SxSW Edu Recap: Sifting Out the Silver Buckshot

Austin Texas in March is essentially dominated by the growing suite of South by Southwest conferences: Education, Interactive, Film, and Music. The Education conference (SxSWEdu) serves as the appetizer course, covering four days with roughly two thousand attendants as opposed to the thirty thousand attendants for interactive. The sheer size of the conference creates a fractured atmosphere. There is an attempt to mitigate that by collecting sessions into themes, but there are twenty different themes. This is further exacerbated by the massive number of sessions at each time slot. It is simply impossible to get more than a tiny sliver of the available content, therefore my experience is entirely colored by my selections, and another attendant could come away with a completely different experience.

In selecting sessions I attempted to bridge my interests in equitable access to education, teacher development, and education policy. This diverse set of interests allowed me to see a range of sessions that included multiple panels, research presentations, and an extended workshop. There was some overlap in these sessions, such as using video in teacher evaluation, however for the majority of the sessions, they stuck within a single theme.

Equity and Opportunity:
The two presentations related to improving educational opportunity that I attended, while not explicitly related, had extremely strong synergy. These were titled “Saving America’s Black Boys” and “Understanding Literature Through Hip Hop.” The first was focused on leveraging STEM education and entrepreneurship with young black men as a way to build their engagement in school, close the opportunity gap, and improve the economic viability of disadvantaged communities. The session on Literature through Hip Hop presented a systematic approach to close reads of difficult figurative text while using hip hop as an example of how culturally relevant curriculum improves student engagement and lowers the opportunity gap in poverty impacted urban schools.

In both of these sessions the speakers spoke honestly and directly about issues of equity in public education and steps by which those inequities can be remedied through inclusive economic competitiveness and culturally relevant, high rigor, humanities education. These two sessions combine to create an important, pincer attack on the racial and economic opportunity gap in public education. John Holifield, Mike Green, and Rhea Williams-Bishop are taking a STEM and economics focused approach to including more black youth in economic development, while Sage Salvo operates from a humanities-centered approach linking high level figurative analysis of literature with hip hop. Both groups of presenters operate from providing traditionally disadvantaged students with extremely high level and high quality curriculum as opposed to remediation. They are honoring the spirit of John Adams’ claim that what is best for the wisest in our community is best for all members of the community.

The two sessions provided significant evidence that their methods work, and by combining inclusive STEM and economics with a culturally inclusive, and academically rigorous approach to humanities we could make very substantial progress in closing the opportunity gap. However, before we can make positive change, we need a system that is willing to unpack its racial baggage and actively and intentionally work against institutionalized racism with compassion and respect for human dignity. As was a theme with all of the sessions offering solutions, we need to address the problem from many angles. It will take a multifaceted approach to achieve the kind of changes we need to see. As John Holifield said it very succinctly during the session on inclusive competitiveness: “there is no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot.” As a system, we need to be willing to use a lot of buckshot in order to solve our issues.

Education Policy:
I was not able to go as deep into education policy as I’d hoped at SxSWEdu. There were simply too many scheduling conflicts between sessions, an issue I repeatedly ran into throughout the conference. Despite the limited number of policy sessions I attended, I was able to gain some important affirmations for ideas that I’ve been working with. Most importantly: education policy is extremely complex, yet it is  routinely discussed in oversimplified terms. This is not unique to education. One need only look at political discussions of healthcare or foreign policy. The distinction with education, however, is that a significant portion of the electorate has a self-perception that they are experts because of their experience with public education either as a student, a parent, or through contact with teachers. Compounding this issue is the fact that educating children is a very high stakes endeavor so there are strong emotions wrapped up in the discussion. Lastly, education is a highly diverse special interest. “What’s best for children,” is an extremely vague position to take and is open to a high degree of interpretation. There is no obvious answer, and there are no positions that are as clear as “end the death penalty.” This weakens education as a political platform.

This political weakness is even more extreme at the national level. There was consensus from a few panelists that the Bush and Obama administrations deserve credit for making education a national issue, however there is little for either party to grab onto as a political discussion point and as such there are no clear positions for major parties to argue for. (There was much prediction that this may change with the introduction of Common Core Standards.) This means that education policy easily stalls at the national level, and to a lesser extent at the state level. This political stagnation has the most negative impact for the equity agenda. Our record on improving educational equity occurs almost entirely at the national level because it takes significant federal dollars to put forth the kind of change required and those changes are usually precipitated by the national courts.

I also attended a session evaluating the teacher accountability agenda. The panel did not disagree as much as I would have liked, however they raised valuable points about the complexity of evaluating teacher impact. There is no single measure that will allow us to understand how much impact a teacher has on a student with any sort of reliability. This was confirmed in another session by a data team from the Austin Integrated School District that spent time presenting their evaluation of multiple measures of teacher evaluation, finding all of their measures to be inadequate in isolation. This highlights the importance of understanding the complexity of education at a deep level as opposed to understanding surface level simplifications. If we only understand the evidence gathered from inaccurate, reductive, measures, we will have no way to determine if we are making appropriate changes.

There are an incredible number of variables that impact a student’s ability to learn from their diet, to prior experience, to what happened to them in the five minutes before they walked into class. There are currently no good measures that can completely isolate how a teacher impacts student education, and there was consensus that standardized tests are particularly limited. As such the recommendation is to include a wide variety of measures from student surveys, to peer observation, to administrator evaluation. Each panelist was very keen to emphasize the need for multiple measures, with Randi Weingarten regularly referring to a dashboard of information, yet each was unwilling to nail down specifics of how much each component should impact a teacher’s evaluation. I agree that teacher evaluation is extremely important, however, evaluation and data collection are not ends in themselves, The information we gain from evaluation is most valuable when it use it to improve our teachers through high quality continuing education.

Teacher Development:
This theme is most directly tied to my current work as an instructional mentor, and as such it is not surprising that in these sessions I found the greatest number of practical links. These are the best practices and concepts that I will be immediately bringing back to my district and my day to day work. In particular I attended valuable sessions on using video in teacher evaluation, improving professional development through problem based learning.

The session on using video in teacher evaluation was essentially a presentation of preliminary findings for the Best Foot Forward (BFF, an intentionally referential acronym) Project by Miriam Greenberg of the Harvard Center for Education Policy. The short version of the story is that video is excellent when used properly. Replacing traditional live observations with video (or adding video to the process) can provide solutions for reliability, time usage, feedback quality, and reflective accuracy. All of these benefits are fairly straightforward and Greenberg cited significant evidence for these results. One can easily have multiple observers to increase reliability, watch the video at an advantageous time to improve time usage, improve feedback by recording voice overs or John Madden style diagrams, and reflective accuracy is increased because all the evidence is preserved and there is no need to rely on memory. None of these issues are perfectly solved (remember silver buckshot, not a bullet) but they are definitely eased. It is easier to reflect accurately with accurate evidence, but a teacher still needs to develop the skill of meaningful reflection. While an administrator could watch a video of a class at any time, they still need to make a choice about finding and preserving adequate time to provide meaningful feedback and maintain fidelity in the entire observation process.

Greenberg also made a compelling argument for having teachers self select which lessons to have observed. She countered the “what if teachers put on a dog and pony show for the camera” concern by reframing the dog and pony show, as a positive practice. If a teacher is concerned with making sure they submit the best lesson possible they will continue to rehearse how to provide the best instruction. If anything teachers leverage high quality techniques more often. Additionally, but self-selecting lessons for observation, teachers are essentially inviting the administrator in as a feedback source and collaborator, making it easier for the administrator to act in the role of instructional leader. This was all supported with data from a study in Hillsborough Florida that compared drop in observation with teacher-selected observation, finding that the two methods showed negligible differences in how teachers were evaluated, while self-selection had substantially higher positive reception from teachers. The evidence that Greenberg presented was extremely positive, and I am interested in leveraging more video in my non-evaluative role as the concerns she presented were all linked to the evaluative aspect and high stakes personnel decisions.

The other practical heavy hitter was a workshop on transformative professional development facilitated by members of the Columbia University Teachers College Center for Technology and School Change (CTSC_TC). I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this session as the description, while interesting, was decidedly vague. It boiled down to using problem based learning as a framework for professional development and continuing education. As soon as I made the PBL connection the obviousness of the benefits slapped me in the face and I spent the entire session wishing I’d thought of it first. Simply put, all the research-backed benefits of PBL for young students are equally viable for adult students in professional learning environments. This means authentic problems and meaningful tasks that are relevant beyond the session will increase learning and engagement, and to top it all off the team from CTSC_TC modeled their theory the entire time.

Throughout the two hour session the presenters set up an authentic problem around developing PBL based, interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum in a middle school. We were tasked, as outside consultants, with making a one-minute pitch to the superintendent to bring him on board with the changes the school was making. Throughout the session the presenters alternated presenting their information with time for each table group to spend time exploring and designing solutions to the problem of bringing the superintendent on board. After learning the theory, we immediately switched into application mode. At the end of the session each group had to create the one minute pitch and either present it or record it.  Our group recorded it and my unscripted work is captured below. I’ve never been that deeply engaged in a traditionally formatted professional learning session. I was able to create deep new learning as well as leverage my prior schema. I will absolutely be using what I learned in this session for the next session of professional development that I design.

This only partially covers my experience at SxSWEdu. I also attended sessions evaluating teacher preparation programs and building classroom community in graduate education. While there was some inconsistency in sessions, I was able to glean valuable learning from each, even if it was a bit of a lesson in how not to present. The conference has a huge amount of content to offer, and I was able to get into many strong sessions. Despite my personal success at the conference, I am concerned that the SxSWEdu, in its extremely fast growth, has suffered from bloat and loss of direction. There was no sense of overall vision to the conference and as such I found a lack of consistency. I only see this becoming exacerbated if the conference continues to grow.

Despite the inconsistency in actual presentations there was an incredibly consistent desire to improve education that was immediately obvious from everyone involved. There was also an understanding that education is a singularly complex endeavor. I was incredibly impressed by the humility of people like Randi Weingarten and Peter Cunningham, in their admission about how much is unknown with regard to what impacts student learning. There were a lot of good intentions, and there was a lot of discussion about the problems in education.

In general I want more solutions. There is very strong evidence about problems in education. We can point to data about writing ability, unequal educational opportunity, the bloated testing environment, and issues of class size. We can discuss the need to balance national standardization and local control of standards and curricula. It’s time to put in the work to solve some of these problems. The presentations by CTSC_TC and Miriam Greenberg were particularly compelling because they put forth possible solutions. Likewise Sage Salvo, Holifield, Green, and Williams-Bishop added their silver buckshot to the collection of possible solutions. I want to add even more. Education is extremely high stakes and there are very limited resources. This is a deadly combination for political stagnation, and a fear of failure. We solve nothing by maintaining the status quo. High level outcomes require high level inputs. We need to commit to funding possible solutions, try them with fidelity, drop the ones that fail, and keep the ones that work.

  1. Andy McCormick said:

    Great summary! Glad you’re getting this input, building on your ideas, seeing where you fit in the bigger picture of educational policy development.

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