Thursday, September 18, 2014


Tacoma schools are going green(er)...and making it educational, too!

6 years ago, my school was the big news on this same front.  We even won awards.

Within a couple of years, the garden that was going to be so educational was simply a bed of weeds.  The scintillatingly interesting monitors with all kinds of "cool" information about the school's functioning are now just displaying photographs of events in our district.  And the stripes constituting a floor "model" of the planets in the solar system mostly elicit a vexed and dismissive "What are those stripes supposed to be?"  And, I haven't anyone speak of any of this stuff in years.

So, this all sounds interesting and educationally useful, but is it really?  I'm skeptical.  Oh, and how do we measure student growth in these areas?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Bureaucratic Politics?

Seems Tacoma's mayor spoke on a national news show to talk about an education-housing program at a local elementary school.  Interesting...this is the same school that last year declined the offer of a free reading support program for struggling readers. ( link to a news story.  You have to take my word for it.  And you should...I was a tutor in the program in question.)

I don't know if there's a lesson here, except perhaps that the educating of children--like so much else-- is also subject to the political and bureaucratic forces that can so often stifle or squelch good and effective work.

Bad Press for Lincoln High...again

At the end of last school year, I mentioned that Lincoln High School in Tacoma had the strange distinction of being both "highly competitive" and underperforming in graduation rate.  Now, it appears they might be trying to improve their graduation rate by offloading underperforming students.

I don't revel in this....Indeed, I point, as I have before, to the strange incentive structures that all the rules and regulations create for educators.  If you're going to be touted as competitive by your ratio of AP seats to graduates, then you raise your AP numbers (by adding more students, whether they're AP-ready or not), or you reduce the number of graduates.

Lincoln may have done both, and I observe this with the full knowledge that the demands, expectations, incentives, etc., confronting educators push and pressure them toward such dubious responses.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Charter School Marketing

Apparently, charter school leaders got together to talk about how to hone the message about what they are and do.

Read it...included is a list of what not to say and what to say instead.
Say Charter community, not sector.  Say Responsive to student needs, not experiments.

They left off lots of other stuff--to say or not to say, I can't decide.

Best Practice
What Works
Research-based Evidence
What's Best for Kids
Teach the Whole Child

I'm sure I've missed some, but you get the point.  Never consider attending a charter school that doesn't do heavy trade in this language!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Another installment of my 15 minutes (of fame, that is)

TVW--the public service civic engagement TV of Washington--broadcast my recent book talk at the University of Washington, Tacoma.  Now, you too can watch! 

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Problem with Teachers

Reading the sometimes interesting Intelligence and How to Get It, by Richard Nisbett.  Among many other statistically confirmed findings, teachers with experience add more to a student's learning.  But, he notes (without providing the statistical results in this case) most of the experience boost comes from the first year of teaching.

In other words, the big gain--for students--from teacher experience is in the difference between 0 and 1 year of teacher experience.

"So," Nisbett concludes, "it is definitely worth trying to avoid having your child put in a class with a rookie teacher."

Not, it would be worth figuring out how schools could create support arrangements to help rookie teachers do better.  (I know more than one quite good teacher who almost quit in his/her first year.)

Instead, make sure your own child avoids the bad situation.

Not, when you know you have a rookie teacher, work with your principal--and your student--to address some of the experiential difficulties that will arise.

Instead, do the socially destructive thing--maximize your student's (but not others') prospects by getting out of that class.  Don't forget, not everyone can get out.

Not, contribute to some long-term resolution of this difficulty.  Instead, maximize your private needs and move on.

Every teacher was a rookie teacher once, after all.  So, this is a persistent "problem."

The book went downhill after least for me.  I'm tired of the game we play where we talk about how we're in this (education) collectively, doing what's best for kids, striving for harmony within diversity, to create an environment where every student can learn.  (Have I got enough of the cliches in?)  We talk about it, but in reality, of course, each individual (parent) wants the best for their child, with much less regard for what's good for all the other children.

There's something of a conflict or at least a tradeoff in this.  Most of us don't mind if the other kids don't get the very best, as long as our children do (as far as we perceive).  Oh, it's not expressed so bleakly and bluntly.  No, it's more like an enormous drop-off in attention, interest and concern for anything once one's own child is well-situated.

We all do it, and it makes the job of producing and distributing "education" (widely, to the broader audience) more difficult.

Here's to you, rookie teachers.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Stop saying "best practice"...

...there's no such thing, unless you qualify the claim with the relevant conditions or parameters.

"This is best practice under these conditions...."  Or, "This is best practice for these students...."

It's logically and practically impossible to imagine there's a best practice for every student, given the wide range of ability levels, learning styles, brain development, and more present among any group of 30 students--even 30 in the same grade.

There may be something like a best practice for maximizing aggregate outcomes on some particular measure. In other words, there may be a practice that generates the greatest likelihood of raising something like a standardized test score for the greatest portion of those 30 kids in the class room.  It won't necessarily raise everyone's score, or, even more likely, all 30 individual's score as much as another approach/practice may have raised a particular 1 or 2 or 3 students' scores.

What I'm getting at is another of the assumptions embedded in the standardization process, and especially the testing that accompanies it.  The push toward standardization, measurement and assessment focuses our attention on aggregate outcomes.  We assume that those things the tests measure are all and only what we think is worth a student knowing, understanding or doing.  Further, we assume that collectively aggregating all student scores into a few measures, the improvement of which is the primary objective, is worthwhile.

For example, if I could get 27 students' test scores to go up the greatest possible amount (as if we could know that), but the 3 other students' scores stayed flat, or even dropped, I'd be a hero--90% went up.  But was there some other "practice" (not best for the aggregate, but best for those 3 students) that would have raised those 3 scores?  If raising their scores would have meant trading off a different 3 students' scores, what would be the best practice?  What about trading off 5 other students' scores?

So, we need to talk about "best practice" while acknowledging that we make guesses at tradeoffs among students, while maintaining the objective of maximizing as many of the 30 students' scores as possible.

It may not sound like it, but what I've just raised is a complicated set of trade offs and balances in pursuit of one particular goal--aggregate outcomes.  You can't spend much time in a class room without realizing that some students respond very differently to a teaching practice, "best" or otherwise.  When I think about what we do in my 8th grade English room, I try to create a variety of tasks, activities, assignments, etc., knowing that some of that work will appeal to one part of the class, and another portion of the work will appeal to some other students.  I've found very few things that stimulate, engage, inspire, whatever, ALL the students in the room.  And some students are engaged by very little of what we do.  Striking this balance is the constant endeavor of identifying so-called "best practice" in the first place.

Ultimately, "best" is something of a trope.  We won't really get there, in part because we disagree about what we should be pursuing in the first place.  That complicates the question before we even begin to answer it.