Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What's in a (demographic) name?

Here's the list of the various ways that Washington's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction demographically breaks down results of student performance.



In my school, more than a third of students have parents in the military, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which hosts several of the units that have done numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years.  Indeed, it has been my privilege to meet Medal of Honor winner, Leroy Petry, whose children attended my school.

The educational and personal stresses that follow from parent(s) deploying, then returning, are numerous and significant.  And that's on top of the consequences of frequent family moves.  (Last year, I had an 8th grader who said that my school was her 9th...in 9 years of schooling.)

Yet, we take no demographic notice of that.  Not sure I understand that, but, of course, there's much I don't understand.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Standardized Tests Ruin the Curiosity Required for Real Learning

We just finished reading Lord of the Flies, and we're doing some culminating work, which includes analyses of the sources of government legitimacy, causes of violence and warfare, and the lack of governance in our digital lives.

The book is outstanding--raising a variety of issues, offering a richness of ideas, and generally stimulating thoughtful analysis of our lives in society.  But when asking my 8th graders (pretty good students, pretty effective standardized test takers--we pass at about 80% every year) to make conceptual connections from the book to ideas like the difference between rational-legal and charismatic sources of legitimacy, they resist doing so.

I think the problem is that we've spent so many years training them to read to answer questions (about finding the main point, the author's purpose, etc., and do so just how the test writer expects) rather than find and do interesting things with what they read that their intellectual curiosity has not been very well nourished.

I think the idea behind the testing is that we're making sure students have the preliminary skills to gather and organize material so that they can move up to the interesting and engaging work with it.  The difficulty is that the skills practice stuff can become so dull as to weaken enthusiasm for doing the next level of more interesting work.

All of my 8th graders gleefully acknowledge that they've read a book and argued with a friend about something in it (a character, a behavioral decision, etc.), or watched the movie version of a book and argued over whether the movie "got it right."

Nobody ever goes home and argues over what they read in the standardized test material.  The reading is boring, and the activities connected to it aren't much better.

I try to explain to them that what I really want is for them to make the interesting connections among things, and show that to me...I'm interested, too.  But their first reaction is too often, "How long does it have to be?"
Where I want to encourage intellectual omnivores, I get minds accustomed to working toward uninteresting goals and getting there as expeditiously as possible--it's the destination, not the journey.

Standardized testing reinforces this in students not particularly inclined toward omnivorousness.  For those students who are so inclined, the problem is even more grave.  The testing process we're so enthralled with may actually beat their curiosity out of them by demanding they do mind-numbing tasks that discourage involvement with interesting material.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Pithy is easy

If you've told a kid a 1,000 times & he still doesn't understand, the kid isn't the slow learner...
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I saw this pithy tweet today.  Like so many such statements, it sounds good, but really doesn't hold up to the complexity that teaching is.  (I'm speaking here of the formal role of teacher.)

First, "told" and "understand" are words that cover a wide range of meanings.  If I've told a student a complex idea a thousand times in the same way and s/he doesn't understand, then I've done a bad job.  I should find other ways to "tell."

If I've tried a variety of explanations, asked student colleagues to help explain, asked the student to explain what s/he does understand and tried to fill in the difference, etc., then we've got a more complex situation whose solution is also more complicated.

If I've told a student the same simple task (don't do your math in our English class, don't tip your chair back, put your name on your work when you turn it in), and s/he doesn't understand (which is really 'doesn't do it'), we've got yet another situation.

Youngsters (I work with 8th graders) do indeed have natural and "normal" brain development variations (from each other and from adults) that cause reasonable and legitimate explanations for each of the scenarios described above.  One such difference from adults is that the neural pathways in those portions of the brain that deal with both more complex thinking and administrative details (the much discussed "executive function") are still getting myelinated--more myelin means those neurons operate more effectively and efficiently, so in a technical sense most teenagers are a little slow(er) in the head (than most adults).

And teachers need to be cognizant of this.  But delivering a barbed jab at teachers or parents in the form of this sarcastic statement is not only cheap (sarcasm is, after all, the last refuge of scoundrels), it offers no real insight.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

If Einstein were alive....



While this statement has great merit, it is doubtful Einstein ever said it.
He couldn't have...to suggest a fish should be allowed to not meet standard (in tree climbing) disrespects the standardized test process, which I just know he'd support.

Open Season on Reason

Standardized test season is open.  
As American school children gear up for the annual battery of examinations, school districts scramble to find computers and rejigger the daily schedule to accommodate the serial rounds of testing that will span 6 weeks or more.

With this also comes “get rid of the bad teachers” season.  In New York, which leads the way in adopting every new wrinkle in education reform, Governor Andrew Cuomo noted that only 38 % of New York State high-schoolers achieve “college readiness,” according to their standardized test scores, while 98.7 % of New York’s teachers are rated “effective.” “How can that be?” he mused. “Who are we kidding, my friends? The problem is clear and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations.”

This week, the Washington state Senate embraced this view, passing a bill mandating that student test scores constitute at least part of teacher evaluations.  Doing so, it is hoped, would allow Washington to retrieve its lost No Child Left Behind waiver and reclaim $40 million in federal money.

Unfortunately, the problem and solution are far from clear.  The reasoning implied by Cuomo and our Senate strains credulity, because it neglects the strange incentives already emerging from the implementation of this thinking.

As the emphasis in education shifts towards standards-meeting, teaching energy and focus likewise moves toward the level of the standards. Students who are comfortably above the standards needn’t be worried over or engaged educationally. Students far below the standards...well, they can likely get special services.

In such a climate, schools increasingly target the so-called bubble kids (those just below the passing mark) in order to get them up and over the top, into passing.  Accomplishing this makes the school’s pass rate go up, and the school is deemed more successful. High scoring kids scoring even higher means nothing under this incentive structure. Neither does fantastic improvement that falls just short of passing.

The scores-evaluations connection also indulges bad logic. Using test scores to demonstrate teacher quality is a claim badly constructed, as it does what’s called sampling on the dependent variable by using one measurement for both the cause and effect.  In other words, the hypothesized connection between teacher performance and student scores is tautological, and therefore reveals nothing. Here’s why.

The claim implied by Cuomo and our Senate is that Effective Teachers cause Passing Students, or Teachers cause Test Score changes. Seems clear enough...bad teachers generate lower test scores; good teachers generate higher test scores.  But notice that the outcome—Test Score—actually provides the measure of both the teacher and the student--one piece of data measures both the cause and effect.

To make this plausibly valid we must define measures of Teacher Impact—or “Good” and “Bad” Teacher—prior to and separate from Test Scores.  In other words, creating a fair and logically valid assessment of teachers’ impacts on students requires that we define and measure Good and Effective teaching prior to looking at student test scores. Unfortunately, this is not how the analysis proceeds, because it's far too easy to simply define Teacher Quality by Test Score results.

This kind of slack thinking allows all manner of strange things.  Take, for instance, the growing movement to deem Advanced Placement course participation (not AP test score performance) as an indicator of college readiness for a high school student.  Tacoma, among others, lauds itself for how these more rigorous courses motivate students to greater success. 

They are, for instance, only the second district in Washington to implement Academic Acceleration—automatically enrolling all students in advanced courses.  This may appear to meet the needs of the neglected high achieving students, but that’s not the stated intent of the program

Rather, this will better prepare formerly lower achieving students for college, and so on.  But here, meeting standard (passing at 3) doesn't seem to matter as much.  Of the nearly 1800 AP exams taken last year by Tacoma students, only 31% earned a passing score.  Two schools had pass rates below 15%. 


So, test scores are the Holy Grail in one case, irrelevant in the other.  Is this good educational policy, or merely ideology?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

This isn't going to be on the test!






Standardized test season is upon us again.  All over the United States, children from 3rd grade to high school are gearing up for the annual battery of examinations in reading, writing, math and science, while school districts are scrambling to find enough computers and rejiggering the daily schedule to accommodate the serial rounds of testing that will span across 6 weeks or more.

Too easily lost in the fog of testing are opportunities for other high quality learning not specifically based on or connected to the standards.  Such is the routine balancing act that teachers do.  Prepare students for the test...and model, encourage and entice them into a life of joy in learning.  Those twain are hard to make meet sometimes (if you’ll pardon the hashing of the expression).  So, now and then you have to let one or the other go, and at least occasionally it’s a good idea to elevate something good, rich or interesting over the more instrumental demands of this year’s test.

Such is the case with some “teachable moment” opportunities we are creating while reading Lord of the Flies with our 8th graders.

Monday, at the start of each class, we vacated our rooms (listening from out in the hall) and left the classes a note saying they needed to elect a chief--as the group does in chapter one of the novel, and that the chief should assign students to reading groups.  Since then, the chiefs have "run the room"--arranging student groups in a seating chart, managing the class oral reading, organizing work, grading some of the work, keeping students on task...all of it.

Each class has generated different circumstances--one chief is crisply efficient, but concerned about whether the rest of the students like him, while another is very intelligent, but not quite as firm as might be necessary.  One even arranged for a temporary replacement while he was to be gone.  Whispers of resistance movements have thus far failed to materialize, while chiefs exercise widely varying degrees of authority, and so on.  

The teachable moments are different for each, but we have already seen this exercise illuminate in bright and clear colors some of the ideas (about authority and responsibility, maturity, adulthood and childhood, loyalty and friendship, etc.) of the book.

For instance, how a government creates legitimacy for its authority—by traditions, a central personality, or rules that transcend individuals—is one of several important issues raised in the book.  And this problem is played out clearly in our stylized island experience.  

Expressions of loyalty to a chief beleaguered by detractors, pleas for preferential treatment from distressed comrades, demands for justice from wronged colleagues all remind one of the quite real vagaries of life in a community, be that a family, school, workplace, church, or...well, anywhere.

We could undoubtedly find any number of ways that we’re meeting common core state standards--in this very activity, as well the work we’re doing along the way.  But there’s no need.  Everyone sees--the students not least--that we’re doing good and instructive things, and, though they may not even realize it, they’re more engaged (the pedagogical golden ring) in the thinking about the book, what’s happening, why, etc.  


It’s practically heresy to say it, but such is the kind of learning we’d prefer for our own children.  Maybe it’s worth thinking about whether such things would be as good as more testing...for everybody’s children.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Not all teaching is equally natural

A new book claims that teaching is as natural to us as learning.  Sounds interesting and--in the environment of embracing every new idea about the organic quality of teaching and learning--enticing.

But like too many other brazen claims, we should be careful about this.  The logic and evidence are weak...the article cites kids teaching each other how to use their smart phones as an example of how we're wired to teach.  That's evidence that we're wired to teach?

Extensive studies of neurology and observation of behavior make clear how much our brains are built to learn.  Teaching is something more of a practice, intentionally undertaken, and the neurological basis (naturalness) isn't so established.

I suspect that the word "teach" is undergoing a lexical stretch here.  Institutional school teaching isn't the same thing as a kid teaching another kid how to use a new app.  Both are "teaching," but not they're not the same.  And the "we can all teach each other" mindset that comes from the smart phone observation does not transfer well to the school environment.  Young people can learn and perhaps teach, but, if left to their own devices, what most (at least teenagers) want to learn and teach too often isn't all that great.

The supposedly tech-savvy generation, the digital natives, use their savvy more for entertainment than learning.  Many do not use the technologies to push themselves into new realms or material, but to escape into realms of pleasure.  Take a look at their own acknowledgment of this...

In the end, this claim about the naturalness of teaching sounds like philosophical backfill for the normative preference many "just feel" must be right--namely, that we should think about teaching and learning differently.  While that's no doubt true--I agree, for instance, that there's no such thing as best practice, the claims are stronger when made reasonably; say, explaining how different pedagogical practices accomplish different kinds of learning for different brains; or how to use co-learning well--spoiler alert..it goes better when a teacher shapes it rightly.

Now, if you wanted to claim that institutional school does not fit the natural learning process very well, you might be on to something.