Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I lived The Normal Accident Theory of Education today

Since my school is on Focus--a subgroup in our school didn't make adequate yearly progress on the state test and we have to undergo a certain course of remediation, the leadership got to go to a state-mandated seminar about using a program to input all our school goals, the indicators we're watching as reflection of our pursuit of those goals, the plans we have to improve on those indicators so we can meet those goals, evidence of our having met those goals, etc., etc., etc. (say that in Yul Brynner's The King and I voice).

Somebody somewhere (in a state bureaucracy) understands everything about the minutiae of this program.  There are 134 indicators, for crying out loud!  But we only have to pick indicators for the seven principles about how to turnaround a school.  And you pick those 7 from the list of the 17 über-indicators, which the state has identified ahead of time.  Or something like that.  I can't really tell you, because somebody talked at us for basically 5 hours, with a half hour lunch break.

I sat there the whole time thinking, 'this is the Normal Accident Theory of Education in action.'  Nobody at my table--7 teachers and a principal--could make durable sense of even 5% of what we all heard.  Our principal finally said, "We'll just have our coach (appointed by the state, I think) help us with this."

In short, this was more rules, regulations, programs, bureaucracies, bureaucrats, Yul Brynner (above), which makes for more confusion, institutional complexity and, therefore, increased likelihood of "failure."

I was also musing on Neil Postman's observation (in his brilliant Technopoly, I think it was) about the growing impulse--now a tidal wave--to numerate everything, so we can measure it, regress it, compare it and analyze it.  At some point during all this talk, one document (or was it a web page, or was it ...who can remember?) had something of an epigraph at the bottom.  It went like this:

If you're not changing the data, you're not changing the school.

Now, I'm sure the folks who created the workshop are sure they understand this.  Or, more to the point, they live and breath some sort of air that tells them that things measured by numbers that we can "assess" are the only things that are really worth talking about because those are the only things you can use to verifiably demonstrate you've accomplished something.  Changed numbers prove you've changed the school.

We assume that the changed numbers reflect a real change in something actually worth changing, and that's actually a pretty big assumption.  The new thinking about how Advanced Placement seats indicates "rigor" and greater "college readiness" is data driven (more students in more AP seats is the goal--numerated, measurable, Yul Brynner) but hasn't exactly worked out the way we might think.  (For a reminder, see here.)

Or take the other angle.  You could change the data, but not really change the school.  (Isn't it student learning we're supposed to be aiming for, anyway?)   I don't want to go very far with this, but just think cheating.  Changed data, no change in student learning.

But be more serious.  The student growth I have to show as part of my teacher evaluation...I can construct assessments that maximize the chances for growth.  I can coach to the assessments (even the state one).  In short, I can show numbers that look good, but I can assure you that they don't necessarily reflect all the learning that young human needs to do.

I think it might be fortunate that I didn't listen to closely today.  That way I can go back to my room without worrying too terribly much about the effects of the bureaucratic tornado that just blew past.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Spirited Discussion?

My post about how long the test will take made it to Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet blog on the Washington Post site.  An interesting (if you're in the teacher business) series of comments followed.  I'm pretty sure the SBAC supporter is an SBAC employee or a consultant working for/with SBAC.

My colleauges say my last post was a little snarky.  I thought I was trying to remain somewhat restrained.

October 1--I added another reply.  I admit, I am getting snarky.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rational Teachers...join unions

Let me be clear...this is not a pitch for unions.  In fact, my colleagues playfully badger me that I'm not more involved with the union.  Rather, this an observation from the Rational Teacher idea I put forward in the last post.

Specifically, if the social environment is one in which teachers feel mis- or distrusted, and more specific (and abstruse) measures of teacher evaluation rest on student test performance (really, either of the bottom 2 cells), rational teachers will find what ways they can to protect themselves.  And the union is offering one way to do that.

While rather indifferent about the union, I can tell you that I will accept them as an ally in resisting non-sensical plans about attaching teacher evaluation to test scores.  I DO NOT mean that I shouldn't be accountable for student growth, so nobody should make dramatic rhetorical leaps in claiming so.

I am saying that one-shot high stakes tests are fantastically incomplete measures of student performance and growth, so I don't want so much riding on that.  Furthermore, such high stakes incentivize ridiculous educational practices, like teaching for test success at the expense of many other things that matter but aren't tested, and, of course, cheating.

I'm not speaking from crass self-interest...it's just my understanding of incentives, rewards, consequences and rational behavior.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Rational Teacher

A couple of the "core" observations that come from economics (at least as experienced at the generalist--read, undergraduate--level) are that incentives affect/shape behavior and everything comes with tradeoffs.  According to economists, people respond rationally to the arrangement of incentives and tradeoffs, as they perceive those.  They (economists) leave it to psychologists to describe and explain the non-rational peculiarities of people, and instead assume that behavior reflects revealed rationality (in this economic sense).  Yes, this view of things relies on a certain set of assumptions (yes, yes, assume a can opener), but every academic discipline does its share of assuming.  For an excellent general and sociologically interesting overview of incentives and tradeoffs, read Nudge.

Teachers are like everyone else...they respond to the incentives you give them--whether intentionally or unintentionally.  So just what do the incentive-tradeoff structures look like for teachers?

The current battles over reform and Common Core obscure, in some degree, deeper issues about varying philosophical orientations to education, particularly the teacher's role vis-à- vis students, and the organizational consequences following on the regulatory realities of the reform movement.

Across the top of the chart below are summaries of an approach to education wherein teachers are thought to have some specialized set of knowledge, wisdom or skills that they are trying to impart to students.  I don't mean indoctrination as a negative, though this "model" is indeed out of favor in Ed. schools and the reform movement.  By contrast, the now preferred emphasis is on teachers "co-learning" with students.  The rhetorical short hand for these models is "teacher-centered" vs. "student-centered," with student-centered held in moral superiority today. 

Down the left side are summaries of two "social" environments in which schools find themselves.  Increasingly, regulation (NCLB, standardization, CCSS, obviously, but other rules about requirements regarding protected groups as well) undermine trust.  It may be the unintentional byproduct of the regulation, but a decreasing sense of trust (of and by teachers) is a real consequence of deepening control by bureaucrats that work at some remove from class rooms.  High Trust and Regulated Environment are inversely related, though low regulation doesn't necessarily mean high trust exists.  Low trust and low regulation would reflect a near total dysfunction, and is not covered in this discussion.

Philosophical View of Education ---->

Patterns of values and behaviors regarding schools
Education as Indoctrination 
Teachers have content knowledge and skill sets to deliver to students; learning accomplished to the degree students receive this knowledge and make it their own
Education as Individual
Teachers “come along side” students to encourage and direct students’ educational processes in more student-driven discovery; education as self-started enquiry

High Trust Environment
Decisions are local and in the building; parents are involved; teachers collaborate with each other and families; schools and teachers safe to try new things
Sage Culture
Must be sure that the teachers are the sages you want, which can be done only with strong and high-functioning relationships between staff and parents.  Currently in disfavor as it’s not “student-centered.”  Also thought of as “traditional” or belonging to bygone era.
Guide Culture
Can be effective education for children--with capable, flexible and adaptive staff, involved parents, and “open” curriculum.  May be delicate to maintain, as high trust is essential, as is good performance.  Both are probably difficult to maintain in the face of creeping bureaucratization.

Regulated Environment
Decision authority resides further up the bureaucratic hierarchy--state and federal departments of education; rules can hamstring relationships by binding teachers and parents
Competing Top-Down Cultures
If the teachers are delivering the content and achieving the outcomes required by the regulation, this will work.  
“Sage” teachers will tend to feel put upon by overweening regulation, though, so this would be a tenuous situation, at best.  If teachers feel the regulatory bodies are alternate “authority” figures undermining or challenging them, this will not work.
Overdetermined Culture
Much more difficult to do, as regulation means structured, routinized and standardized curriculum.  Would likely not be the environment of collaboration between effective teachers and involved parents, because regulatory bodies intervene between the two.  The regulatory authorities heavily determine curriculum, so looser structured classes are less possible.  Since these teachers are more process-oriented than the Sages, the regulatory authorities simply have to assert compelling demands about structures (curriculum, standardized tests, etc.) and outcomes--guides will work with this.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Logistical Train Wreck

One of the Common Core testing consortia just revised (upward) its expectations for how long testing will take.  The new expectation for middle school is 10 1/2 hours per student.

That's over 8000 hours of testing for the 750 students in my middle school.  We have about 125 computers (if we kick out the students who take computer classes in two labs--about 60 computers).

If we do testing for the first four hours of the day (which is a lot), that's 500 hours of testing in a day.  It would take 16 days of testing to complete all of our tests, if everything works rightly each day.

This will be a logistical nightmare--figuring out which 125 students are going on which days, disrupting teachers whose testing students are out of class, finding space for kids who take longer than expected, finding places for the students displaced from their computer lab classes, and more that I'm sure I haven't thought of.

Moreover, we normally test for three hours a day, so only 375 hours a day, so 21 days.  Theoretically, we could do 2 groups each day--750 hours of worth of testing each day.  But that actually more than doubles the logistical problems--moving one set of 125 into the testing for the second half of the day, getting the first 125 out, etc., and most of all it would really mess up lunch.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Best Practice...for locker assignments?

On barely a moment's notice, we 8th grade teachers decided to assign girls the lockers on the second floor, and boys the lockers on the first floor--instead of mixing boys and girls on both floors.  We all consented immediately.  Without any research, and little discussion, we made this decision...and it has been significant.

Yes, it's only been 3 weeks, but the "traffic" patterns before and after school, and between class periods have been smoother and calmer, and maybe a little more efficient.  The primary objective was to minimize the extraneous and random and chance encounters between boys and girls, which too easily allow--especially in spring--relationally problematic interactions between the sexes.

Was that phrase too euphemistic?  Public Displays of Affection (both wanted and unwanted) happen quite a bit in the hallways.  We're thinking that certain types of some kinds of difficulties (harassment, bullying, etc., of a boy-girl nature) might be somewhat reduced under our new arrangements.

I doubt we'll have 'data' on this...you'll just have to trust our gut or intuitive sense that it's been a better arrangement than mixing boys and girls.

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. (Sorry...no 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.