Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Some thoughts on seniority...

I recently read an AP story about a study by the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research. Researchers concluded that seniority-based layoff policies were likely to have negative consequences for students.
Seniority-based systems make sense.
How many years have you been a professional? Would you not say that you are better today than you were when you began your career? Wouldn’t you say that experience and professional development have been the two major reasons why you are a better professional today than you were when you began your career? Couldn’t most of us say the same thing?
Seniority rules make sense because everyone gets better at their profession as they gain experience and wisdom.
Seniority rules are in place because, when an organization needs to reduce it’s work force, the organization should retain the most experienced professionals.
Seniority rules also came into being because of some corrupt principals.
Unprincipled principals once abused their arbitrary power to lay-off teachers. Sometimes they let go of teachers who came out of the closet, asked too many awkward questions at meetings, held contrary political opinions, or refused sexual advances.
If unchecked power to fire and lay-off teachers were returned, some principals may be sorely tempted to lay-off 15- and 20-year veterans, without a thought of their effectiveness in the classroom, knowing that they can roll the dice on a fresh-faced college grad. The new hire may be good, or s/he may be bad, but either way, s/he be half the cost of the veteran, quite an easy solution to annually shrinking budgets.
Even if the principal at a large high school were to spend EVERY DAY visiting classrooms and watching his teachers, with over 100 professionals to visit, she would not be able to spend more than a day and a half with each teacher. She could not begin to make informed judgments about the quality of each and every teacher. It is unreasonable to expect her to make informed decisions about who to lay off, if seniority rules were suddenly stripped away.
One may counter, “That’s why we need objective test scores to tell us which teachers are effective and which are not.” The problem with the test-score worshippers is their unwillingness to consider the mountains of studies and research that have been telling us for decades that standardized tests only inform us about low-level thinking and basic fact memorization and none of the skills that most folks would equate to the word “educated.” Children who do tremendously well on these tests often flounder when asked to apply their memorized facts to answer a complex question or to show multiple ways to solve a problem.
All of this said, there are some teachers who should consider moving on to other professions. Everyone has an opinion on this, and every person I know can name a teacher that she or he knows who is a “bad teacher.” Heck… some of my colleagues or former students may even think of my name as an example of a “bad teacher.”
It should be easier to remove incompetent teachers from their classroom duties. However, whatever the next generation teacher evaluation system look likes, it must be both reasonable for school districts and fair for teachers.
Until that day, I prefer to keep lay-off decisions based on seniority. That way, at least I know that when lay-offs come, our most experienced professionals will remain in the classroom serving their students.
What do you think?  Should schools continue to use seniority to decide which teachers are laid off?  Should teachers be ranked as effective based on the scores their children get on the standardized tests and lay-off determined by those rankings?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Clinical vs. Theoretical? Yes, both.

The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education issued a report this week arguing that teacher preparation programs, who have been traditionally heavy on theory and lighter on in-class internships should turn this model on it's head.  The recommendation is for the majority of a pre-service teacher to spend many more hours with a mentor teacher in a public school and far less time in their university classes.

I don’t think needs to be turned on its head. I think it needs to be expanded. Part of being an educator is being a scholar. We should be scholars of our fields (history, science, language, mathematics, art, etc…) and we should be scholars of educational theory, philosophy, and pedagogy. Reducing the number of classroom hours in order to increase the number of at-school hours is misguided and will result in a further deskilling of teachers that will eventually turn us from professionals to administrators of curriculum.

At the same time, some of the most important lessons I’ve learned have been at my schools where no university experience could have prepared me. When I began teaching fifteen years ago, I frankly expected to eventually mourn the death of a student. My own high school graduating class mourned the loss of three of our fellows to drinking and driving. When I heard on the 3rd of January that Ryan was dead, I was shocked but ready to handle the grieving I expected my classes would be experiencing. When I learned that he had been gunned down in front of his girlfriend and baby daughter by another teenager who mistook him for someone else, I was too shocked to cope effectively with the day.

What I am most concerned with proposals like NCATE’s proposed reforms is that these reforms are being born at the close of the NCLB era but before the functional birth of the Common Core Standards’s era.

Perhaps NCLB’s most damaging legacy is the decade long process of redefining the concept of “good schools” into a number of a fill-in-the-blank test. As this era sunsets, we are experiencing strong efforts to redefine “good teaching” and the behaviors that teachers can do that result in high scores on fill-in-the-black tests. I sincerely hope that NCLB does not succeed in redefining “well-educated person” as a high score on a fill-in-the-blank test.

I understand how emotionally satisfying it is for most people to look at one simple number and infer from it a judgement on a very complex system. It’s easy and satisfying to see a test score going up and think “good school,” “good teachers,” “well-educated children.”

We get the same feelings from watching the Stock Market go up or the stock values of a company go up. Stock up equals successful company. Stocks down equals failing company.

I want to remind each of us that Toyota’s stocks were climbing while they were making cars that would have unintended acceleration problems that caused dozens of deaths and injuries. BP’s stocks were going up right before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Lehman Brothers’s stock was going up right before the bubble burst.

Our very best education experts tell a similar tale for schools. Rising scores on standardized tests are actually in indication of deep problems at a school and not improvement. This is because high scores on tests like the CST and the High School Exit Exam reflect superficial memorization of facts rather than deep complex thinking.

I get worried thinking that California’s teacher preparation programs may begin training a new generation of teachers to very good at the failing practices and processes of the last century.

I may be wrong, NCATE’s recommendations may in fact be dove-tailed in with the new Common Core Standards and the new generation of authentic assessments being presently designed for use in 2014. I certainly hope it is.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Formative Teacher Evaluations

I wonder what it might look like if we had "Formative Teacher Evaluations."

It's not the evaluation itself that feels like a game of gotcha, it's the high-stakes that are attached.  When evaluations are used to make staffing decisions like retention and dismissal, then teachers become interested in "getting through" the evaluation process.  I've heard stories about how teachers would behave complete different on a day when they know that they are going to be visited than on a typical day.

Most teachers have never left the education system.  It's important to remember this.  What does this mean?  How is the education system different than the worlds of science or business?  How does this culture affect teacher evaluation and school reform?

The education system is a universe populated correct answers.  The correct answers live in the teacher's edition of the text, in the teacher's mind, or at the feedback end of an exam or product.  In the science and science and business universe, there are right answers too, but in these spaces, right answers are the tools that we use to find the answers that no one knows.

Teachers who have never left the educational universe continue to look at their work through these lenses.  First, there is an authority whose supposed to know the right answer (the administrator, the District, the State).  Currently, observations and evaluations are like tests and quizzes for the teacher.  Some teachers do habitually well on these assessments; these teachers are not worried about evaluations.  Some teachers do poorly.  

Just like in school, it's the ones who do poorly who have captured our attention.  We can see parallels between a teacher who has done poorly on an evaluation and a student who has done poorly on an exam.  

Perhaps they will see the failure as a function of their actions.  "I didn't study as well as I should have," says the student.  "I didn't plan enough material for the period, and I didn't have any systems in place to use the last 10 minutes of class effectively," says the teacher.

Perhaps they will see the failure as a function of their personalities.  "I'm just not smart.  I'm going to drop out," says the student.  "I'm not a good teacher; I need to find another profession," says the teacher.

Perhaps they will try to escape the shame of failure by shifting the blame away from them or their behavior.  "The teacher doesn't explain the subject well," says the student.  "The principal couldn't do any better; and these kids would behave if there were real consequences to their behavior," says the teacher.

What if teacher evaluations, and for that matter student assessments, formative in nature?  We have been actively looking at shifting classroom culture away from summative assessments.  We've been actively trying to deal with the student in my above examples; we try to use the assessments not as motivators or judgments of behaviors, but as feedback for the teacher and students together.  

When teachers use formative assessments in the classroom, the focus moves away from what a student did right or wrong.  Instead, the formative assessment tells the teacher and the student what each should do next.  The student failed the section on dividing fractions.  This means that the teacher needs to find some time to sit down with the students and explain this concept a different way.  It also means that the teacher may need to design a new learning experience that will help the student learn the concept.  This same formative assessment tells the student that s/he needs to find some additional time learning about dividing fractions.  It tells the student that s/he needs to be open and willing to try the new learning experience and try to learn the concept a second time.

A poor teacher observation could work the same way.  The principal walked into my class during the last 10 minutes and saw children chatting, off task, and wandering the room.  This tells the principal that I need some more training on planning lessons to take the entire class period, and/or that I need some fresh ideas for 10-minute soak activities for my subject matter that would look fun for kids while being instructional.  This same observation tells me the same information.

Teacher observations and student outcome data can and should be used to drive the professional development for departments, small learning communities, and schools.  PD time and activities can and should be focused on the current needs of teachers, with schools and districts allowing for multiple groups of teachers to be working on different types of PD in parallel; call this differentiated PD.

For pre-service and 1st - 3rd year teachers, the data of teacher formative assessment should also go back to the teacher-training program they came from to help guide the evolution of their practice.  The results of their teacher observations, student outcome data, and teacher reflections on the PD that they have gone to as a results of this data should all go back to the university, TfA, OTF, or where ever.

Turning teacher observations and student outcome data into formative assessments for teachers have positive outcomes:

1. Teachers will feel less threatened by the observations and data. 

2. It will build a culture of trust between administrators and teachers since both sides are actively trying to use these tools to help teachers get better.

3. It will inform our teacher credential programs how they can evolve and improve

Someday, down the road, we may find ourselves in a place where a teacher should be let go, because even after multiple attempts with PD and training, they are still not performing.  This is still going to be a difficult time for the teacher and the administrator.  Just like in the classroom, there might still be a time when after all of the formative assessments and interventions, the child still fails the class or still is suspended or expelled for his/her behavior.  Using formative assessments in the classroom wont make this go away.  Likewise, teacher formative assessments wont remove the problem of having to fire a teacher.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

NYC Forgoes following the LA Times in Publishing Value-added Rankings of Teachers

Today, the NYC public schools said they would not give value-added data and teacher rankings to several media outlets.  I am glad they chose not to.

At first blush, most folks seem to like the idea of the “Value-added” system of teacher evaluation.  It seems intuitively satisfying to think of a system that can rule out the many non-academic issues, school-wide issues, societal issues that children walk into class with like a loaded backpack.  With “Value-added” we seem to think we’ve got a system that will isolate the contribution to a students education caused only by her/his teacher.  Before choosing to not offer the data, a NYC Education Department spokesperson defended the earlier position by saying that the department, “believes that the Value-added model is an accurate evaluation of teachers.”

“Believe” is a really good word to use.  Folks seem to believe in the value-added model because the rhetoric feels so gosh darn solid.

The science of value-added looks a lot different.  Just yesterday, the Annenberg Institute released a report detailing the chimera-like realities of the Value-added model.

1. The quality of the teacher is the most significant factor that school’s can control in a child’s education.  The quality of the teacher, and all other factors in a school’s control are actually quite small.  The research actually points to teacher quality being only 10-20% of a child’s overall education.  Family, poverty, and community factors are still more significant.

2. The test scores that the Value-added model is based are highly suspect.  Even at their very best, they only measure a tiny sub-set of all of the things we hope children learn in school.  Economist Alan Blinder argued in 2009 that the skills vital for success in the labor market in the near future, such as “Creativity, inventiveness, spontaneity, flexibility and interpersonal relations” will be those least amenable to standardized testing.

3. Value-added is grading teachers on a curve.  It is, by design, a system that ranks teachers.  By design, 50% of all teachers will rank “Average.”  By design, another 20% will be labeled “Below Average” and another 20%, “Above Average.”  The top 5% will be called, “Excellent,” while the bottom 5% will be labeled “Failures.”  It will always look this way, no matter how many “Failures” we fire.  There will always be the worst 5%.   A district or school’s dream of having all “Excellent” teachers is impossible to achieve.

“The promise that value-added systems can provide such a precise, meaningful, and comprehensive picture is not supported by the data,” concludes the Annenberg report, “Moreover, the set of skills that can be adequately assessed in a manner appropriate for value-added assessments represents a small fraction of the goals our nation has set out for our students and schools.”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why Teachers Leave Our Profession: Parents

“Why did my daughter get in trouble for needing to go to the bathroom?” asked the angry voice on the other side of the phone.  We had no salutation, no small talk, no wishes for a pleasant start to one another’s day.  We had my self-identification, then her accusation-question.

“Do you believe that your daughter got in trouble for needing to go to the bathroom?” I replied.

“That is what she told me!” she shouted.  Coming through the line, I could imagine hearing her own stories from the first eighteen years of her life.  I knew from her daughter that mom was a former student at the very continuation high school now attended by her daughter, the topic of our conversation.  I could feel the weight of her experiences with public schools.  They were not places of learning.  They were not places of curiosity, or investigation.  For her, they had been places where conformity and obedience were the values of the institution.  For her, they had been places were punishments and rewards were used to cajole and force children into compliance.  For her, they were places where nails that stuck out were hammered down.  I could hear her frustration, anger and fear.  Her daughter was now the latest victim of that same system.  Teachers and principals were now unfairly picking on her daughter.  For crying our loud, she had only needed to go to the bathroom.

“I believe that is what she told you.” I replied, the smile on my face reflected in my tone.  “That wasn’t my question.  My questions was, ‘Do you believe your daughter when she tells you that she got into trouble for needing to go to the bathroom?’.”  This question caused a long pause and the parent reflected on her question, her daughter’s claim, and the lack of logic therein.

“Well, what is your side of the story?” she asked.

“Your daughter came into class ten minutes late, chatting with a friend of hers who is not enrolled in my class.” I began.  “It took me another five minutes to get the friend out of class and heading back to her own.  As soon as the friend left, your daughter shouted, ‘I need to go to the bathroom!’  Frankly, I didn’t believe her, but hey, coincidence happens, so I said, ‘Wait five minutes for your friend to find her way back to her class, then you can go to the bathroom.’  You daughter then stormed out of class, slamming the door behind her.  This is why she is in trouble.”

“She didn’t tell me any of that.”

“I believe you when you say she didn’t.”

Parents love their children.  They will protect them with all of the ferocity of a mama bear protects her cub.  This is the right and natural order of things.  Teachers who do not already know this, will learn it soon.

Children lie.  Frankly, we all do, but children want to have fun and, when caught, they would like to avoid trouble.  Getting away with a lie is a wonderful way to avoid trouble.  Teachers and parents who don't know this, need to learn it.  Like yesterday!

I’ve been really blessed with all of the wonderful parents whom I am in contact with at Skyline High School.  I think our Advisory system is a contributing factor in that.  Instead of feeling responsible for all one-hundred and thirty children I teach in a day, I, their English, biology, and math teachers all share the one-hundred-thirty and we each take responsibility to mentor about thirty-five of them.  Since I only have thirty-five families to call and talk to, I have the time to actually build relationships with my children’s’ parents before there is trouble.

But I have heard stories…  The story above, where mom believed her daughter’s story is not unusual.  Our school has plenty of children who are experiencing their own personal wars against conformity, butting heads with teachers and administration.  Many of these children have parents who butted heads with teachers and vice principals in their own days.   I’ve heard plenty of stories of parents who readily believe any lie their children tell them; who think that teachers are “out to get” their children, just like they were “out to get” them a generation ago.

I have heard stories of parents badgering and bullying teachers until a grade was changed or a consequence for behavior dropped.  I heard of parents, grown adults, charging into classrooms looking to fight the 14 year old child who was bullying their baby.

I seen parents come to school high, to defend their child’s use of marijuana. 

Perhaps the saddest, were the parents who made their child re-enroll in school every four months or so, to stave off the cancellation of their SSI check.  After three or four days of attendance, the child would disappear and the parents would be unresponsive to our efforts to contact them.  We wouldn’t see them for four months or so, when the SSI was threatened again.

Let me be crystal clear about this:  90% of the parents I have had contact with over the past 14 years are WONDERFUL!  They are looking out for their child and realize that the teachers are too.

But that 10%...  they can drive me crazy, and at the end of the day, when I’m telling stories, it’s the 10% who seem to take up all my time.

Tune in tomorrow, when our intrepid teacher takes on his own colleagues..... 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Why Teachers Leave Our Profession: Non-Academic Student Needs

Last year at Skyline High School, our beloved senior, Eric, was murdered while celebrating his eighteenth birthday.

Years ago, in another school and another city, I am wakened by a 3AM Sunday phone call from a mom.  Her son, my student, was dead, killed by his own hand.

I called a student’s mom to talk about where the child might be, since he hasn’t been coming to class.  He’s a runaway, who, for want of some 14-year-old’s idea of freedom has been running to the homes of a friend whose parent is addicted to drugs, his friend’s parent, “Doesn’t care what I do,” the child told his own mother as an explanation to why he had run.  He thought his mother’s idea of school, and chores, and homework was “unfair” and preferred the lassie-faire attitude of the friend’s parent.

Another student comes into class crying because the boy she “likes” is seeing another girl.

A different year and a different girl, and that time the love triangle ends with violence.

Another child, who isn’t coming to my class, is caught smoking cigarettes, and in possession of crack cocaine.

Another child, and another school in another city confides in me that she has been selling herself for meth.

Another child, a few years ago, is cutting my class, wandering the hills behind our school, and finds the skeletal remains of a child who had gone missing a year before.

I tell you these stories not in some curmudgeonly way of shaking my virtual fist in impotent rage and type…  “Kids these Days!”

Quite on the contrary, I love each and every one of the children whose stories I told above.  When we could, the parents, administrators, and I spent hours trying to help the child make the situation better.  The times we couldn't, we held each other and cried over our loss.  They are my kids.  They are my classroom “sons” and “daughters.”  They and their parents know I’ve got their backs – even if that means I am riding them to do better.

I tell you these stories to shine a light on some of the non-academic issues facing our children.  These stories are from Oakland, and the suburbs and the country.  None of them have to do with why Germany and Italy turn to fascism after the Great Depression, nor do they have anything to do with the three branches of government.  These stories are not the topics I was planning of working on when I chose to enter the teaching profession fifteen years ago.

My point is this – teacher-training programs do not prepare candidates for the mountain of non-academic issues that children bring with them to school each day.  The situation is even more extreme in our neediest schools, where many new teachers start, and too quickly end, their careers. 

Can you blame them when they quit after only one or two years?  They aren’t ready for the headache and the heartache of the stories I detailed above.  Would you do better?  If you think so, I am sure Skyline is going to have some openings this June and we’d love to have you join are team and help us make a positive impact in our children’s lives.

Tune in tomorrow, when our intrepid teacher tackles the "third rail of teaching".... parents.

Why do great teachers leave our profession? There are several reasons:

High-stakes testing:  First introduced as a way to measure the quality of education at schools, test scores have now become the educational goal at far too many schools.

What do these bubble-in-the-answer-test actually measure?  At their very best, they measure a child’s ability to identify a correct answer from a group of red-herrings.  Critical thinking, writing, analyzing, connecting, and using information in real-world ways; these skills are being pushed out in favor or low skilled, drill and memorize test prep.  Teachers enter our profession saying things like, “I want to teach children to read and love literature”, “I want to help children speak a foreign language”, “I want to watch children experiment with science and explore their world.”  No one every says, “I want to help children score higher on state-mandated tests.”

Unfortunately, that is what they are being asked to do.   Ten years ago, my then principal said, “Don’t worry about the tests.  We will never teach to the tests.  We teach our curriculum and the tests will take care of themselves.”  Five years later a different principal said, “This is not the cruise we signed up for.  But it is the cruise we’re on.”  Then, just last week, my principal said, “You know what your PowerStandards are.  The state has told us.  We know exactly how many test items apply to each standard.  The state has told us.  Those are the standards you should make sure to do a great job on.  Don’t worry about the others.  Now I know what some of you teachers are going to say, ‘Does that mean I am teaching to the tests?’  Yeah.  You are.”

In just ten years, I seen the progression from “We will never teach to the tests” to teaching to the tests.  I’ve seen dozens of self-styled educational experts come to my district with strategies and tools that are “research driven and shown to be effective.”  Which really means, these techniques raise tests scores.  I’ve seen teachers labeled ineffective because of chronically low test scores and other labeled effective because of high test scores.

I haven’t seen a teacher labeled great because her students can write creative essays or his students can research an excellent paper, or her students can conduct an outstanding experiment, or his students demonstrate the curiosity to ask questions and show the skills to find answers.  Lately, it’s been all about test scores.

I haven’t seen anyone ask the question, “At what costs?”  Sure this technique may raise test scores, but at what costs?  Sure this teacher has gotten her students test scores up, but at what costs?  Sure this school have great test scores, but at what costs? 

If test scores go up, but children do not remember what they have been taught, are we really better off?  If test scores go up, but children’s curiosity is lost, are we really better off?  If tests scores go up, but children learn that learning is memorizing facts for a test, are we really better off?  If we train a whole generation of people with amazing skills at finding a correct answer from a group of red herrings, are we really better off?

A future manager at Apple may ask this future engineer for a creative idea for the next iWhatever.  That engineer, with years of high-test scores behind her may say, “I can’t think of anything new or creative.  But if you put the correct answer here with three or four incorrect ones, I will totally spot the correct one.”  Are we really better off?

Tomorrow, tune in again, when our intrepid teacher comments about the harrowing adventures of new teachers in Non-Academic Needs Land!!!!!!!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The High Stakes of High-stakes Testing

When did we loose the fight over test scores?  When did good schools get re-defined as school that score high on the test?  When did good teachers get redefined as teachers whose kids got high scores on the test?  When did learning get redefined as the ability to spot the right answer from amid three red herrings?
Imagine a world that worked like this:
Manager to Engineer at Apple, "Hey, we need a new idea for the iPad."  Engineer, "I can't do that, but if you put a new idea mixed in with three old ideas, I can totally spot the new one."
Patient to Doctor, "I need a diagnosis for my illness."  Doctor, "I can't do that, but if you go hide in that group of well people, I can totally spot you."
How important, really, is the skill to recognize a right answer from a group of red herrings?  As the all-judging testing advocates seem to think, this is a hugely important skill.
It's NOT.  It's just a really, really easy way to see if kids know a fact.  We've got lots and lots of ways to see if kids know a fact.  Can they use that fact in an essay?  Can they use that fact to build a project?  Can the use that fact in a performance?  The problem is that assessing the child's mastery of the fact while looking at the project, essay, or performance is time and money consuming.
I understand why these tests are here.  People have lost faith in us as professionals.  Too many kids in the 1980's and 1990's were graduating from high school illiterate.  But we really can find a better way to look over the teacher's shoulder and see if they are doing a good job.  Testing isn't a good way.
A business friend of mine once said that in any business solution you've got "fast," "cheap" and "good" - pick two.
In assessing if kids are learning we've got "comprehensive (meaning looking at every single child)", "cheap", and "good" - pick two.
Right now, we've picked "comprehensive" and "cheap."  I think we need to think again.

The triumvirate of so-called school reform

The triumvirate of so-called school reform: Testing, Accountability, Market-Driven School Choice.

These are not ideas to fix schools.  In fact, they are ideas that have nothing to do with education.  They are the ultimate do-nothing solution.

Testing – is Monday morning quarterbacking.  After the year is long over and teachers can do nothing to help a child re-learn concepts that she didn’t get, pundits look at the test scores and say… “yep, you didn’t do so well.”  It’s like a fan telling the quarterback he shouldn’t have thrown left cause the ball got intercepted.  Easy call – after the play is over.

Accountability – “Shame on you for not doing well with last years children.  You better do better this year, or else…”  The next set of kids walk in the door with entirely new needs and skills.  They bear no relation to the kids who have left the past June.  Sure, if we take the average for the city or the nation, we see similarities, but those averages mean nothing when one teacher looks at 32 new shiny faces.  It’s like that same football fan assuming that next weeks opponent will be just like last week’s. 

Market-Driven School Choice – “Let’s that group, or that person open a charter school.  If she or he has a better idea, then parents/customers will flock there, if not, then that school will fail and close.”  Here politicians and pundits really show their colors.  THEY DON’T HAVE ANY IDEA AS TO HOW TO FIX THE PERFORMANCE GAP OR IMPORVE EDUCCATION OR EVEN RAISE TEST SCORES; THEY WANT SOMEONE ELSE TO DO IT FOR THEM.

That’s their plan – do nothing.  No knew idea.  No help.  Just Monday morning quarterback, shame and blame, and wait for someone else to solve the problem for them.

That’s their big idea.  That’s what they think Public Education Reform looks like.

I wish I could get paid big bucks to stand on the sideline, tell the ones who are really working what they’re doing wrong after it is too late to fix anything and after it is obvious to anyone with eyes that something went wrong; wag my finger at them, and hope someone else comes up with a better idea…

No wait.  I don’t want that job.  I’ve got too much self-respect and too much love for kids.  I think I’ll stick with trying to actually make public education better.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

7 Essential Skills You Didn't Learn in College

7 Essential Skills You Didn't Learn in College

Wired Magazine recently published a fascinating feature about potential classes for digital-age students.

"It's the 21st century. Knowing how to read a novel, craft and essay, and derive a slope of a tangent isn't enough anymore," the article begins. Notice first, this article isn't dismissing traditional skills that will continue to be important for the next few generations. Despite the break-neck speeds by which technology is changing the art of communication, reading, writing, and mathematics will remain important skills. However, new skills such as knowing, "how to swim through the data deluge, optimize your prose for Twitter, and expose statistics that lie," will soon join the traditional "R's" as essential for tomorrow/today's workplace.

Imagined courses at Wired University include the following:

Statistical Literacy: "We are now 53 percent more likely than our parents to trust polls of dubious merit. (that figure is totally made up. See?)" quips this class prospectus.

Post-State Diplomacy: In a world where nation-states must negotiate with non-state agencies, terrorist organizations and multi-national corporations who utilize the internet for recruitment and propagation of their agendas, national governments will need to learn how to create and share a counter narrative promoting the values and interest of their state while encouraging these non-state to engage in peaceful dialogue to resolve conflict.

Remix Culture: the Digital Generation is just as engrossed with remixed and mashed-up forms of art as they are in creating new forms of art. While using past influences are noting new, the Flintstones are simply the Honeymooners drawn in an imaginary pre-historic world, the Dig-Gen are more overt in using pre-exisiting film, music and text to share new ideas and new interpretations of old ideas.

Applied Cognition: Digital Age children are learning in ways vastly different than Boomers or Gen-X'ers did. Learning how the brain works will offer insight to both teachers of the next generation who want to be for effective with their students' learning, and with Dig-Gen'ers themselves who want to be more effective in managing their own learning.

Writing for New Forms: How can students craft a effective message in 140 characters for Twitter, an essay for their blog, or an expanded idea for their e-book? How will they mix media, text, links, images, music, or film for their enhanced e-book or website?

Waste Studies: Not only are oil, electricity, and consumer products finite resources and problematic waste, but so is our time and intellectual power. Learning how to manage our waste will make us "smarter consumers, investors, and conservers."

Domestic Tech: "We lost touch with the act of making, repairing, and upgrading physical objects," and our throw-away society is rapidly becoming untenable.

What do you think? Are these imagined classes going to be important for the next generation's course of study? Are there classes that Wired didn't imagine that should become a part of the next generation's course catalogue?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

LA teacher received top evaluation before suicide

LA teacher received top evaluation before suicide

A Los Angeles Unified School District official says Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., a teacher who committed suicide last week, had received a very good performance evaluation.

So what does this mean?

Some people in the educational reform movement are going to see this as evidence that the teacher-evaluation system is broken. They might say that teachers are always on their very best behavior when the principal is in the room watching. They might say that this proves that teachers know how to be effective, but are too lazy to do that quality of instruction each and every day like our children deserve. For them, this is will be proof positive that teacher evaluations have to be tied to objective measures of student performance, in other words, test scores.

Other people in the educational reform movement will look at this and see evidence that the tests are flawed. They will say that learning and teachers are far too complicated activities to be measured by a one-shot-bubble-in test. They'll say that some children get frighted by high-stakes test and do more poorly that they could have because of test anxiety. They might also point out that only a few apathetic and angry children bubbling at random will greatly effect a classes, and thus a teachers, score. For them, this will be proof positive that high-stakes test are giving us a misguided view of classrooms and student learning.

While I hesitate to play judge and tell you who is right... I do suspect that neither side will be much interested in listening to the other.

Can We Test for "Joy of Learning"

I was reading Jonathan Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher and came across this quote:

Do the officials "... who's setting education policy policy these days every speaks about the sense of fun that children have, or ought to have, in public school or the excitement that they take when they examine interesting creatures such as beetle-bugs and ladybugs and other oddities of nature that they come upon - or even merely whether they are happy children and enjoy the hours that they spend with us in school."

Is there anyone out there who is designing an assessment about the joy of learning?  Are there policy makers or pundits who even care about this?  If kids are getting higher test scores and are learning that school is boring, should we call that a win?

In his book, Meeting Students Where They Live, Richard Curwin asks a similar question.  He thinks that educators should be asking the question, "At what costs?" more often when confronted with the newest reform trend.  Sure, this instructional program or classroom management technique may result in higher test scores, but at what costs?

When a child, or young adult, feels joy in learning; when her curiosity is fed, she will remain motivated to learn for years after he formal education is over.  But is school becomes drudgery, then the desire to learn may shut down as soon as the goal, the grade or diploma, is achieved.  Heck, we often see motivation and the joy of learning shut down long before the goal is won.  Then we witness the child withdraw further and further away from schooling.

When a child withdraws from school, it's a problem.  When she withdraws from learning and curiosity, it's a tragedy.

We can assess how well our children enjoy learning while we are assessing how well they are learning.  The problem is that assessing joy of learning is an expensive idea.  It take adults spending time with kids, talking to them about their experiences in school.  Kids can't bubble in an answer to a survey question, "Do you enjoy school?" or "Are you curious?" and pretend like this is meaningful information.

In assessing learning we can make that assessment
1. Widespread - looking at every kid
2. Inexpensive and Easy to Administrate
3. Meaningful
but we can only have two of these three.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Shaming the Teacher: The LA Times faulty logic and it’s tragic consequences

In August, the LA times published a list of all of the city’s teachers, raking them as “least effective,” “less effective,” “average,” “more effective,” and “most effective.”

This post will not dig too deeply into the problem of the study, which relies on a single measure, the California Standards Test, for it’s data.  I’ll save that for another post.  Today, all I’ll say it this:

1. At their very best, standardized test are only an imperfect snap-shot 
    of children’s learning;
2. The most consistent predictor of how a child will perform on one of 
     these test in her/his parents income level;
3. Because of apathy or anxiety, children generally know more about 
    a subject than a test shows; and
4. Using test scores to redefine “learning” is a dangerous trend for 
    public education.

In this post, we’re going to look at the faulty logic that shame motivates behavioral changes.

“If shame changed behavior, we’d all be thin,” said my Weight Watchers coach years ago.  Overweight people, like myself, are bombarded with overt and covert messages telling us that we should feel ashamed for being big, for eating too much or eating unhealthy foods.  The looks, I’ve gotten buying a dozen doughnuts for the staff…  as if I’m going to go out to my car and eat all twelve myself, washing them down with a quart of chocolate milk.

Shame does not produce a change of behavior.  Quite the opposite, it produces defensiveness, anger, depression, self-loathing, and reinforces the very behaviors at the core of the “Shame” dynamic.  That shopkeeper looking at me that way made me angry.  What jerk.  You know what would make me feel better?  A second doughnut.  Ugh… I can’t believe I ate three doughnuts.  I am a fat, pathetic loser…

Such a productive cycle we have here.

The process is not all that similar with teachers and our current trend to identify the so-called worst and get rid of them.  Let’s imagine the world that the LA Times must think it’s living in where these tactics work for positive change…

LA Times, “Some of you teachers are not doing a very good job!  Children aren’t learning!  We know this because they aren’t scoring high enough on this test here!  We’re going to publish your names and tell everyone how you’re not doing a good job!”

Teacher, “OMG, LA Times!  I had no idea that the problem of student learning for so important!  But now that you’ve called me “less effective” for all the world to see, I understand how important children are.  Luckily, I’ve been holding back a lot of my time and energy loafing around the internet and watching TV, so I can start giving 110% right now!  Thank you LA Times for showing me the error of my ways!”

Who lives in a world like that?  Who lives in a world where shaming people and calling them names actually gets you what you want?

Back on planet Earth, we can see the typical reaction to the Shame dynamic playing itself out in California.  Some teachers are angry, calling for a boycott of the LA Times.  Many of us are defensive, trying to shift the blame onto students or parents or administrators, or politicians. 

Some of us are possibly feeling  depression and self-loathing like 39-year-old Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., a fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, who was labeled “less effective” by the LA Time.  Mr. Ruelas was a well-respected veteran teacher who did not shrink from the task of teaching at a school in an impoverished and violent neighborhood in LA.  According to his colleagues, Mr. Ruelas was despondent over his ranking in the days leading up to his apparent suicide. 

We cannot shame our way to a better public school system.  Teachers like Mr. Ruelas are heroes for their willingness to teach in poor, violent neighborhoods in our cities.  The parents living in those neighbors are heroes for trying to help their children go further then they currently are.  The students in those schools are heroes for walking though those violence and crime-ridden streets to get to school each day.  We should honor these people like the heroes they are rather than pointing at them and saying that they are the cause of the misery that are working so hard to combat.

It’s like were blaming the fire department for causing the fire because they aren’t putting it out as fast as we would like.  It’s like blaming the police for crimes because they aren’t arresting criminals fast enough.  It’s like blaming ministers for the divorce rate.  It’s like blaming doctors for making us sick because we are not healing fast enough.  We can see how of the four above examples are crazy, yet, at the same time, we go right on blaming students, parents, and teachers because public education is not raising children out of poverty and into college and careers fast enough.

We do need to identify teachers who are making great strides to educate children in our impoverished communities.  We need to look at what they are doing and see if other teachers can try some of their ideas and have similar success.  We need to help struggling teachers with new ideas and time to plan and collaborate.  However, making those ranking public, embarrassing and shame teachers must be avoided.

Shaming teachers won’t help.

A Longer School Year

Yesterday, the President called for a longer school year.  He mentioned that American children go to school about a month less than other industrial nations each year.  

Most teachers are in support of a longer school day and a longer school year. We recognize the learning loss that occurs each summer. We also wouldn't mind seeing kids getting high-quality tutoring after school, or having our kids for longer periods through-out the school day.

But please do not assume that teachers are willing to provide those added services free of charge. 

Many so-called educational reformers like to decry the number of hours teachers work. When they talk about this, they only mention the number of days and hours that a school district can mandate through their contract with the local teachers union. Using myself in Oakland as an example, that comes to 185 workdays per year and 7 1/2 hours each of those days. 

These so-called reformers never want to talk about the actual numbers of hours that teachers work. They don't want to talk about the hours I am grading student essays on a Saturday or Sunday. They don't want to talk about how I arrive at school 90 minutes early each day putting the final touches on a lesson, making photocopies, and writing on the white board. They don't want to talk about the stack of papers the average teacher lungs home each day. They never see the days I spend each summer revamping old lessons to make them better or dreaming up entirely new lessons I am excited to share with my future classes.  They seem to forget how the teacher answered the 8PM e-mail and made phone calls to parents around dinnertime.

This is all work, too. The reality remains, and is shown in numerous studies, that average teacher puts in the same number of work hours in 185 work days as other professionals put in over a 250 work-day year.

All the while, teachers are paid much lower than their colleagues in professions requiring similar education backgrounds. Using myself as an example, with a graduate degree and fifteen years of experience, I receive about $68,000 / year teaching in Oakland. That is less than a starting salary in the private sector for someone with analogous educational training.

The President’s idea of an additional month of school would result in about an additional 15% workload for me.  I would do it… for a 15% raise.

When teachers push back against school district and demand more money for extra work, the typical response is a guilt trip akin to, “We need to do it for the children.”  Teachers are then casts as children-hating ogres for being unwilling to work 11 hour-days instead of 10 for the same low wages.  Too often that guilt trip works on teachers, precisely because we love our kids.

I tried to see if “for the children” might actually be a silver-bullet for public education.  Perhaps we could make “doing it for the children” a plausible solution to the longer school day and longer school year dilemma.  So I did a little experiment.

First, I talked to my landlady.  I asked her a 15% reduction in my rent, “for the children.”  She said, “no.”  After that, I went to Trader Joe’s and asked if I could receive 15% off my purchases there, “for the children.”  The manager said, “no.”  After that, I went to Chevron to see if I could get 15% off my purchase of gasoline for my car, “for the children.”  Again, the answer was, “no.”  I got so discouraged that I stopped asking after this.  It seemed that no one was willing to give 15% more for free, “for the children.”

So I'm willing to work longer hours each day and more days each year in order to help my children learn and remember more... but I'm not willing to do it for free.  Is Oakland Unified School District, the state of California, or America willing to pay me to provide these services?  They should.  They should do it, “for the children.”

Monday, September 27, 2010

Another musing about teacher tenure...

Once upon a time, Administrators ruled their schools. If the children were too noisy, a teacher might get fired. If a teacher was outed as gay, a teacher might get fired. If a teacher spoke up too often in opposition, a teacher might get fired. If a teacher refused to adhere to the principal's pet education-reform, a teacher might get fired.

It seems like these this could never happen today. And your right. Because teachers have due process rights (commonly referred to as tenure.)

Don't pretend for a second that bad teachers can't be fired. They can.

It's about a 2-year process. An Administrator has to build a case to show that the teacher is actually incompetent. One or two bad observations are not enough. Then, 
the teacher gets a chance to receive some professional development and training in order to do better.

If the teacher refuses to try to improve, or does not make progress, then the teacher can be fired.

I think the term "Tenure" has been appropriated and redefined by politicians, reform pundits, and administrators.

They convinced many in the public that teachers with "Tenure" have to rape, steal, and murder before they can be let go.

Back on planet reality, teachers have due-process rights. This means, that:

1. The teacher has a right to know why s/he is being fired,
2. The teacher has a chance to improve, and,
3. The teacher has a right to appeal the decision to a neutral party.


Doesn't that sound more reasonable than "Jobs for life so the boogie-teachers can ruin your children's lives"?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Waiting for or Protesting Superman

Don't worry Super Grover, we'll get you
into a charter school!
A lot of teachers are feeling frustrated and angry about the new movie "Waiting for Superman."  It's true that this film does not give a holistic picture of public education.  Instead it focuses on the stories of five children who are likely going to attend five under funded, understaffed, and unsuccessful schools, and their hopes to win a lottery that will allow them to enroll in a charter school that is having a lot more success.  Frankly, I am neither shocked or angry at the narrow scope of the film.  In my minds, what we have here is a film adaptation of Jonathan Kozol's excellent book, Savage Inequalities, updated to include the modern charter-school movement.

I work in a public school similar to the ones portrayed as failing in this film.  Nearly half of our incoming freshmen will still be there senior year.  Those remaining seniors, will most likely graduate and many of them will start college.  However, most of our college goers will be enrolling in community colleges rather than four-year institutions, and many of them will not graduate.

What "Waiting for Superman" wouldn't show you about my school are the dozens and dozens of teachers, parents, students, community members, and administrators trying to make our school better.  What "Waiting for Superman" doesn't show you is the patchwork of quality that makes up the charter-school movement.  Some charter schools, like some public schools, are excellent.  Some charter schools, like some public schools are not serving their communities nearly well enough.  Most charter schools, like most public schools, are somewhere in the middle.

I wish my colleagues would stop expressing so must vitriol about this film and acknowledge it for what it is, a narrow portrait.  I think we are overly caught up in the Shame/Blame dynamic.  Too many of us seem to think that we cannot allow any criticism of public schools or public school teachers.  Perhaps we think that if we acknowledge some of our problems and failings then we should feel ashamed of ourselves.  Since we cannot accept the shame, many of us choose instead to blame others: Parents don't care about their children's education; politicians wont fund schools properly; kids are impossible these days; reformers and principals just want to blame teachers.

Don't let the pundits shame you!  One of tactics of some of these pundits right now is to shame teachers into working even longer hours and donating even more time, energy and money that we have been.

I am sure that you are like me: that you average 10+ hour days; that you think of lessons at night and on the weekend and are suddenly working some more; that when your kids need something and the school wont buy it, you do.

Teachers working just a little bit more is not a solution.  When Geoffrey Canada commented on Oprah that he couldn't get the teachers to "work just one more hour," he neglected the fact that this would mean now working 11+ hours a day for most teachers.

One of our BIG challenges is not to accept the Shame and not to transfer the Blame onto children, parents, even administrators, politicians and pundits.

Instead, we have to clearly name the Shame-Blame dynamic for what it is, discuss how this dynamic is neither helpful nor productive.  Instead, we should focus our energies toward ways we can rebuild trust across these divides and we should put our energies toward imagining what a well-functioning public school system should look like and begin taking steps to get us from here to there.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Lack of Hope

What is the matter with low-achieving, unmotivated urban youth?

I'm not saying that urban youth are themselves low-achieving or unmotivated, quite the contrary, I see and teach highly motivated urban youth every day at Skyline High School in Oakland.  Nor am I arguing that there are no low-achieving or unmotivated youth in the suburbs and the country.  I certainly had plenty of unmotivated children sitting in my classroom in rural Eureka, California.  

That being said, there are some students who live in conditions exasperated by urban poverty and violent neighborhoods. Many of my students living in urban poverty have lost hope that their lives can be better that they are; that their lives can be better than the lives their parents live; or that education may be a way to pave a road to a brighter future.

For some of my children, the loss of hope is not unwarranted.  Last year, Eric was ready to graduate.  He didn't get amazing grades, but he got pretty good grades.  He loved playing football, was well liked, and had been accepted to Cal State Chico for the fall.  He is on his way to being one of the not-nearly-enough success stories of our school.  On his eighteenth birthday, another child, who was running with one of the cities gangs, tried to crash Eric's birthday party.  Eric told him to leave, and the boy did, returning later with a gun and murdering Eric.

What is the message for our kids who were there, or who knew Eric, or knew someone who knew Eric?  One message was pretty clear.  Don't delay fun.  Don't worry about the future.  There is no way out of these violent neighborhoods.  Even if you do all the so-called right things that your teachers tell you will lead you to a better life, you can still be gunned down; any day, any time.

I think this is the primary reason why Skyline is struggling so much to reduce our dropout rates.

A teacher-mentor of mine once told me, "Kids don't care what you know until they know you care." Sage advise.  I think I've got the handle on caring about my kids and on letting them know that I care.  We joke, we argue, we hug, we celebrate, we mourn together.  I think my kids know that I care about them even more than I care about their grades.

What I am struggling with is the lack of hope.  How can I give it to them?  How can they achieve it for themselves?  I can tell them that I see a college graduate when I look at them, but I can also see that some of them don't even see a high school graduate in the mirror.