Category Archives: Teacher Practice

Teacher Practice

What I Wish The Union Had Said

Maine has had two sets of educational announcements in the last month.  One was for the Commisisoner’s plan, focused on customized learning and a performance-based diploma.  The more recent came jointly from the Governor and the Commisioner, and focused on four proposed pieces of legislation: allowing public funding be used toward (certified) private religious schools, school choice, teacher evaluation and accountability, and greater focus on career and technical education.

Chris Galgay (president), and Rob Walker (executive director) from the Maine Education Association were at both announcements.  News stories focused, not just on the announcements, but on how the teacher union was critical of the announcements.

Nationally, teacher unions have developed quite the reputation of blocking any kind of educational advancement and have become the villain in tales of attempts to improve education for all students.

I have mixed feelings about teacher unions.  I think unions should be the defenders of the profession, negotiating contracts favorable to their membership, insuring good working conditions, monitoring evaluation procedures so they are fair and reasonable.

But the reputation teacher unions have is not for defending the profession, but for defending the least professional teachers, protecting mediocre performance, and preserving the right of teachers to do as they wish, not that that is needed to be done.

I suspect that this reputation is somewhat undeserved, but I also know I have experienced myself actions that reinforce this reputation.  At a special purpose, project-based learning school I was part of creating, several teachers in the union told us they wouldn’t implement the educational program because the union told them they didn’t have to. When we had a workshop day, had bought all the teachers lunch (which we did as a nice gesture), and told them what time lunch would be served, several teachers came to us and told us that we couldn’t require them to come to lunch because it violated union rules (who had required anyone to do anything?  We had just done something nice…)

And I worry that dour expressions of the MEA leadership and the news reports of their critical and negative message are reinforcing that image, as well.  And yet, my wife is involved in some very progressive projects of the MEA that demonstrate a very different kind of defending and preserving the profession…

Here is what I wish I had heard from the union:

The MEA and our membership are working hard to insure that every zip code has a great school, so families indeed choose their local school. – I heard the union say they didn’t like school choice because it would take resources away from local schools.  A long time ago, in the early 90’s when charter schools were first proposed in Maine, a teacher told me he was against charters because the public schools would just be left with the least desirable students.  Yet, these issues would only come to fruition if the local schools were schools people wouldn’t choose.  Is the MEA defending undesirable teaching, educational programs, and schools rather than promoting their own vision for creating “Great Public Schools for Every Maine Student“?

The MEA and our membership are working to propose a teacher accountability and evaluation system that is fair to teachers, uses multiple measures, and is based on best practice. – In the past, I have heard the union say that they are against teachers being evaluated based on the performance of their students. This sounds too much to me that the union doesn’t believe that workers (including professionals) should be expected to be effective in their jobs.  I fail to see how this helps defend and protect the profession. This also seems rather counter to their own efforts.  The Instruction and Professional Development Committee has been working for a while on adapting an evaluation system based on the MTA Teacher Evaluation program, endorsed by Charlotte Danielson and Linda Darling Hamond, and connected to the inTASC Model Core Teaching Standards. The MEA’s own position statement on teacher evaluation reads, “MEA wants a meaningful, high quality evaluation process that is based upon sound pedagogical criteria and multiple evaluation tools. It is in the best interests of students, programs, and career educators.”

Teachers ought to be given the training, support, and resources needed in order to do the job they are being asked to do. – With these new announcements, I heard Chris Galgay say that the MEA is against ineffective teachers being placed back on probation. Again, is the union really claiming that if you aren’t good at your job there should be no consequences? How does this give the message that teachers are professionals? On the other hand, it is a travesty when a teacher who needs help to get good or better at their job is not offered that assistance.  Every teachers deserves professional development, coaching, and support, especially is this day of educational change.  And it is right and proper for the MEA to be the organization that champions this on behalf of teachers.

In all fairness, I’m responding to what was reported on the news.  MEA leadership might have said these exact things and the reporters chose not to include them in their reports.

But I still believe that an organization would earn more power and cred by taking on the issues of the day and being the ones proposing quality solutions, rather that appearing to defend the least common denominator and waiting around for others to propose solutions and publicly denounce them. The MEA is doing some very progressive work, insuring that teaching be a quality profession contributing to the changing educational landscape.  But at the same time, they are getting the most press for when they simply criticize other’s work to improve education.

Or is perhaps the MEA simply caught between the days of the old unions that defended their workers no matter what, and the new unions that are trying to create a quality profession…

Apple, Textbooks, and Carbon Fibre Buggy Whips…

The other day, Apple held a big education event in New York, focused on textbooks on the iPad. (Info here or watch the event here). Apple released several products and tools, hoping to further impact the education market.

Apple released iBooks 2.0 (supports multimedia in the books, interactive elements, highlighting, note taking, pinch for TOC etc.) and a new category in the store: textbooks. Pearson, DK, and McGraw Hill already have a couple textbooks available. They’re cheaper than a regular text, too: around $15, but I think the goal is to sell one per student, instead of using one with 5-8 students over a period of 5-8 years. (Cool Cat Teacher blogs here about what it was like to work with/test out an interactive text.)

There is a new Mac app (Lion only) called iBooks Author for making your own “textbooks” (think Pages combined with iWeb combined with Keynote). Completed books can be sold in the iBookstore.

Finally, there is a new iTunes U app for iPad which lets teachers harness “courses” based on content from iTunes U, and the addition of tools so you can add your own syllabi, message with your students, make assignments, etc. Looks kind of like if iTunes U, Noteshare, and Newstand combined. Apple also announced that although iTunes U has traditionally been for University use, K-12 can now sign upfor accounts.

I can’t blame Apple for wanting a piece of the textbook market. According to Wired, in 2010, Pearson had over $8 billion in revenues and McGraw-Hill over $2 billion. (Yes. Billion. With a “B”! As in 9 zeros!) And the traditional print publishing industry is struggling. Newspapers, magazines, trade books are are struggling to redefine themselves in a digital world.

What print textbooks share with those other genre’s is that they are not interactive in an age when our students are accustomed to accessing interactive media (as illustrated by Joe’s frustration at his non-notebook computer). At least Apple’s new textbooks and textbook creation tools address this issue and allow publishers to create textbooks with videos, interactive models and other elements. So, if you’re going to use a textbook, I guess I’d rather you use one with interactive elements than a static one…

But in general, I’m not a huge fan of textbooks. I think for me, the problem is that too many places use textbooks AS the curriculum. I’m perfectly happy with good teachers who see textbooks as one educational resource to use as they design (or as students design) learning experiences. But too often it seems the textbook is the only resource. Textbooks are insufficent for the curriclum because they only provide background knowledge. They don’t provide context, or experiences, or allow students to synthesize or apply information. In other words, by themselves, textbooks essentially only provide facts, they don’t help students create meaning.

Textbooks seem out of place in a day when schools are trying to reinvent themselves from a system that was designed to work for only some students. In this economy, we need systems that work for every student. And those systems need to engage students not just in aquiring knowledge, but in creating meaning from it. Textbooks are so “last century”! Given today’s interactive, digital world, educator and blogger Fraser Speirs refers to the new textbooks as “the equivalent of carbon fibre buggy whips.”

In my opinion (and other’s, and other’s, and other’s, and other’s) often the best learning (and teaching) happens when teachers don’t use textbooks. This is especially true, living in a state where every middle school student, and about half the high school students, have a school provided laptop (and all of my district’s kindergarten students have iPads!). You’d think teachers would work with students not only on how to find information, but then also how to leverage their technology to apply, evaluate, and create with that knowledge.


For example, imagine an introductory lesson focused on building a student’s background knowledge on a topic. Instead of having students read a chapter on the causes of the Civil War and then discussing what they read (which, by the way, every single child not only read the exact same description of the causes, but they all have been exposed to only one take on those causes – the textbook’s), have students open their laptops and ask them, “what were the causes of the Civil War?” Students could search and share what they found out. You could ask, “Did anyone find anything different?” You could even compare sources or discuss approaches to surfing and searching. You could have them find perspectives that would reflect substantially different points of view. You could explore and discuss different kinds of sources and the apparent relative value.


Well, maybe not the first time you do this with students, but certainly the more times you do, the more you model for them, and the more they reflect on the process, the more your “introductory” lessons could look like this. And think about the “learning” skills and digital citizenship skills your students would develop!

That all said, these announcements are ripe with possiblities and potential! There is certainly some incremental improvement having texts with interactive elements (still no real model of an interactive text). But I think the understated power of Apple’s announcement last Thursday are iBooks Author and the iTunes U app. I agree with Fraser Speirs’ assessment:

iTunes U is the game changer. Put iBooks Author and iTunes U into the hands of great teachers, put iPads in their students hands, put them all in a room together then step back and see what happens. That’s the ballgame.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to publish a series of posts that explore some of that potential:

  • Product Creation Tools for Students
  • A Platform for Creating On-Demand PD for Teachers
  • Curriculum Creation Tools for Customized Learning

It’s Your Turn:

What was your reaction to Apple’s textbooks announcement? How do you think it will impact schools, education, and educational reform?