Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dramatizing Chekhov

We read the Anton Chekhov short story, A Slander, and I asked how it was just like 8th grade. Most everyone pretty easily saw the gossip, the anxiety about gossip, the vanity, the defensiveness that were shot through the story as timeless. At least, they were all present in the story and they're all present in 8th grade. That's enough data points to qualify as universal.

So, we're turning it into a little play for class. They get to add electronic communication devices to their skits, as these can make all the above-named vices more intense more quickly. I'm hoping that we get a little glimpse of just how universal these forms of destruction are and how texting, Facebooking, etc., can too easily slide into that destruction.

That, and everybody in education thinks it's a 'cool' activity to dramatize what you've read. I think the students 'do more' with the material, but just what it is and how I can tell, I'm not sure.

Maybe I'll figure it out this time.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ed. School Madman

Though I often find George Will's arguments facile and/or under-reasoned (as this one is, in some ways), in this article about Teach for America, he makes an oblique claim that I can validate from personal experience.

He writes, "TFA has become a flourishing reproach to departments and schools of education. It pours talent into the educational system - 80 percent of its teachers are in traditional public schools - talent that flows around the barriers of the credentialing process."

I've met few teachers who found their education school experience...well, edifying.

To give but one example, not one teacher I've asked failed to notice that Ed. school professors consistently do all manner of things that they themselves were constantly telling us--the would-be teachers--not to do.

The most glaring manifestation of this was their drumming into us that lecturing is a bad mode for creating student learning. They'd talk and talk and talk about that. They apparently thought that unwritten, unprepared talking didn't count as lecturing, so their lecture-like presentation did not really violate their own admonition. I can't be sure, since (they were right) I stopped paying attention after a few minutes.

Maybe that was all an elaborately planned experiential learning demonstration. "See, I just did to you what you shouldn't do, and you lived out what your students will do, also." If so, they should have told me such practice is to point out to students what they're supposed to be learning.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Vocabulary Data

A little experiment I ran. Two things I'm looking for...are word searches worthless? Are word banks helpful when doing vocabulary activities?

Days 1 and 2

Pre-test, Teach words, review

Days 3 & 4

Group 1--Word Search only

Group 2—Exercise (CRWD, Fill in) only

Group 3—Exercise & Word Search

Day 5


On day 1, all students were given a vocabulary pre-test consisting of 10 words selected for low likelihood that many students would already know them. The mean for all pre-tests (80) was 1.31. The test was followed by a review (verbally, while words and meanings were projected on the board) of the correct definitions of the words.

Day 2 consisted of a very brief verbal and visual review of the words.

Day 3, Group 1 was given a Word Search with all 10 words; Group 2 a Crossword (without any word bank); Group 3 a Crossword with a Word Search as the word bank. Everyone had 5 minutes to complete as much work as they could.

Day 4, Group 1 was given a Word Search with all 10 words; Group 2 a Sentence completion task using the new words (without any word bank); Group 3 a Sentence completion task using the new words with a Word Search as the word bank. Everyone had 5 minutes to complete as much work as they could.

Day 5, everyone took a post-test of the same design as the pre-test.

I thought that word search only (Group 1) would yield the least improvement, as so little 'work with the word' would be done during the week. The exercise only (Group 2) would, I conjectured, would do better than Group 1, but not as well as exercise plus word search (Group 3) because the latter group would being doing more cognitive work with the definitions, and they would have the visual reminder of the words they were trying to learn.

In short, if Exercise + Word Search (as word bank) is a better learning device, then Group 3 post-test score improvements will be higher (or show more growth) than both Group 2 and Group 1. Also, if Word Searches generate no (or very little learning), then Group 1 post-test scores will be lowest and/or show the least growth. In other words, I expected scores improve with each successive group.

Comparative post-test scores and growth rates that trended in other directions, or no discernible difference among the groups' outcomes would serve as rejection of my hypotheses.


Descriptive Statistics

Mean of all pre-tests: 1.31

Group 1:

28 sets of tests taken

Pre-test mean-- .96 Post-test mean—3.00

4 test-takers achieved no change from pre- to post-test; 4 declined by 1 point each; 6 increased by only 1 (which I arbitrarily assume to reflect random 'error' as much as learning). 14 test-takers increased by 2 or more.

Group 2:

28 sets of tests taken

Pre-test mean—1.46 Post-test mean—3.8

3 test-takers achieved no change from pre- to post-test; 3 declined by 1 point each; 7 increased by only 1 (which I arbitrarily assume to reflect random 'error' as much as learning). 15 test-takers increased by 2 or more.

Group 3:

24 sets of tests taken

Pre-test mean—1.32 Post-test mean—3.54

3 test-takers achieved no change from pre- to post-test; 2 declined (1 by 1 point, 1 by 2 points); 7 increased by only 1 (which I arbitrarily assume to reflect random 'error' as much as learning). 15 test-takers increased by 2 or more.

Inferential statistics

I hope to run a chi-square test of independence to determine if the score change differentials among the group are statistically significant.

Both the test scores and the growth differentials are so similar across the groups that I suspect we will not find confirmation of my hypotheses.

Several factors may have worked against the processes I expected to find. First, while I wanted Group 3 to do the exercises with a word bank, the additional presence of a word search, appears to have distorted the test I was hoping to implement. Many Group 3 test-takers, indeed, nearly all of them on the fill in exercise, chose to do the word search, as I told them they could do whichever part they wanted for the five minutes. This effectively transformed Group 3 participants into something much more like Group 1 participants.

Second, the five minute work time did not allow enough time for students to 'work with' the words thoroughly enough—in any of the experimental circumstances—to generate the hypothesized differences in results. Five minutes proved too little for many in each of the groups to really accomplish much new work or learning with the words.

I hope, now, to sharpen the experiment by a) dropping the Word Search Group altogether and/or b) changing the Group 3 Word Search to a word bank, and conducting the whole process in the space of one day, so as to eliminate the effect of absenteeism (which required me to discard several test-takers' data) in the course of the experiment.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Buck cites in APA style

We just finished The Call of the Wild, and all through the book I kept asking about the difference between the order of life in the wild and in civilization--who is in charge, the creation and maintenance of authority, the status of the self, relationships to others, etc. So, after we finished, I asked everybody to think about some real cases of order that were a lot "wilder" than that to which we are accustomed.

For instance, we talked about the E. German secret police, and how they got so many people to spy on others. We also talked about the Chinese mobile execution vans, Pol Pot, and the Milgram experiment. A strange list, I guess, but the work of figuring out the connection, by evaluating the differences in what constitutes general order and individual behavior, makes for the much-desired "higher level" thinking about the reading.

In some ways, a tough day. Not everybody "gets it," some students disconnect almost immediately, and, most important in today's climate, it's tough to assess whether everybody "learned" that day.

Oh, plenty of students seemed interested, asked questions, wanted to know more about the details of the cases, but I don't know how measure what anybody learned at that higher level.

The next day we worked on writing in-text citations (Smith, 2011, 234) for when you need to credit someone for the work of theirs that you borrowed. It's a small technical detail of writing up a report, a finding, a study, etc. in essay form. Not very high-level. Would be about like me giving a multiple choice quiz on that other material.

The Stasi were secret police in which one of the following countries?
A. E. Germany B. The United States C. Stanley Milgram D. Cambodia

Not very high level, that.

But the in-text citation activity is easily measured, scored, analyzed. And that's the problem. They were all busily working away on the practice problems I gave them. If my superintendent had walked in right then, he would have been most pleased. I shudder to think of him walking in on us demonstrating Milgram. How would I explain one student in the role of the shocker and one the shockee, me telling the shocker to keep going?

I think the "wild" material is ever so much more important. But the citation material is a nice and easy one to see students 'engaged' in, and to score, and therefore to show 'learning' in.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Platitudes are not answers...oh, and what's the question?

It seems to me that there are, abroad in the culture, a great many hammers searching for nails to pound, in this case, that our schools are failing. Question: How do we fix them? And everybody seems to have the answer.

Several things come to mind here. One is, what if the question were put differently? How many schools are failing? (What is failing, by the way?) In what ways are they failing?

Or, what if it were reframed? How about, in what ways are the schools a barometer of social failings more generally? Perhaps the schools are simply one set of the generally failing institutions in society.

Or, another....In what ways are the schools succeeding? What can we reasonably expect of schools?

I am not asking rhetorically...I don't know what we collectively think of these questions. I do know that not many ask them. And in a time where a parent can accuse one school of being tight because they sent a student home for wearing something they told him the previous day that he couldn't wear, and a school across town is accused by another parent of being too lax because the teachers didn't find his son's fight club in the bathroom the schools feel beleaguered.

In any case, people like the Gates Foundation think they have the solutions. In typical technopolist fashion, they took a survey of teachers to find out 'what works.' The results from 40,000 teachers can't be wrong, can they?

They offer 5 things that contribute to better class rooms. They're all rather predictable in the generality.

Innovate to reach today's students. It doesn't take a degree in computer science to guess that they say teachers want more digital tools because "students don't learn the way they did 10 years ago." Of course, they mean that students don't use the same modalities of learning. Seems to me that reading, writing, and doing things (math problems, science experiments, film-making, singing, etc.) are still the way students learn. So they make YouTube videos now instead of films.

Establish clearer and tougher academic standards. Sure enough. Just don't let those innovative ways of reaching students slide into 'easier ways' for a student to complete their school responsibilities.

Bridge school and home to raise student achievement. The survey data says that teachers think lack of support at home contributes mightily to students' struggles. It shouldn't take a survey to "confirm" what we ought to know from life and intuition. Question really is, how do you make those connections? The parents that really need to be 'connected' are often the ones who are indifferent. (Follow the logic of the survey should be self-evident.) Is there a way to make them more interested? A way to hold them accountable? Or, can the school simply create benefits and consequences for the student him/herself, and expect the parents to just accept this?

Finally, the Gates Foundation tag line on this page, All lives have equal value. Do we as a society really believe that? In a society as individualist as ours, where students are trying to do everything they can to maximize their college potential, so they can do everything possible to maximize job prospects, can we make a claim about equal value and keep a straight face?

Schools have some problems (and some successes). Let's ask better questions about where to go from here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Gospel on Education

More good news about reforming schools.

President Obama is visiting a Miami school that has turned everything around. Some federal stimulus money helped, but, according to the story, "school officials said all problems can't be solved with money."

Apparently, what you really need to do is "Identify individuals who want to be part of the change -- whether it's students, teachers or administrators -- and have people here who want to be here, for the good of the cause," said [the principal of the school].

The story didn't really explain that last statement. I guess I'm left wondering how you identify the students who want to be part of the change, and what you do with the ones who don't. At the furthest extreme of this principle, you would be able to end up with a non-random group of students with what sounds like higher commitment, and, of course, a school of low commitment students.

We often lament that if only the low-commitment students were more committed….Well, does this 'selection' process solve that problem?

Further, the whole story is presented as a success of the federal deus ex machina that pops out to fix the faculty (by replacement) and thereby the school. How else are we to think about the bit telling us,

"We've replaced over 50% of the faculty in the last two years," said Nikolai Vitti, an assistant superintendent in the Miami-Dade County school system. "It's brought new energy and a greater willingness to go above and beyond for our kids."

I gather this is intended to show that the 'fire the teachers and get better ones' program really is successful. Unions, watch out!

Welcome to the schulekampf.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Interesting Organization

From their web site...

Parents Across America (PAA) is a grassroots organization that connects parents and activists from across the U.S. to share ideas and work together on improving our nation's public schools. It was founded by a group of activist parents who recognized the need to collaborate for positive change, rather than remain solely entrenched in separate battles in our local communities. Since the top-down forces that are imposing their will on our schools have become national in scope, we need to be as well.
We advocate for proven, progressive measures such as reducing class size and increasing parent involvement, and oppose corporate-style efforts to privatize our schools.

So grassroots that you cannot contact them from their web site, save to donate or sign up to receive their newsletter. Makes you wonder if collaboration for positive change involves more top-down leadership...just from a different top.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Forget Bo...Bill knows

Bill Gates is once again declaring the solution to the problem with education. Plenty of others have given worthily interesting responses. Here, for example.

I comment here on a different aspect. I find it interesting to have read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, in which he fawns (a bit) over Gates as an example of what one can accomplish when you get the magical 10,000 hours of practice at something--in Gates' case, computer programming.

Gladwell's thesis is that time and place circumstances--to get the necessary 10,000 hours of practice--have made opportunity for the phenomenal success stories like Gates'. Gladwell rather weakly argues that that we'd be better off as a society if more people got the kinds of opportunities to develop virtuosity in something, as Gates did.

The interesting part, especially when you read about Gates' somewhat simplistic claims (get the best 25% of teachers to take on 4 or 5 more students, so all students can be in front of a great teacher...?), is that, by Gladwell's reckoning, Gates' mother had an enormous impact on his development. His and several other mothers at his high school got together to help their sons start a computer club--one of the first of its kind in the country, and then helped connect that club to various important Seattle players in the nascent computer world. These activities (add-ons to his school life) got Gates a jump start in computers. Then his and his friends' finagling their way into a University of Washington computer lab, when they weren't supposed to be using it, got them even further ahead of their peers.

In short, Gladwell tells a story filled with more auto-didacticism than teacher-governed learning. This is not to say that there weren't important teachers in Gates' life, but he's not exactly the poster child for the teacher-driven success.

So, what exactly is it that makes Bill Gates so well-qualified to make these rather facile recommendations? His enormous success, of course. Trouble is, solving computer problems, or creating new solutions (in search of a problem that needs solving) with computers isn't much like teaching children. It would be great if those youngsters were coded as series of binary numbers. Alas, they are not.

As Neil Postman has pointed out, more technology has never really made us any better at the fundamental issues of life. But living in a technopoly, we think it has.

Mac & Ed

Several weeks ago in the pages of a regional newspaper in my area, Marsha Michaelis of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, compared education to macaroni and cheese, arguing that in the same way we're accustomed to 28 varieties of that food product, we really deserve to have a similar market competition in education. This facile analogy serves as a rhetorical sleight of hand which is intended to make us think that market forces are the solution to the problems that are supposed to beset the schools. But the producing, selling and buying of macaroni and cheese is not much like provision of education service. Ms. Michaelis' own market sensibility should reveal this to her. Let me explain.

The dozens of macaroni options available in the store are largely interchangeable. They are packaged, sized, designed, and colored similarly, and they come in a few basic types--traditional boil and mix, microwavable tubs, and 'fun-shaped' novelty noodles. Most importantly, they taste about the same (except for the one 3-cheese variety and the two whole wheat options). So, though there are 28 varieties, they are fundamentally similar. In fact, most of the variation is for marketing purposes. The Scooby Doo variety is only different from Sponge Bob in that it broadens the prospect of catching more children's attention. The two otherwise look, smell and taste the same.

Unless a macaroni consumer is looking for the novelty of something like PowerPuff Girl noodles, or has brand loyalty, most macaroni purchasers are price sensitive. This means that when one similar (almost interchangeable) option is priced lower than the others, many consumers will purchase that one. Consumers can--and sometimes do--even switch brands for price (or novelty) purposes.

This, then, begins to explain how macaroni are not like schools. Macaroni are purchased and consumed. This discrete process may be repeated, but each purchase is fundamentally independent of other macaroni purchases. Further, macaroni are not sentient beings with parents who want particular outcomes from the continuous (not discrete) production process. To put it another way, macaroni purchases are of much lower consequence than educational processes. To wit, switching schools--even in an environment of high school choice--could never be anywhere as easy as an 89-cent macaroni purchase.

Perhaps this inflexibility of movement reflects the lack of options in school choice. But then again, perhaps it reflects the economies of scale problem. Achieving economies of scale means maximizing on the efficiency that comes from production in larger volumes. This side of the economic analysis is often left off by the competition advocates because it takes more account of the reality that a capital and labor intensive activity like education (yes, it really is both) becomes more efficient when done on a larger scale. Lots of variety in schools (and therefore small schools) means smaller scale and reduced efficiency. In other words, two different strains of economic logic actually work at cross purposes in this case. It would be great to have innumerable different types of schools--and it would be cost-ineffective. We can't have it both ways--wide variety and low price.

This fact points to the other conceptual difficulty in broadly applying 'market logic' to education production. Namely, we lack a good metric for 'efficiency.' Economists let prices do a great deal of both the practical communicating and theoretical measuring in their ideas and prescriptions, but pricing education production is made difficult because 'test score outcomes' are not easily monetized, so the correlation between test scores and profit (the monetary measure reflecting gains in efficiency) is merely arbitrary.

This is not to say that the idea of greater competition and wider variety wouldn't be a good thing. It may, but achieving the benefits of competition will be much more complicated, and take more creativity and thought than buying macaroni.