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Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

The Sad Reality: Students Returning to “Hardened” Schools

August 12, 2018 1 comment

Here’s the headline in today’s NYTimes headline article by Patrick Mazzei:

Back-to-School Shopping for Districts: Armed Guards, Cameras and Metal Detectors

The article describes the sad reality of public education’s reaction to school shootings:

  • We are investing millions on armed guards who monitor children and FAR too little on staff members who could provide support to teachers and parents when students become disengaged and depressed.
  • We are using precious and limited staff development time to train teachers on how to use tourniquets instead of how to identify and deal with students who are disengaged and depressed.
  • We are redoubling the lockdown drill training, increasing the frequency and “reality” of school shooting drills that increase anxiety and fear among students.
  • We are spending millions of limited dollars to acquire fences, sophisticated surveillance cameras, and metal detectors while roofs leak, many schools lack the technology infrastructure needed to prepare students for the future, and many teachers dig ever deeper in their pockets to provide students with school supplies.
  • We are seeking more funds from taxpayers for these expenditures at a time when spending for education overall has decreased in real dollars since the Great Recession… and decreased substantially in many states.
  • And in 10 states, districts will be debating the feasibility of arming classroom teachers… a debate that will use precious time at school board meetings, time that could be used to debate other means of dealing with student alienation and despair that leads to the school shootings.

I completely understand the urgent need to “do something”… but I am distressed that the “something” seldom addresses the root causes of student violence, which have little to do with “arms control” or “hardening” schools and more to do with making schools warm and welcoming to each and every student enrolled. I hope in the days ahead to read of a district who is taking steps in THAT direction!  I despair that we are creating schools that make 24/7 surveillance in fenced environments patrolled by armed guards the norm for our future citizens.

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Eliminating Age-Based Grade Levels Face Three BiG Obstacles: Federal Standardized Test Mandates; State Laws;…and Parents

August 7, 2018 Comments off

A recent Hechinger Report monograph written by Chris Berdik describes the challenges a rural North Dakota district faced when teachers in the school decided to eliminate grade levels, and they boil down to three obstacles at three different levels… all driven by one overarching issue: mandated tests. This short paragraph from the report summarizes the problem:

Of course, no matter what individual states and districts allow, federal law still mandates grade-level-pegged testing. Education departments use those scores to evaluate schools. Quite often, so do parents.

These two sentences encapsulate the daunting challenge teachers and administrators face when they propose radical but necessary changes needed to truly individualize instruction. The age-based cohorts that we call “grade levels” are the basis for comparisons of all kinds, comparisons that are the basis for competition between students and, of late, competition among schools. And one troublesome issue for many parents is this: if grade levels disappear how will I know how well my child is doing compared to his or her peers? As Mr. Berdik article implies, when that question disappears, teachers are left to focus on the interests and aptitudes each child possesses and focus less on how a child compares with their age peers. I, for one, see this as a positive benefit of abandoning age-based cohorts.

If readers do not believe it is possible to transform schools, Mr. Berdik’s article offers a crude roadmap for making the transition. It isn’t easy, but the benefits far outweigh the pain of change.

Larry Cuban Explains Why Efficiency is the Enemy in Measuring Learning

August 1, 2018 Comments off

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday with a link to a post written by Larry Cuban describing the new “Cult of Efficiency” that reformers embrace when they measure school performance. Both posts implicitly decry the potential for technology and testing to enhance classroom teaching and student learning, a denunciation that is ultimately based on the premise that the ultimate metric for teaching effectiveness will be norm-referenced state tests. Mr. Cuban, for example, writes:

What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as modern-day entrepreneurs and practical reformers, using the vocabulary of pedagogical Progressives want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive workplace.

These reformers are of two types. Some want individual students to master the content and skills found in district and state curriculum standards in less time than usual while spending the least amount of money to achieve mastery. Examples would be current versions of competency-based learning aligned to, say, Common Core standards or programs such as Teach To One.

Other entrepreneurs and technology advocates see schools as places to create whole  human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. To these reformers, efficient ways that reduce waste while integrating student interests and passions into daily activities with the help of teachers. Students make decisions about what to learn and take as long as they can to demonstrate mastery while meeting curriculum standards and posting high scores on state tests.

I would argue that there is a third kind of efficiency-minded “administrative progressive”: one who values the use of business practices in overseeing the business functions of school districts while rejecting the notion that those practices can be used in the classroom, particularly if state tests are the only metric used to determine “success”.

Any school leader who rejects the need for efficiency in non-instructional areas like transportation, maintenance, purchasing, and food services is squandering resources that could be used for instruction.

On the other hand, any school leader who embraces the use of state standardized tests as the sole and ultimate metric for student learning is simultaneously embracing the notion the all students of a certain age learn at the same rate, a notion that is preposterous. State tests are normative and, as such, assume that learning time is a constant and individual student learning is variable.

Efficiency is the enemy to improvement of schools when it is based on normative test scores that are linked to age-based cohorts. But efficiency-mindedness has the possibility of improving instruction when it is driven by formative test scores that are untethered to the construct of “grade levels” and driven by a wider array of metrics that attempt to capture elusive but important aspects of schooling like “student well-being”. A district that values only test scores will relentlessly drill students on test preparation and deny opportunities for physical and arts education. A district that seeks to improve the well-being of students will form partnerships with social services, health care providers, and care-givers before and after school and offer an expansive array of programs outside of content that can be readily measured by standardized tests.

 

Palm Beach Florida Exemplifies Disturbing Result of Flat Funding: Mid-Career Teachers Lose

July 28, 2018 Comments off

An article by Andrew Marra in yesterday’s Pal Beach Post describes the impact of a 2003 decision to withhold “automatic raises” on the mid-career teachers today… and it isn’t a pretty picture.

The article doesn’t offer a detailed description of the “automatic raises”, but it is evident that they are the pay increases that result from the traditional unified pay schedule that provides teachers with both a “step” and a “cost-of-living” (COLA) increase in their pay. The article indicates that in 2003 the Superintendent proposed eliminating these raises should a financial crisis warrant such action and the Board at that time concurred by a 4-3 vote. When the Great Recession took place, the step + COLA increases for mid-career teachers were abandoned entirely and eventually replaced with flat across-the-board pay increases. To make matters worse, the State funding for public education was flattened making any compensation increases a zero-sum game, and in that zero-sum environment mid-career teachers experienced diminished compensation so that new hires could get competitive pay. To make matters worse, the Florida State legislature passed a bill that required districts to give teachers rated “highly effective” larger raises than those rated “effective” based on test scores. Consequently, Marra reports that “highly effective” teachers generally receive an extra $350 to $450 when raises are given out. And as district officials note, this combined with flat funding makes it difficult for districts to address the under-compensation.

Mark Mitchell, the school district’s director of compensation, defended the district’s handling of teacher pay over the years, saying that no individual teacher’s pay was ever cut.

He said that what the district spends on employee salaries is largely constrained by the money the state Legislature provides each year.

State lawmakers’ unusually low boosts to education spending since the recession, he said, has made honoring the teachers’ old salary schedule impossible.

“When we started giving increases again, we couldn’t afford what was on the schedule,” he said. “We tried to do everything we could with what the state gave us.”

Years ago when I was in high school, I recall accompanying my mother to the grocery store and seeing my calculus teacher (and Mathematics Department head) working at the cash register. Even though I felt that it was demeaning to see my favorite teacher working at a menial part-time job, it didn’t prevent me from going into teaching. But the experience did make it clear that I would not be able to be a teacher unless I supplemented by income in some way… and did make the path to becoming an administrator more enticing.

I am not an advocate for the unified pay schedule, though I understand it’s appeal to teachers because it is usually fair and predictable. But I AM an advocate for providing enough compensation to teachers so that they can devote all of their time and energy to educating the children in their classrooms. If our country, our States, and our school districts are serious about providing all children with an opportunity for success, we need to provide the resources needed to ensure that they are taught by individuals whose attention is fully focussed on them… and not on the line of customers awaiting them at a grocery store.

Robots Cannot Replace Humans When it Comes to Grading Essays— But No Matter! They are Cheap, Fast, and Unbiased.

July 17, 2018 Comments off

NPR recently ran a story by Tovia Smith on the use of robots (or more precisely computers) to grade student essays and found to no educators’ surprise, that they were not not up to the task. The story opens with this quiz:

Multiple-choice tests are useful because:

A: They’re cheap to score.

B: They can be scored quickly.

C: They score without human bias.

D: All of the above.

It would take a computer about a nano-second to mark “D” as the correct answer. That’s easy.

But now, machines are also grading students’ essays. Computers are scoring long form answers on anything from the fall of the Roman Empire, to the pros and cons of government regulations.

From this point forward in the story, Ms. Smith provides an account of the expansion of the use of computer-graded essays, work done by MIT research affiliate, Les Perelman, who has developed algorithms that generate nonsense responses to machine-graded essays that yield high scores, a rebuttal to Mr. Perelman’s work by ETS, who argue, in effect, that if someone is smart enough to game to the essays they deserve the high grade, and the “cat-and-mouse” game underway to catch students who use algorithms in states that have adopted computerized grading.

At the end of the report, Ms. Smith hits on the real problem with computerized grading: it compels teachers to teach students formulaic writing.

Indeed, being a good writer is not the same thing as being a “higher-scoring GRE essay writer,” says Orion Taraban, executive director of Stellar GRE, a tutoring company in San Francisco.

“Students really need to appreciate that they’re writing for a machine … [and when students] agonize over crafting beautiful, wonderfully logically coherent and empirically validated paragraphs, it’s like pearls before swine. The computer can’t appreciate what this person has done and they don’t get the score that they deserve.”

Instead, Taraban tutors students to give the computer what it wants. “I train them in fabricating evidence and fabricating fake studies, which is a lot of fun,” he says, quickly adding, “but I also tell them not to do this in real life.”

For example, when writing a persuasive essay, Taraban advises students to use a basic formula and get creative. It goes something like this:

A [pick any year] study by Professor [fill in any old name] at the [insert your favorite university] in which the authors analyze [summarize the crux of the debate here], researchers discovered that [insert compelling data here] … and that [offer more invented, persuasive evidence here.] This demonstrates that [go to town boosting your thesis here!]”

It results in a kind of mad-lib writing that is anything but artful, thoughtful, or pleasing to read. But it is cheap, easy, unbiased, and unbiased…. and the ultimate triumph of efficiency over excellence.

 

DC Miracle Story Evidence of Traction of “Fake News”

June 30, 2018 Comments off

A few days ago AP writer Ashram Kahlil wrote an article titled “DC’S Public Schools Go from Success Story to Cautionary Tale“, a story that was picked up by NPR and some other mainstream news outlets. But alas, Time magazine is unlikely to run a cover story with Michelle Rhee sitting on a dunce stool or holding a broken broom.

In 2008, both Time and Newsweek offered overs depicting then rising star Michelle Rhee, the no-nonsense DC Superintendent who pledged to clean up the public schools in that city by implemented a test-and-punish policy that garnered support among those who thought schools needed to be operated using a no nonsense “business” approach and negative attention from anyone who actually worked in schools and realized that instead of a clean sweep their schools needed new floors, new lighting, and more money.

Since 2008, funding for schools has diminished, in some cases in real dollars and in all cases in terms of actual funding… and the consequences of test-and-punish has not been the improvement of test scores but rather the expansion of corruption in the administration of those high stakes tests. And DC has had its eyes blackened badly. As Mr. Kahlil reports:

As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country.

Now the situation in the District of Columbia could not be more different. After a series of rapid-fire scandals, including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure.

This stunning reversal has left school administrators and city officials scrambling for answers and pledging to regain the public’s trust.

A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011. Glowing news articles cited examples such as Ballou High School, a campus in a low-income neighborhood where the entire 2017 graduating class applied for college.

Then everything unraveled.

An investigation by WAMU, the local NPR station, revealed that about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else — with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics.

The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences. In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department, while the D.C. Council has repeatedly called for answers and accountability.

It takes a long time to inculcate a culture of support, but a culture of fear can be implemented rapidly… and once that culture is in place it is hard to change. And that culture is especially hard to change when “salaries and job security tied to specific metrics” and those metrics can be manipulated by those who will be damaged the most: the administrators and politicians who based their careers and campaigns on their ability “…to improve public education.”

And who implemented this culture that resulted from salaries and job security tied to specific metrics?

As Mr. Kahlil reports in his closing paragraphs… it was none other than Michelle Rhee:

Critics view the problems, particularly the attendance issue, as an indictment of the entire data-driven evaluation system instituted a more than a decade ago when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty took over the school system and appointed Michelle Rhee as the first chancellor. Rhee’s ambitious plan to clear out dead wood and focus on accountability for teachers and administrators landed her on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom. But now analysts question whether Rhee’s emphasis on performance metrics has created a monster.  

Readers of this blog know the answer to that question: there is no doubt that the test-and-punish methods supported by Ms. Rhee and her follow reformers created a monster… but it’s serving their purposes: it is creating the impression that public schools are not only “failing” based on those test scores, but they are now “corrupt” because of the actions of a handful of administrators whose continued employment required them to boost them.

And here’s one fact that remains the same today as it was in 2008: the teachers who work in poverty stricken urban and rural districts like DC are giving their hearts and should to the jobs and the administrators in those same schools are being over backwards to support them. But a cover article lionizing public school teachers and principals is not nearly as compelling as one showing that an inexpensive one-size-fits-all solution is the best way to fix schools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Failing Students Based on Standardized Test Scores is Irrational… but Persists Because of Our Mental

May 16, 2018 Comments off

Diane Ravitch wrote a post drawing from an op ed piece written by Michigan teacher Nancy Flanagan decrying the Michigan’s third grade “mandatory retention legislation” that requires schools to fail any third grader who scores below a certain level on the standardized tests used to determine “proficiency”. Ms. Flanagan writes:

What to do about children who are not confident readers in third grade? We could begin by taking the resources it will cost to retain them for a year (minimally, $10K per child) and spending it on supplemental instruction: in-school tutoring, libraries filled with easy, engaging books, after-school programs, summer reading clubs and books for children to take home.

We could offer smaller instructional groupings. We could stop the merry-go-round of silver-bullet ‘solutions,’ from emergency managers to charter schools to one-size-fits-all scripted curricula.

We could genuinely invest in our children, believing in their capacity to master not only the skill of reading, but to become an informed, productive citizen.

Reading this brought to mind my favorite Peter Senge quote: “Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner”…

Politicians, parents, and pundits view time as a constant and learning as a variable instead of the other way around because we group and asses children based on their age. Standardized testing reinforces this structure and when standardized testing is linked to “promote” students from one grade level to the next by politicians it creates a group of “failures” who in many cases just need time to mature. It would be preposterous to “fail” a child whose physical maturation rate was different from his age peers, but somehow it is “rational” to “fail” a child who can’t learn reading and math skills at the same rate as his or her age peers… especially if that learning is measured by a seemingly precise tool like a standardized test!

It is possible to tailor instruction to meet the unique needs of each child by matching instruction to their rate of learning… but our current structure reinforces the practice of grouping children by age and comparing children to each other, which holds us prisoner to the current factory paradigm.

Ms. Flanagan essentially urges us to change the dominant paradigm by changing the one-size-fits-all scripted curricula. I wold take it a step further to suggest we need to stop the one-growth-rate-fits-all structure we impose when we group and assess children by age.