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.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education | Video on

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education | Video on

In this interesting presentation of his research, Mr. Mitra demonstrates how children can fuel their own learning through their curiosity.

My favorite quote is, "If there is stuff on Google, then why do we have to stuff it in our head?" One of our biggest stumbling blocks with using new technology in the classroom, is this, we try to get the technology to perform the same traditional job of:

1) The authority (teacher, book, computer) presenting information or demonstrates a skill
2) Students memorize the information or practices the skill as much as they are willing or as much as they can in a predetermined amount of time
3) Students demonstrate the skill or parrot the knowledge back to the teacher for judgement
4) Repeat

In a traditional model as described above, the variable in the knowledge equation is the expertise or mastery that children can demonstrate at the time of judging. Some students will earn an "A" and others will earn an "F."

One of the first things we should note about Mr. Mitra's experiment, when time was kept constant, the variable remained mastery. "When I came back in two months..." or "At the end of the experience, children were able to perform at 76% and when I came back two months later, we gave them a test and they performed at 76%." When time was no longer constant, then mastery went to 100%. "The fast team got it in 20 minutes, the last in 45."

I believe that it is time for educators to rethink the necessity of information memorization. I don't mean abandoning recall all together. Instead, I am asking, "What are the real essentials that a well-educated person should be able to recall of the top of her or his head?" If we all have or soon will have smart phones with access to google, what is a reasonable set of memorized and recallable pieces of information that will allow one to use the new tool efficiently?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wanted: Robot Labor

Han Moravec, a principal research scientist at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, wrote,

“Multicellular animals with cells specialized for signaling (brain cells and nervous systems for thinking) emerged in the Cambrian explosion a half-billion years ago.  In the game of evolutionary one-upmanship, maximum nervous-system masses double about every 15 million years…  Our gadgets, too, are growing exponentially more complex, but 10million times as fast as that.  Human foresight and human culture move things along faster than blind Darwinian evolution.  The power of personal computers has doubled annually since the mid-1990’s; today’s PC might be comparable only to the milligram nervous systems of insects or the smallest vertebrates, but humanlike power is just thirty years away.”[1]

Computers, and robots with, “humanlike power is just thirty years away.”  Setting aside my childhood science-fiction fantasies about how cool (Star Trek) and how terrible (Terminator) robots with humanlike thinking power will be, Moravec’s thesis has serious implications for public education, and the US economy.  When robots are performing low-level service jobs, what will high school or college dropouts do for a living?  What skills and knowledge will tomorrow’s children need to obtain meaningful employment in 2040?

The automobile industry has already seen the beginning of the robotic revolution.  2010 robots, only performing at an intelligence level of “insects” are capable of performing simple, repetitive tasks found on an assembly line.  The military is using them to search and disarm bombs, and robots helped seal the gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.  Hospitals and Business are even experimenting with robo-docs and robo-employees.  Army and BP robots require a human at one end controlling the machine.  In effect, they are complex puppets with virtual strings ranging worldwide.[2]  If Moravec is correct about robots of 2040, then these future machines will be able to perform far more complicated programs without human controllers.  

Moravec is not imagining machines capable of creative human though or human inspiration.  These are not robots capable of inventing a new food recipe or designing a house.  In 2040, I imagine there will still be a demand for creative chefs and architects.

Rather conservatively, his robots of 2040 are capable of running extremely complex multi-step programs.  Imagine a robot that can cook and prepare a fast-food meal, or a robot that can assemble a building.  Imagine robots that can lead a customer to the proper shelf at department and ring-up that sale.  Imagine robotic cars that can drive themselves.  Imagine that in 2040, low-skill service jobs that currently employ millions of Americans are gone, automated.

Already, the robots features in Markoff's September article roll out for only $15000.  Imagine if a low-level food service robot cost twice that much ($30000) plus an additional $10000 each year for power and maintenance.  Imagine this robot will need replacing every 5 years, but can work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  That imaginary robotic worker would then cost out at a mere $1.82 an hour.  

Moravec may be wrong in his prediction, but I don’t think he is.  In March of 2010, researchers at the North Carolina State University announced the creation of a nano-dot memory chip that can hold an entire library of information in a single square inch.[3]  One month later, HP announced a separate break though in computer memory that mimics human synapses. “We have the right stuff now to build real brains,” commented one of HP’s physicists.[4]

Educators and educational reformers are focused on teacher evaluation right now.  The debate seems to be centered on if student test scores should be a part of evaluating teachers and if so, how much weight student test scores should have in these evaluations.

Perhaps it is time again to look about the curriculum we are teaching in K-12 education.  The publication of new National Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, is a start on this road, but are those standards the kinds of skills and knowledge that young adults will need in 2040?

Teachers should take the lead in this coming debate.  We should begin to think seriously about the next generation of teachers and students and make some decisions about what a well-educated 18-year-old will look like in 2040.  Additionally, we need to continue the discussion about reducing the numbers of school dropouts.  High school dropouts are severely limited in their employment outlook.  In 2040, when robots with “humanlike power” are available to perform low-skill service jobs, the economic outlook for under-educated Americas looks bleak indeed. 

[1] Moravec, Hans.  “Making Minds.”  Science at the Edge: Conversations with the Leading Scientific Thinkers of Today.  John Brockman, ed.  New York: Union Square Press.  2008.
[2] Markoff, John.  “The Boss is Robotic, and Rolling up Behind You.”  New York Times.  September 4, 2010.
[3] Narayan, Dr. Jay and Shipman, Matt.  “Nanodot breakthrough may lead to ‘A Library on One Chip’.”  North Carolina State University New Release.  March 28, 2010
[4] Markoff, John, “HP sees revolution in memory chip.”  New York Times.  April 7, 2010.