Friday, April 4, 2014

Book Talk

Thank you to all who came out to hear the first talk on The Normal Accident Theory of Education.  This was at Pioneer Middle School, where I teach 8th grade.  Thanks, too, to my Superintendent, Kathi Weight, for hosting the event.

Monday, March 24, 2014

What if Classical Education is Best Practice?

So, my district's high school and middle school staffs were getting a training on the Common Core the other day.  One feature, I guess you'd say, of the new standards is that they are "combed back" (that's the language everyone uses) from college to Kindergarten.  This way we can be sure that we're taking all the necessary steps for college readiness, starting right away.

Our trainer says to us, "The Common Core standards are combed down from college level, instead of built upwards as in No Child Left Behind.  Common Core starts with what it takes to be college ready, then they pull that down all the way to Kindergarten....That's best practice."

My head throbbed, ricocheting as it was between rage and depression.  "That's best practice."  Who in the world said so?  Based on what?  Not on any "research" or evidence or data, as everything else in the education world must be.  It is, of course, based on philosophical assumptions.  And the consultants who plump for it, of course, pronounce it best practice, because, well, they're expert in it, and that's why the district hired them.

The philosophical assumption part is the most important.  No test results or any other kind of "data" are available with which to evaluate the effectiveness of either the program (standards) or the testing process.  Further, with an emphasis on a set of standards and a demanding test (I've seen is indeed much more difficult than Washington's current MSP), but without specific curriculum for and by which the standards writers can be held accountable, schools and teachers are on the line to produce success on a set of standards that are based on an intellectual premise, and one that is far from obviously best practice, because it's not clear there is such a thing.

Common Core's assumptions and the program based on those assumptions fly in the face of a pedagogic philosophy called classical education.  Turns out, the arrangement of fact memorizing, argumentative reasoning, and logical explaining that make up the classical trivium may be better suited to the trajectory of a child's brain development.  (See Brain Rules and NurtureShock, to name two.)

Classical education--like every other pedagogy and institutional arrangement--has its strengths and weaknesses.  My point is not that classical education is the answer, but it has as much to say for it as Common Core's combed down skills does.

So let's stop thinking we trump everything and everybody else when we play the "best practice" card....It's more a joker than an ace.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Are All Tests Created Equally?

Listen to a German vocational education teacher telling his American counterparts about project based learning and assessment.  35 seconds in he says, "No multiple choice questions."

I guess he's never met the folks at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the groups constructing the test that will accompany the Common Core State Standards.  That assessment will use a significant amount multiple choice questions.

It's time we ask whether there are limitations to what multiple choice questions can really do.  (Spoiler Alert:  There are.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Educational Ruses

Maybe such language ("Ruses") is a bit strong, but it's that frustrating time of year...testing season.  I like tests, I think tests are important "events."  They focus the mind, motivate the hands (so to speak), raise the academic intensity...when done right.

I don't enjoy tests for what we've made of them.  They have come to serve too many purposes--the annual state test measures whether a student is "getting an education" by determining whether s/he is keeping up with the norms for his/her age; serves as an instrument of whether a teacher is functioning adequately; shows whether a whole school is providing education to its students.  One test, three different jobs.

The analogy is a bit strained (cancer is not education), but that's like using one annual cancer screening to determine how well the patient is doing with/about cancer, how well the doctor is treating the patient and how effective the hospital is at combating cancer.  You can be sure that multiple measures of performance are taken in this case, following multiple tests--over time, rather than at one time--of the patients.

But I digress.  The ruse comes in the form of our in-gathering of the so-called bubble students (kids with test scores just below the passing mark) and giving them some test support classes after school.  The goal is to squeeze the last 3 or 4 or 5 points out of them, so they can get to passing.

This is primarily for external consumption.  Higher pass rate, we'll be heroes--we'll have shown that we're doing a better job educating our students.

Mind you, they won't necessarily be any better readers.  In fact, they likely will not be.  We'll look good, but they won't be any better at their academic skills.  The only benefit I can see for the students is that "passing" would be rewarding, encouraging an uplifting.  And those are good.

The point...we should think clearly about the incentives and behaviors that institutional and practical arrangements and institutions generate.  If teachers and schools are going to be evaluated and rewarded based on how many students reach the mystical pass/fail bar, we will get practices like this.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Is sarcasm the last refuge of scoundrelly reading teachers?

One of the new emphases in the Common Core State Standards is close reading of the text in order to be sure to get the author's meaning.  This is going to be tested by calling on students to identify meaning accurately, and find the place in the text that substantiates that meaning.  The material of the text is the only place where students can find meanings and the supporting evidence.

This passage is from one of the Corrective Reading books (a time-tested reading remediation program by Siegfried Engelman, University of Oregon).  Read the paragraph starting with "All right...." and then try to answer the question.

I'm vexed and befuddled.  The text says the spy chaser didn't want the "mustard jar" (a strangely anthropomorphized condiment bottle) to waste mustard.  What's a remediation teacher to do?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Exploding Heads

I've just been in a "training" about the new Smarter Balanced test, which is the assessment following from the Common Core State Standards.  My head is about to explode.  Either standardized tests are insane, or we are insane to think that such tests accomplish what we think they accomplish.

More to come....

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Try a new hammer?

All three of Tacoma’s SIG [School Improvement Grant] schools [Stewart, Giaudrone and Jason Lee], along with First Creek Middle School and Roosevelt Elementary School, are listed on this year’s state list of low performers, based on test scores.  (Whole Story Here.)

Click here for an evaluation of the standardized test scores for those 3 SIG schools.

This all seems to generate a simple question--How much evidence, data, whatever, before someone realizes that the very idea of the improvement grants might be flawed?

Why keep pouring money into programs that have shown they don't solve the problem?

Ok...that was two questions.

Read more here: