28 September 2008

AWOL

I really don't know where the last week has gone. It's a blur of meetings, road warrior activities, and the occasional stab at sleep---some of it interesting, but mostly not. In other words, it doesn't make for very good blog fodder. And while I've never been 100% sure which purpose this blog would serve, I know that I don't want it to simply be a catalog of the days' minutiae. Most of the time I'm not interested in it. I don't think anyone else would be, either. Therefore, I've been AWOL from the blog.

Amongst the hodgepodge of my days, I have been trying to ponder something a bit larger. I'm just grasping at it for now, but perhaps my always astute Readers might have some direction for me.
What is the purpose in teaching science in public schools?
I think that when I was in the classroom, the answer to this question was much clearer to me. But from the level I operate in now, the answer is mushy. It comes from the difference between being someone trying to shape policy vs. my old life where I just had to carry it out; however, I can't help but think that at a state or national agency, there is an even greater need to have a clear vision. The reason I am wrestling with this now more than ever comes down to the issue of accountability. Here are the two driving questions:
Should adults and students in the public schools be held accountable for what students learn in science? If so, what should that accountability look like?
Let's talk about kids for a moment. If we hold students accountable, then what should that look like? Is earning credit for high school courses enough---if so, how many credits? Should we direct what kinds of courses would be eligible or leave it up to school districts? If we increase requirements, what do we do about schools which don't have enough lab space or can't find high qualified teachers? Do we, instead, insist on using standardized tests as a measure for kids? What does this mean if the number of credits required for graduation would be completed after the test? Do we need a second accountability factor? I've been pondering what types of accountability might make sense and how those might be implemented and monitored. I actually like our standardized test for science in this state---but I can't say that I like that it's tied to graduation (or will be in a few years). When I read something like What Does Educational Testing Really Tell Us? over on Eduwonkette's blog, I can't help but nod in agreement...and yet, I'm hard pressed to suggest alternatives.

As for adults, that's a more difficult issue in some ways. At my place of work, we've had a few discussions about the time students (especially in the elementary grades) have to engage with science content. It's no secret that with the increased pressure on schools to raise achievement in math and reading, science and other content areas are being squeezed out. (see previous posts on studies of time spent on elementary science and its push-pull with literacy) But this brings up another question: How much time is "enough" for each content area? I know that the answer really isn't simple---every child's capabilities are different and every school serves a different population. However, can we make some general observations? Education Week seems to think we might be able to draw a few conclusions on the Effects of Extra Time for Learning. Yes, quantity can help, but quality is more important. "More" does not automatically equal "Better."

The heart of this whole problem is that without an accountability measure (e.g. AYP), schools won't teach (very much) science to kids...which gets me back to my original question: What is our purpose? I think that if this was well-defined, it would be easier to determine whether or not accountability should be required and what that looks like. Instead, we're trying to figure out all of these things at once. It seems disrespectful not to give each part of this issue its own bit of attention.

So, if things have been a bit quiet around ye olde blog, just know that I'm trying to find a way to balance the noise and pressure of my day with what I think my job should really be about. What do you think I should be doing?

24 September 2008

Carnival Escape

It's a busy day here with meetings aplenty, fires to douse, and potholes to dodge. If you're like me, and need a happy place to visit, why not see what this week's Carnival of Education has to offer? Mamacita is ghost-blogging over at Steve Spangler's place and has (per usual) done a great job of putting together a diversity of posts from around the edusphere. So go on over and forget about your cares for awhile this Wednesday.

22 September 2008

The Only Thing Worse Than Being Talked About

...is not being talked about. And finally, people around the edusphere are starting to talk about grades: the good, the bad, and the ugly of them all. Here are a few choice posts for you to peruse:
  • The WaPo notes that In Grading Levels, The Playing Field Is Seldom Even. Some parents of Fairfax students want the percentages associated with A's, B's, and C's to match those of surrounding school districts so that college entrance opportunities are "fair." But can that really happen where grades are concerned?
  • Todd over at Thoughts on Teaching is wrestling with the Rubric to Percentage demon. I've danced with that devil myself here and here. I don't agree with his solution, mainly because a rubric score really represents a range of performance, not a specific percentage; but, I'm glad to see someone else take a stab at it. Every approach helps me refine my own thinking.
  • Meanwhile, Corey has decided that Grades are Stupid. In some ways, he's right. He did provide some further explanation of his reasoning, but frankly, it's the others who make the most sense. For those who don't like the idea of the lowest "grade" being a 50, just make the highest grade a 50 and keep your zeros. The goal is to make the scale equitable.
  • And Hugh is atwitter over a Historic Board Meeting where standards-based grading practices will finally meet policy. Will it be love at first sight? Go see for yourself.
I am hoping that the grading buzz I've seen in the edusphere this past week is the part of a promising trend. Public education has put off this discussion for far too long. It's not going to always be a pretty road ahead, but it's time we started talking.

21 September 2008

Archetypes and Prototypes

I am part "Dear Abby" with my new job. One of the programs I support involves various teacher leaders around the state---nearly all of them novices with this role. The satisfaction and fulfillment that has come from mentorship in the past has been renewed in guiding these newbie staff developers. That being said, this is the first time I've served in such a role with those who are working with adults, rather than students. This is a whole different animal.

There are certain archetypes of teachers out there. Not every teacher will fall under a label, and I am not going to catalog them all. But here are the three most common ones that my charges are asking about:
  • Coach First, Teacher Second: There is no doubt that athletic coaches have an incredible amount of commitment to their student athletes. A considerable amount of time is spent outside the school day---and in addition to the regular sports season---to guide and develop skills. A few coaches, however, make this their primary reason for being employed by the school and things that are classroom related take such a backseat that they make no allowances for collaborating with peers. Is there a solution? Yes and no. First of all, I remind the teachers I support that it is not their responsibility to set expectations: that task belongs to the administrator. Suggest the occasional half-day of release time to collaborate with others during the sports season and then move to other mutually agreed upon meeting times. I make it clear to my noobs that they do have a responsibility to put together some powerful professional development. If they can show the coach that the collaborative time is meaningful, they won't have to beg anymore.
  • Superstar Teacher: Superstar teacher is an administrator's dream. This teacher has a great system in the classroom. He's loved by kids and parents, gets results---and does it all by himself. There is no arrogance associated with his performance, just professional satisfaction. So, how do you get these kinds of teachers to share their knowledge with others? My first recommendation is bribery. These are teachers who are self-directed in their professional learning. They will want a subscription to a website, the latest ASCD book, or sub coverage to attend a workshop. Whatever you offer must be coupled with some honest flattery. Tell them you've noticed certain lessons they've designed or student projects they've guided. Would they mind sharing a couple of ideas with the new teacher in the department? Providing some advice?
  • Dead Wood: Dead Wood likes her classroom door closed. She's been teaching for 20 years, and poorly at that, and isn't much interested in whatever staff development you're offering. Job security is hers as her efforts aren't quite poor enough that any administrator will jump through the necessary hoops to get her out of the classroom. Perhaps you can at least bring her to the table with other teachers to talk about student learning? You might. Start small. Ask her for help, even if you don't need it. Pretend you're looking for a lesson a particular topic or ask for a copy of a lab you know she has. Just get your foot in the door and honor the positive things that she does have to offer. Don't push collaboration for a bit and focus on building her self-image of someone who is a resource. Later, after you have the trust and relationship built, invite her to join your group.
In all cases, it really is about taking the time to build a positive working relationship with one's peers. My advice may appear manipulative, but they are only suggestions for getting things kicked off. I always tell the staff developers that I trust their professional judgment. They know their teachers far better than I and will have to make the final determination. These staff developers are attempting to be prototypes---or role models---for their peers in terms of what implementation of best practices looks like. In order to be effective, though, they will need to learn how to address the archetypes in their buildings.

20 September 2008

Satan's Little Helper

While I can jump to a conclusion as good as anyone, I'd rather spend some time speculating and pondering possibilities. Occam's Razor suggests that "All things being equal, the simplest solution is the best." But I don't feel like I can identify the answer with the fewest assumptions until I've considered a variety of options. Just call me The Devil's Advocate...or, if you like, Satan's Little Helper.

If nothing else, I am able to get people to take a time out before making a final decision. I feel like at the level I work at, this is critical. Policies and practices have the potential to affect thousands of stakeholders. I think they deserve to have us step back from a rush to judgment and think through things one. more. time. I would rather take the full allotment of time and do things right, rather than hurry through a process simply because five other issues are also breathing down our necks.

Call me what you will. I prefer to think of myself as a lateral thinker.

15 September 2008

Garbage In, Garbage Out

In my last post, I ranted a bit about the low standards I think most staff developers have. I don't know very many who can walk their talk---and that's rather pathetic, in my view. This post is geared more toward administrators and school boards and again, I hope that teachers will weigh in. What I want to think about now is "output." If a principal brings in someone to do some staff development, there must be some sort of reason. There is an initiative the principal wants to support or perhaps she hopes to reverse some sort of trend in student achievement. Teacher time is expensive. Think about the number of teachers you have at a staff meeting and what they're being paid per hour (including benefits). How much is this meeting costing the district, even before adding in materials, cookies, and (at times) a paid consultant? Are you getting your money's worth? Is it just another example of GIGO (see post header)? How do you know?

I don't think that saying we expect scores on state tests to go up is enough. Again, thinking about the differentiation idea from my previous post, shouldn't we expect our "assessment" of staff development to be broader than simply measuring student scores? Perhaps more importantly, there are very few valid and reliable ways to connect staff development to student achievement---there are just too many variables involved. In other words, just because student scores go up in Mrs. X's class doesn't mean it was because she participated in a PLC in the past year. To do so means assuming that there were no other changes to her practice, the sample of students was roughly the same (gender, ethnicity, SES...), and so forth. We have to step back. The goal of professional development is to change teacher behavior. Whatever we use to assess and evaluate that has to focus on teachers, not kids.

So, what might be some appropriate ways for teachers to show what they know? Teachers are among the most creative people I've ever met. I don't think they should be limited to writing lesson plans using the new "it" strategy in the school. Obviously, I love the idea of blogging, but there are other electronic media which could be just as useful. An admin wrote this post last May about an Instructional Council where admins would bring their favourite thing to share. Kind of a grown up show-and-tell PLC. I really like that idea. How many of us get excited about something we've discovered or tried, but don't have an outlet to share it with others? I'm still thinking about Clay Shirky's article on the idea of Cognitive Surplus. We have so many more tools with which to be creative these days---how do we harness that? How do we encourage new types of "output" for teachers? Or even old ones like presenting at conferences instead of just attending?

We don't expect students in our classrooms to just be passive vessels. We demand that they demonstrate their learning for us. We want to see multiple and different models. Why do we not have the same expectations for our teachers?

14 September 2008

Differentiation Isn't Just for the Classroom

I have been chewing the proverbial fat on two ideas as of late. I'm going to share one today and spit out the other tomorrow. (Sound appetizing so far?) Both deal with different aspects of professional development for teachers. While I'll be approaching these posts from the staff developer lens, I am hoping you teachers out there will chime in with your two cents---because really, these ideas are about you.

Every August, I read post after post about cringe-worthy staff development days as teachers go back to school. I defy you to find me any veteran of the classroom who doesn't have at least one example of excruciating staff development that they endured (myself included). But over the last five years, I've had a chance to also be on the other end of PowerPoint and design staff development. I do a pretty darned good job with it, too, based on the feedback I get from teachers---who are usually harsh, but fair, critics.

I base my design on a few key things. First of all, the needs of adults as learners are different from those of school-age students. I think this is where a lot of professional development (PD) people fall down. They don't respect the needs of their audience. In the quest to model certain strategies or techniques, they choose to treat teachers as if they were children. I'm sorry, but that dog don't hunt. While I encourage and engage in modeling good instruction, I don't need to talk down to teachers to do it. Secondly, the elements of high quality lesson design for the classroom can (and should) be applied for staff development. Again, this does not mean you have to view adults as kiddies, but it does mean that there should be a Big Idea driving the instruction and that there should be multiple "input" methods (not just sit-and-get with PowerPoint). In short, differentiation is key in giving people various ways to connect with the material. If the material is important enough to take up teacher time, then they deserve to have a rich learning experience. Do your homework, staff developers.

If we step out even further and consider a district as a single unit, shouldn't the overarching plan for staff development be differentiated? I got to thinking about this again after reading Mrs. Sommerville's comment on my recent PLCs: Jumping the Shark post. Her district has School Board mandated Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). And while I'm sure that they haven't directed exactly what each group will focus on during these times, I'm a little nervous about any district that has a "one size fits all" policy where teachers are concerned. PLCs can be fabulous things...but they won't be productive for every single teacher. How can we use one breath to express the need for teachers to do whatever it takes to reach every child in the classroom and in the next assume that teachers are all cookie-cutters? If the most influential factor in student achievement is the classroom teacher, shouldn't districts be doing what they can to reach every adult who works there?

I am chafing against this a bit in my new role...working with some people who, I believe, don't get "it." The "it" being effective professional development that is respective of adult learners and differentiated according to need. I think as leaders that we should expect more of ourselves than creating a basic presentation plan simply because that's the easiest thing to do. Hey, we might as well just push play on a pre-recorded PowerPoint and read the newspaper while attendees scribble down notes. That's a great example of learning for them to take back to schools, dontcha know? How do I shake them out of that mode of thinking? What do I do to get them to wake up?

So far, I've just mentioned planning and delivery here---in my next post, I want to talk about the missing aspect of most PD: output. For now, though, weigh in and let me know what you wish staff developers considered when preparing to spend time with you. What things have I forgotten or should change on my list?

13 September 2008

Wanted: Glucose

I spend a lot of my days with my stomach growling...which is both unusual and also a bit puzzling. Let's face it, it's not like I'm doing hard labour or undertaking feats of athletic greatness. I'm usually sitting at my desk fussing over spreadsheets, attempting to stem the tide of e-mail, or in some sort of meeting. These are not major calorie-burning activities. I assure you that little or no sweating is involved. And then, I saw this article from Science Daily:
A Université Laval research team has demonstrated that intellectual work induces a substantial increase in calorie intake. The details of this discovery, which could go some way to explaining the current obesity epidemic, are published in the most recent issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

The research team, supervised by Dr. Angelo Tremblay, measured the spontaneous food intake of 14 students after each of three tasks: relaxing in a sitting position, reading and summarizing a text, and completing a series of memory, attention, and vigilance tests on the computer. After 45 minutes at each activity, participants were invited to eat as much as they wanted from a buffet.

The researchers had already shown that each session of intellectual work requires only three calories more than the rest period. However, despite the low energy cost of mental work, the students spontaneously consumed 203 more calories after summarizing a text and 253 more calories after the computer tests. This represents a 23.6% and 29.4 % increase, respectively, compared with the rest period.

Blood samples taken before, during, and after each session revealed that intellectual work causes much bigger fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels than rest periods. "These fluctuations may be caused by the stress of intellectual work, or also reflect a biological adaptation during glucose combustion," hypothesized Jean-Philippe Chaput, the study's main author. The body could be reacting to these fluctuations by spurring food intake in order to restore its glucose balance, the only fuel used by the brain.

"Caloric overcompensation following intellectual work, combined with the fact that we are less physically active when doing intellectual tasks, could contribute to the obesity epidemic currently observed in industrialized countries," said Mr. Chaput. "This is a factor that should not be ignored, considering that more and more people hold jobs of an intellectual nature," the researcher concluded.

Okay, so maybe I'm not an intellectual; but there's no doubt my brain is on a steep learning curve with the new job. I am inundated with various novel things to absorb. My body may be doing very little, but my brain is in Energizer Bunny Mode...and in its quest for ready energy, it's making me think I'm hungry. So, I've been stocking up on some 100-calorie packs of food and some fruit to have at work with me. Hopefully some small bites during the day will keep my mind going and my stomach quiet.

10 September 2008

Meetingful Wednesday

This week's theme at work has been "all meetings...all the time," which doesn't make for much to write about. Why not click on over to this week's Carnival of Education, where the Core Knowledge blog has managed to put together a [insert collective noun for blog entries] of great posts? You'll be glad you did.

Anyone has a suggestion for the collective noun we should use, leave it in the comments. Personally, I'm leaning toward "cloud."

07 September 2008

Jumping the Shark: PLCs

If you're new to the term "Jumping the Shark," it is defined by JumptheShark.com as "...a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on...it's all downhill. Some call it the climax. We call it 'Jumping the Shark.' From that moment on, the program will simply never be the same." Why the weird term? For you youngsters out there, "The aforementioned expression refers to the telltale sign of the demise of Happy Days, our favorite example, when Fonzie actually 'jumped the shark.' The rest is history."

There are several ways a program can show that demonstrate that it has run its course, many of which happen after the public is fatigued of hearing/reading/talking about the show---overexposure making the producers think they need something "fresh."

I got to wondering about whether or not this happens in education after reading Polski3's post about PLCs. If you haven't heard of PLCs, the acronym (we do luvs us some acronyms in education) stands for Professional Learning Communities. According to SEDL, PLCs are groups of "teachers in a school and its administrators continuously seek and share learning and then act on what they learn. The goal of their actions is to enhance their effectiveness as professionals so that students benefit." (As an aside, anyone who can find a single place on the SEDL website where they explain what their acronym stands for should get a big shiny gold star. It's apparently a State secret or something.)

There's nothing wrong with the PLC concept---in fact, there's a whole lotta right with it. Teachers talking about student learning and instruction? Downright awesome. But it is perilously close to jumping the shark when mass implementation occurs without the necessary structures in place. It becomes another one of those things that schools say they do, but---to borrow another perilously poised on waterskis term---don't "implement with fidelity." (RtI, anyone?) We toss out the idea of PLCs to teachers without working through issues of time for meetings, protocols for discussions, and coaching on which changes to instruction will move more kids forward. We assume that every teacher already has the skills and desire to make PLCs work. Worse yet, we think that PLCs will be a one-size-fits-all mode of staff development that will best serve all teachers. We do this because there is some good research coming out about the effectiveness of PLCs. Admins and teacher leaders go to conferences and drink the kool-aid. Some teams of teachers will thrive, others will implode due to personality conflicts, lack of administrative support, or other reasons.

It doesn't take a long time to find the grizzled veterans in a school---the ones who don't buy into anything new presented to them because they either believe "This, too, shall pass." as have hundreds of other initiatives over the years or because "Everything old is new again.": they've seen and done it before, only with a differently named package. Either way, they can smell a shark a mile away. Are there ways to prevent this? Education doesn't have a very good track record of starting something and then leaving it in place long enough to really determine if its working. With PLCs, you're talking about a significant change in the way many schools do business. Are we going to take care with how we do this...or are we just going to let it go and wait until the next feeding frenzy?

06 September 2008

Can't We All Just Get Along?

My job includes mediation between a lot of different stakeholders---all of whom think they know what's best for kids. And while their passion is welcome, the truth about "what's best" lies somewhere in the midst of all the various ideas. I have to try and tease out just what that might be and be the peacemaker.

I find that I can't keep things at an impersonal level. You see, I have my own ideas about what's best for kids. I admit that I have certain biases. I am far more likely to listen to a classroom teacher who is working with children every day than I am to a college prof who has never taught a single day in a public school in her life. There are those who are all about the science, and not about the realities of life in the classroom---and others who are entirely focused on instruction, but differ on content. As for me? I think I'm more of the latter. Make no mistake---my job is about science education; however, I feel like I am being naive if I don't consider the pre-k through 12 spectrum, connections with ed tech, literacy, and so on. I am more interested in talking about practical applications and realities and people who understand them than I am about the theory behind science standards. I think it's good to be able to state these various proclivities. I'd prefer to be up front with people and let them know that when they come to the table with me, they're far more likely to have my attention and support if they have their thoughts organized, and are ready to focus on what will make as immediate and positive difference as possible for teachers and students.

The reality is, of course, that what I want and what I often get are different things. I am learning to adapt. For those who are random thinkers (or the occasional Big Picture type of person who can't deal with details), I let them ramble. The jumbled course of conversation grates on me, but I channel my energy into taking lots of notes. I organize the information in a way which lets me take some control of it. Then, I take a break. (This job means I am doing an awful lot of walking at lunchtime. LOL) I make a series of very specific questions to ask the person based on the "holes" in the conversation. Then, I go back and get the clarification I need. This strategy is working very well.

What about pushy people whose egos barely fit into the room? The ones who are legends in their own minds? I have run across only a handful of them...and am grateful that they are a rarity. I can respect their opinions without catering to their whims. But making it clear that I am not going to kow-tow to certain demands requires a certain type of skill I've never had to exercise. My district position was such that I had all of the responsibility and none of the authority for the projects I was charged with. Now, I have both. That is not reason for me to abuse the level of authority that I have (any more than it is okay for the Ego Brigade), but it is comforting to know that I do not have to negotiate everything. I am good at give and take on a lot of things, but those rare few that I am willing to go to the mattresses for? My ace in the hole is to just be able to say "No." If the egotists want to have a hissy fit, so be it---nothing will change their view that everything in life is an all or none proposition. So far, I've only had to exercise my right to say "No." once, and there is nothing on the horizon which suggests that another similar situation is coming soon. I'd much rather compromise, and most other personalities would, too.

I'm learning to delegate, another skill which most teachers don't have to develop. We don't get secretarial support for our classrooms. There aren't people who take care of our travel, mail, copies, supply orders, and so on. With the new job, it's hard for the control freak in me to let go enough to trust someone with some of the tasks on my plate...and yet, there is no way I could possibly do them all. I need someone who understands how to navigate all of the bureaucracy and chase down the details. Fortunately, there is wonderful support in this area, and I am teachable. I'm getting the hang of having partners with the efforts. My problem, however, is I'm much more interested in getting in and getting my hands dirty. I want to do the professional development with teachers. I want to get out and work with coaches in classrooms. I want to participate with various groups. But my new role is one that is more heavy on the idea side---that I should come up with these things and then find people (and trust them) to properly carry out the work. I'm not ready to do that, yet. And, frankly, I'm not sure it's desirable. If I don't keep my feet in classrooms somehow, how will I ever know the changing needs of teachers and schools?

After three weeks on the job, the training wheels are starting to come off and I am being expected to manage the load given to me. It is a staggering amount of work and the scale is enormous. Slowly, but surely, I'm learning to balance the needs of competing stakeholders, job expectations, and my own vision for the work. I'd like to think that all of that can fit neatly with the rest of my life...that it will all just get along.

04 September 2008

Science Education News

A couple of articles to share this week...

First of all, Dan over at the Principal Learner pointed out Stanford News' piece on how Using Everyday Language to Teach Science May Help Students Learn. Anyone who's taught science at any grade level knows that vocabulary can be a major barrier to conceptual learning---even in constructivist situations. The study reviewed here approaches science vocabulary in a similar fashion to learning a new language. Simpler terms are used first until the concepts are understood and this serves as scaffolding for the scientific vocabulary. There are some definite limitations to this particular piece of research, as pointed out in the article, and I'm not wild about all of the word choices made...but then, I'm not so sure that a fifth grader really needs to understand photosynthesis, either. What I do like, however, is that this study focused on kids actually using terminology---not just memorizing it. I think that's a move in the right direction.

Dan might be interested in this recent Education Week article on how Principals Are Seen As Key in Science Instruction. I suppose the argument might be made that such leadership is essential for all content areas, but the authors assert that it is especially important in science.

Most teachers in the early grades are generalists who are expected to cover all subjects, including science, despite typically having had relatively little grounding in it. Even science teachers in the upper grades may be more comfortable in one science course, such as biology, than another, like physics. Struggling teachers may need help from colleagues to plan science lessons, and prodding to spend time on the subject. Principals can carve out the time for that planning. They can also do the necessary prodding.

Yet taking on that role requires principals to acknowledge that they need help with science content, and in developing ideas for teaching it to students, Ms. Rosen said.

“It’s important for the principal to make it clear to people that you’re not always right, and you don’t always have all the answers,” she said during a break from one of the academy’s sessions. Her goal, she said, is that she and her teachers “begin sharing, going in the same direction, learning as a group.”

The article focuses on The Academy for Leadership in Science Instruction, something I blogged here nearly three years ago. There is a similar academy here in Washington now, but it has not been in place long enough for any solid results to be seen.

What I think all of this will eventually mean is that starting with intermediate grade levels, science really should be taught by specialists. If good instruction in this area requires such a significant commitment to planning, content knowledge, materials, and concept development, is it fair to assume that any one teacher can give it the same level of attention as reading, writing, and 'rithematic?

That's all the science news fit to blog for now. Drop me a link if you see something I should have a look at.

02 September 2008

The Intangibles of ECE

I was reading a mommyblogger's post about how she is homeschooling her two wee ones for their pre-school years and will send them off to public kindergarten when they're of age. Although other mommies she knows are not supportive of her choice, she isn't worried that her kids won't be ready for kindergarten. She buys different workbooks and educational materials and has "school" for an hour a day. I applaud all of this---from the time and attention she gives her children to the interest in supporting their knowledge base. I haven't a doubt that her kids will be among the best prepared for the academic side of kindergarten.

What I think the mommy doesn't understand is that pre-school is not just letters and counting. There are behaviors and routines that Early Childhood Education (ECE) is attempting to develop. I have no doubt that the family is a good model of social things such as how to stand in a line (when required) or wait for one's turn, but it is a whole different ball of wax to have to operate inside that model with a gaggle of one's peers. The conversations that occur during play are an important aspect of social learning---something you can't get from spending time at the kitchen table with mom.

I don't believe that children who stay home with involved parents during their pre-school years are being done any damage. My point here is simply that viewing pre-school as something purely academic is a naive way to look at things.

I was thinking about all of this again after I saw this blurb in Education Week:

Children who enter kindergarten a year after they are eligible do better in school initially than their younger peers, but the advantage tends to fade later in their academic careers, according to a studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader set to appear in the Journal of Human Resources.

The findings go against earlier research suggesting that age is a significant factor in student achievement. Many states have changed kindergarten-eligibility requirements to give younger students more time to mature before starting school.

“One way to think about it is that the oldest kid in kindergarten has about 20 percent more life experience,” said Darren Lubotsky, a economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who co-authored the study with Todd Elder, an economist at Michigan State University. “But once they start, they basically learn at the same rate.”

The delay may be a disadvantage to older students later on, the study concludes, given the cost of entering the workforce late.

I recently read somewhere in my RSS travels that late start kindergartners have the highest drop-out rates from high school---and tend to drop out earlier than their peers. Although, I suppose "peer" is relative. Perhaps there is something about being significantly older than one's classmates that sets up a whole sense of disconnection from school? Is it possible that at 5 or 6 years of age, the differences in development are so great---from the viewpoint of the child---that it is too frustrating to start school late? A teacher understands that not everyone in a kindergarten classroom has the fine motor skills for cutting along lines...but do the kinders?

We also know that the gains made by students who get all-day kindergarten fade by third grade---and there is no difference in achievement vs. those who only attended kindergarten for a half-day. I know of one district in the area which is valiantly trying to fight this, having invested hundreds of thousands of dollars from a stressed budget to offer full-day K to its students from its high-poverty neighbourhoods. I'd like to think that they'll beat the odds, but I'm not feeling confident. Why not? One of the factors associated with low SES is high mobility. The mobility itself is not what will doom the kids---ed research bears that out. It's the fact that there will be quite the "mix" of half-day and full-day kinders in the system by that point. Schools will be focusing resources on getting the half-day'ers caught up...not pushing the full-day students onward. Sad, but true. There will likely not be a lot of change until every child is eligible for full-day kindergarten.

I'm not sure how we measure some of these intangibles associated with ECE...how we move from just observing the process to really digging into what is happening. What do we do---if anything---with statements such as "If a child isn't reading at grade level by 3rd grade, they never catch up." or "Predictions for the number of prison beds needed in the future is based on current 3rd grade achievement."? Even assuming these are vast generalizations, there must be a kernel of truth in there somewhere. How do we move from a guessing game about what the right age is for school to ensuring every child gets started on solid footing?

01 September 2008

Trailblazing

Like most (if not all) publicly funded institutions, my workplace has certain warnings about the electronic files we keep and where we work. Do work at home on your own PC? This is a big no-no. Because what if there was some sort of lawsuit someday and it was noted that you had work files on your computer or PDA or cell phone (including your calendar)? Ah, a judge might see fit to order your hardware confiscated. By bringing work into your personal space, you have now opened those up to public disclosure. (Mind you, someone said that there is a better chance of winning the lottery, but still, that means there's a chance.) My new employer is far more fussy about this than any previous ones, even though they have all been subject to same rules.

But this brings up some issues. First of all, I can't always have access to the servers at work...and with this particular job, I will be on the road a few days a month (at least). Actually "working" from 8 - 5, Monday through Friday is not always going to be possible...just as keeping "classroom hours" was never a reality. Sometimes, it's easier to work on a project evenings or weekends when you have some quiet time...or when a really great idea hits you. I also want access to my calendar when I'm not on a computer. When I'm at the dentist trying to schedule my next app't., I need to be able to see when I'm available...and yet, I'm not allowed to sync Outlook to my Palm without my PDA being opened up to public disclosure laws.

There are a couple of ways around this. First of all, a work-issued laptop and some software which allows me to remotely access the servers will take care of a lot of the file issues. The calendar? I think I can sync work to Google and then download from home---but what a pain in the ass: input-upload-download-sync vs. input-sync. However, if I just think about Google Apps for a moment, this could potentially solve a lot of issues. Why not just upload the documents I use most and then not have to worry about the whole which-machine-does-what sort of thing? I can work on a GoogleDoc to my heart's content and it won't matter one lick which computer I use. Nothing has to be stored or downloaded. If a court order wants to get the files from Google, more power to 'em.

All of this begs the questions of just how many copies of information one needs and the best places to store it. We talk a lot at how the volume of available info is doubling in shorter and shorter time frames, but if we just look at our personal piece of that...hmmm. Aren't we assuming a lot when we upload hundreds of photos to Flickr? It's an amazing platform, but it isn't bound to last forever. Are we better off leaving them on those servers...or should we be burning things to CD or DVD? Do we really need to think about how much documentation of our lives we really need? As long as I pay to renew my domain for this space, it's mine. But my hosting service could well go out of business. I build posts in Blogger, but that doesn't mean this format will be available in the future. When all is said and done with this blog, how will I make an archive for myself?

One of my friends recently referred to The Cloud of data we are leaving on-line. Public school districts and agencies might not like employees using social networking and web 2.0 tools, but they are certainly not going to be able to stop their use. Acceptable Use Policies should be updated yearly (not every 6 or 7 years, as most are now) with input from users, not simply IT people. While it is understandable that an employer has a right to set the rules with the hardware and bandwidth it purchases, tools like GoogleDocs, del.icio.us, and so forth are not their provenance. The litmus test should be whether or not the employee is using the tool to advance the work being done (vs. personal use). (As an aside, my favourite comment from the last few weeks was an observation that my previous employer's attitude toward web 2.0 was "Neanderthal." I couldn't have summarized it any better.) The tide has turned, the horse has left the barn---pick your euphemism. With the daily emergence of various tools, it would be wiser to focus on responsible use vs. denial of existence.

I don't mind the big stinky Cloud of information I'm leaving in my wake. I've made my peace with it. Someone else recently pointed out that "Just because someone is a trailblazer doesn't mean they should end up being burned at the stake." I think that in the past, that risk was much greater. It doesn't mean that it can't happen now or in the future, but the prevalence of use of Flickr, Twitter, Blogger, GoogleApps and other platforms means that most people aren't giving their users a second glance. It's an on-line world now. Time to accept it and keep on trailblazing.