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?