great place to be, and I had the experience of a lifetime.

I moved my family all the way across the County into a little place in Alexandria, Virginia. We changed everything about our lives. I was immersed in a world of policy and politics for an entire year.

During my year in D.C., I was the principal staff member for Congressman Honda handling Education, Environment, and Homeland Security, as well as Appropriations or funding bills in those areas. I felt like I was a teacher undercover.

I got to see education from a very different angle. I also experienced a very different work environment.

(I Shared a few stories from my time in D.C. experience. Including one some reflections on class size. My visits to the cold hearted Bush-era Department of Education. Congressman Honda’s Questioning of Margaret Spellings. “What makes you highly qualified to be Secretary of Education?” And discussion of the difference in fatigue; teaching vs. legislative work.)

Conclusion

Education is in a precarious position that not everyone is aware of. While the housing market soared, and the stock market was riding high, schools saw little or no economic benefit. Teachers weren’t collecting massive bonuses or redecorating their offices (we don’t have offices). In fact, many schools throughout this period were dealing with overwhelming class sizes, crumbling infrastructure, and ongoing struggles to provide basic services. Teachers were lucky to get cost of living adjustments, and were even luckier if they managed to keep some health care. Many of us saw real wages fall.

At the policy level, we had to fight tooth and nail to prevent proposed cuts at the State and federal level every year. Unlike the housing market, the stock market, and government revenues, education didn’t benefit from the economic gluttony of the last few years, but when everything came crashing down, the funding for schools went with it.

The current cuts to education are having devastating impacts in schools across the State and in our region.

The Obama administration and the new congress have already begun a massive reinvestment in education at the Federal level, but California’s self imposed cuts may erase any potential benefit from these federal funds. I don’t want to point any fingers, but this is all California’s fault. I don’t want to be partisan, but it’s the Republicans who are forcing the tightening of the budget on education. The 2/3 vote requirement in the State Legislature effectively grants the minority party double voting power on issues of spending and taxation. As teachers we often look at the State and say what are they doing? When I worked in the U.S. Congress, we would say the same thing.

If California cannot find a way to markedly increase investment in education, we may look back on these times and laugh that we were actually trying to improve schools. We might be more likely to reflect on this time as the golden age of education, where every school was labeled as “failing”, but they were all better than what followed. Remember when we only had 35 students in each class? Do you remember art class?

It is worth noting that the administration and board of directors of the Santa Maria-Bonita school district and some other districts have worked very hard to minimize the impacts of these cuts. Santa Maria-Bonita has managed to find ways to save millions of dollars, largely by the administrators altruistically taking on multiple jobs themselves, and by delaying filling vacant positions. They insulated classrooms and students from many of the cuts, and significantly reduced the layoffs of teachers.

We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum is being taught in all public schools. We should not have to take it on faith that a student will learn in a class that is twice the size it should be. We should not take it on faith that one person can do the job that two should be payed to do. We need to invest adequate resources, distribute those resources in an equitable manner, and be careful not to impose draconian policies that will inhibit innovative instruction.

These are tough times. There is uncertainty. But there is also hope. The infusion of Federal Stimulus Funds is yet to arrive, and Federal Government is likely to continue to increase funding for Title 1 and Special Education. We need to continue to fight, and continue to seek creative solutions for the sake of our children. Some are worried about the debt we will leave them. I would argue that there are far worse things we could leave our children than debt, and the worst of them is an inadequate education.

STEM Education: Improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education

teachinginclass

In 2007, I testified at a field hearing on the issues facing science education in the NCLB influenced standards-based era. In light of a forum taking place this weekend at Cal Poly, I am reposting this testimony.

Testimony of Luke Laurie

Science Teacher, El Camino Junior High, Santa Maria, CA

Director: RoboChallenge

mrlaurie@mac.com

given to the

SELECT COMMITTEE ON

SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITY

Senator Tom Torlakson, Chair

October 30, 2007

Cal Poly, Keck Laboratory

San Luis Obispo

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for allowing me to speak today on the critical issues of learning environments and science education equipment needs for California’s classrooms.

My name is Luke Laurie. I am a science teacher at El Camino Junior High in Santa Maria, California. I have ten years of experience teaching and running after school programs in robotics and engineering. I am a recipient of the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence, and a graduate of Cal Poly.

Last year, as a recipient of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship, I worked as a legislative assistant in the United States House of Representatives for Congressman Mike Honda, of Silicon Valley, a Member of the Appropriations and Science Committees, and a former science teacher himself. In the House, I worked on education, environmental policy, and appropriations. I worked with Congressman Honda on the Global Warming Education Act, and to end the narrowing of the curriculum, language for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind to require all schools to provide a comprehensive curriculum to all students.

The school where I teach is not unlike many in California, serving an almost exclusively, low-income Hispanic population, more than half of which are English Language Learners. The opportunities for our students to encounter science and technology professionals in their communities are few, as are the opportunities for them to engage in meaningful science and technical experiences. That said, if we, as educators, do not provide meaningful scientific and technical experiences for students, with hands-on, minds-on learning, they won’t get them.

My time in Washington D.C. last year exposed me to the incredible bipartisan push at the Federal level to enhance science research and STEM education. Members of Congress, scholars, and business leaders agree that STEM education in the U.S. is in dire need of improvement.

Unfortunately, my time in D.C. also exposed me to the great disconnect between the federal infrastructure that provides guidance for public schools, and the framework that has been tasked with improving science education. Funds for improving K-12 science are appropriated to dozens of programs in NASA, NOAA, NSF, The Department of Energy, EPA, and the Department of Education. Rather than going directly to the schools with the greatest needs, these funds largely go to universities for outreach efforts. The results of outreach are often very good, creating amazing programs and providing unique opportunities for children, but they are also frequently short-lived, and directly affect only a small fraction of schools. The result creates a long and windy road for federal funds to science classrooms, and the trickle down effect often leaves some schools dry.

With frequent reports on the lack of science and technical literacy of American students, the concerns over global competitiveness, and the specter of global warming, one would think that science at all levels would see increased attention, increased funding, and especially, increased time devoted to science. Working down in the trenches, I can tell you from experience, that such is not the case.

Standards-based instruction and high stakes testing, the cornerstones of California education policy and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have indirectly harmed science education, as well as education in the myriad of subjects beyond Language Arts and Mathematics.

The emphasis on Mathematics and Language Arts in testing and evaluation have created circumstances where well-meaning local administrators have issued directives or modified curricula that effectively discourage science instruction, and reduce or eliminate the time that would otherwise have been devoted to science. They are gaming the system; because they can, and because they believe they need to. In effect, the climate is such that there is no penalty for schools where science isn’t taught at all. The same could be said for other subjects, such as PE, health and nutrition, fine and performing arts, industrial arts, and technical education. The very subjects that may determine our future economic stability are seen as impediments to schools chasing the ever elusive AYP or API, in spite of their cultural and economic value, and in spite of their role in retaining students and preventing drop-outs. The current climate encourages short term gains, even when the trade-off is long term losses.

In the district in which I teach, a block schedule was implemented which provides junior high students with Math and Language Arts courses every day, but PE, Science, and Social Studies, meet every other day or for only half the year. Some English Language Learners have no science at all, or are given one quarter of science, while they are placed in a reading intervention class that is in addition to their language arts class- that’s 160 minutes of language arts in a day. There are only 3 full time science teachers in my school, serving a population of over 600 students.

In some schools, the precious time they have to teach science is taken up with weekly math review, or extra reading time. The time is taken out of science as it is considered a non-essential course.

Some of the greatest impact have been on elementary science instruction. Many elementary teachers I have spoken to who are passionate about science education have been forced to reduce their time spent on science. Some express great frustration, because of drill and kill tactics and extended time on Math and Language arts, they are unable to implement the science units they used to teach, which integrated mathematics, reading, writing, and vocabulary development, and used these skills in context.

Don’t get me wrong, literacy, acquiring English, and mathematics are vital skills, however, the overemphasis on these subjects has been harmful, because science is less frequently used as the context for language development, and context for application of mathematics. The common defense for this overemphasis is that while deferring these subjects, we are providing students with a stronger framework for future coursework. Such could be tested, however, there is a tendency, especially for students in English Language Learner programs to defer science year, after year, after year. It is a disservice to these students to remove them from the courses in which the language is universal, the minds will be engaged, and students will be able to experience success. At the junior high level we are not seeing students more prepared for science instruction because of their work in mathematics and language arts. In fact, we’re seeing fewer students able to apply mathematics skills to real situations, such as the ability to measure or estimate, and we’re seeing less in the way of prior science knowledge. They are likely to have strongly-embedded misconceptions about ordinary phenomena, and they are less prepared to learn science.

Fortunately, in spite of these policies and trends, the programs that I personally work on have been strongly supported by my site administration, and we’re fighting to keep science alive. We have been able to channel grant funds and awards into strengthening my Robotics Science Course for 8th grade students, and we’ve been able to maintain strong participation in MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement).

But all of the grant funds we have acquired have provided little other than equity with wealthier California schools. We need 5000 dollars in grants each year just to keep pace. The lack of equity in funding requires teachers in schools such as mine to beg and borrow- just to get what may be provided in the next zip code.

With what we have, we have converted some regular classrooms into what you might call labs. We even have a single room designated as “science lab” on our school map. But this old classroom doesn’t have hot water, is poorly lit, has no access to gas for Bunsen burners, and if we plug in too many hot plates, it will blow out the low-amperage circuits. We make it work. Is it  a science lab? I’m not sure.

This brings me to a concept I call “Faith-Based” education. I don’t mean faith in the religious sense. What I mean is that, commonly, education policy neglects to provide much needed resources- or fails to institutionalize or require instruction that all students must definitely have. Instead, we take it on faith, that somewhere out there, some courageous teacher will pick up the ball and fill in the holes that were made by omissions of policy or shortages of funding. We see this in the teachers that go around fixing the school’s outdated computers, and the lone elementary teacher who will still take kids on science field trip, or teach their unit on whales, or growing plants from seeds- even when science has been alloted no time in the day. Or the elementary teacher who still goes out to teach PE- every day. We see this in the teachers who are working in my program, RoboChallenge, having students learn language and mathematics skills while designing and programming their own robots.

We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum including robust science is being taught in public schools in California. With one of the largest economies in the world, a world-class university system, and the wealth of corporate resources, California should have a world class K-12 education system, and world class learning environments for all students. Increased investment in K-12 science is a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits we will reap from a strong workforce, our ability to curtail and adapt to climate change, and the cultural and technological benefits that will arise from tomorrow’s innovators.

Innovative Education and California Budget Cuts

The following are my remarks as Santa Barbara Teacher of the Year, at the Grant Recognition Dinner on the 25th Anniversary of the Teacher’s Network.

February 25, 2009

Thank you. It is an honor to be here with all of you in this celebration of all that is good in education. I’m proud to be in the company of so many innovative educators, and all of you who support our field.

From the time I began my career as a teacher, I wanted to be an innovator. I saw education as a broken machine that needed to be fixed. I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to do them better. But, I also assumed that no matter what experiments I tried, or new methods I developed, I would face conflict and resistance from my colleagues and administration at every step of the way.

As is the way of youth, I was wrong, about many things.

My initial forays into innovative education included teaching kindergartners about astronomy, turning a junior high math class into a stock market, and having my science class spend weeks building insect collections. I was never quite sure of the kind of reaction I would get for my different approaches, so I didn’t always advertise what I was doing.

I was shocked at times by the degree of autonomy I was given, and the latitude I had for experimenting with pedagogy and content. I was strongly supported by my colleagues and my administration. I discovered that many of my peers had been innovative teachers for decades. I learned that there are many ways of being a great teacher. I was surprised that people had faith in me.

One day, while my students and I were on an unscheduled field trip to the park across the street, swinging around homemade insect nets, my principal came walking across the street. I was sure I was in trouble. But then she took out her camera and started taking pictures. She was so excited to see the kids outside, exploring their world. She said this was the kind of thing our students needed more of.

I took this to heart, an continued to develop my teaching skills and acquire resources that would help my students learn things they might not learn anywhere else. Working with technology. Building robots. Learning to program. Camping. Visiting colleges. Making movies. All of these things became a regular part of my work.

There’s a Sidney Harris cartoon, where two scientists are facing a blackboard, on which, there are two sets of equations. There is a tangled web of mathematics on the left, and another on the right, and in the middle, bridging the two sets of irreconcilable equations are the words “Then a miracle occurs.” The mess of mathematical expressions on the left side of the board can be imagined to be public education: the courses, curriculum, and structure of schools. The right side of the board and its formulae can be imagined to be one’s life and career.

This is an apt analogy for our system of education.

We provide a certain finite set of inputs through the structure in schools, often insufficient resources and offerings —and then a miracle occurs, —and then our students are ready for college, careers, and their lives.

But what is that miracle?

It’s the work of dedicated teachers; like those of you here tonight.

You are the teachers that go around fixing the school’s outdated computers, or the ones who still take kids on science field trips, or you grow plants from seeds- even when science has been alloted no time in the school day.

These teachers are the ones who apply for grants. They look beyond the day to day obligations and see the bigger picture. They do the things they know are right. They do what’s best for kids. They make miracles happen.

These teachers don’t have to do these things, but they do them anyway.

The teachers in this room, and countless others like them, recognize that in order for us to truly prepare our students to become lifelong learners, we need to provide a wide variety of curricular and extracurricular learning opportunities.

We need to instill the love of learning, and appreciation for the full spectrum of the human experience. We would be foolish to teach only the skills needed for today’s workforce, or to limit our instruction to serving some ideal of the past. We need to teach ingenuity, creativity, and problem solving. As recent history has shown, the skills our students may need 10, 20, or 30 years from now, will undoubtedly be quite different from those they need today.

In high school, I got D’s in Math and English. I credit band, auto-shop, and theater classes with keeping me interested in school and teaching me to appreciate learning. It was these classes helped me stay in school and continue my education to become the teacher I am.

Many of our most vital programs, exist on the fringe of education, outside of conventional funding streams. They continue to exist by the labor of ambitious teachers, and through the encouragement of organizations such as The Teacher’s Network.

We teachers tend to be lousy economists. I’ve estimated that I could cut out half of my work, and still collect 95% of my pay. This is not uncommon. We invest our summers, weekends, and our own money to provide for the needs of our students and classrooms that are not met by the formal structure of education.

I call this “faith-based education”. I don’t mean faith in the religious sense.

What I mean is that, commonly, education policy neglects to provide much needed resources- or fails to institutionalize curricula that students need. For example, in many schools today, we provide very little direct instruction in the accessing, evaluating and proper use of digital information from the internet, yet this is a vital skill for life and knowledge-based careers.

Instead of formally addressing issues such as these, we take it on faith, that somewhere out there, some courageous teacher will pick up the ball and fill in the holes that were made by our omissions of policy or shortages of funding, or that kids will find some way to teach themselves the things they need to know, like the way they’re teaching themselves instant messaging.
But there are some fundamental flaws in a system that relies so heavily on the self-sacrifice of individuals, the altruism of a few.

When we rely solely on faith, that all these wonderful things will continue to happen, sometimes they don’t. In schools where morale is low, where salaries are insufficient, where class sizes are unmanageably large, sometimes the miracle doesn’t happen. Volunteerism thrives in a stable environment.
We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum is being taught in all public schools. We need to ensure that this is the case. We need to invest adequate resources, distribute those resources in an equitable manner, and be careful not to impose draconian policies that will inhibit innovative instruction.

I would like to close by drawing special attention to the current budget crisis.

Education is in a precarious position that not everyone is aware of. While the housing market soared, and the stock market was riding high, schools saw little or no economic benefit.

Teachers weren’t collecting massive bonuses or redecorating their offices (we don’t have offices). In fact, many schools throughout this period were dealing with overwhelming class sizes, crumbling infrastructure, and ongoing struggles to provide basic services. Teachers were lucky to get cost of living adjustments, and were even luckier if they managed to keep some health care. Many of us saw real wages fall.

At the policy level, we had to fight tooth and nail to prevent proposed cuts at the State and federal level every year. Unlike the housing market, the stock market, and government revenues, education didn’t benefit from the economic gluttony of the last few years, but when everything came crashing down, the funding for schools went with it.

The current cuts to education are having devastating impacts in schools across the State and in our region.

The Obama administration and the new congress have already begun a massive reinvestment in education at the Federal level, but California’s self imposed cuts may erase any potential benefit from these federal funds. If California cannot find a way to markedly increase investment in education, we may look back on these times and laugh that we were actually trying to improve schools. We might be more likely to reflect on this time as the golden age of education, where every school was labeled as “failing”, but they were all better than what followed. Remember when we only had 35 students in each class? Do you remember art class?

I want to give a special thanks to the administration and board of directors of the Santa Maria-Bonita school district. In the last several weeks, they have done an amazing job limiting the adverse impacts of these midyear cuts. Our administration has managed to find ways to save millions of dollars, largely by altruistically taking on multiple jobs themselves, and by delaying filling vacant positions. They have insulated classrooms and students from this round of cuts, and avoided layoffs of teachers.

Thank you.

Finally, I would like to make a plea to administrators and school board members from all school districts to the same, now and in the future. Do whatever you can to keep these cuts as far away from direct student services as possible. Delay, at all cost, making the cuts that you can’t take back. I didn’t get pink slipped in my early years. I had the stability, encouragement, and time to become the teacher I am today. Please do whatever you can so that others can have that same opportunity.

Be innovative, and maybe we can still have miracles.