31 March 2009


I seem to recall that in the early days of my career, there was some level of government regulation that prohibited classroom teachers from teaching about contraceptives. If a student asked for specific information, we were allowed to provide it---but we couldn't initiate any conversations. Mind you, I was never designated to teach sex ed; but being a teacher in the life science content area meant that certain topics are inevitable and it was always good to be aware of where the lines were.

I was thinking about this last week after a conversation I had with an instructional coach. He had invited me to spend a day with his teachers (and others around the district) to talk about student feedback, data collection/use, grading practices, and interventions. We'd sorta plotted things out. It was shaping up to be a really great day of professional learning.

And then, word came from above him to say that there could be no conversation involving the g-word: Grading. He'd been slapped with the contraceptive rule.

I have mentioned before that one of my favourite quotes in the research literature about grading is that "Teachers guard their grading practices 'with the same passion with which one might guard an unedited diary or sacred ground'" (Kain, 1996). I can tell you that after getting out and about this year with various presentations, grading is still very much a taboo subject among teachers. Even knowing this, I am still a bit surprised at the hammer that came down. The coach was given no reason for the district's change of heart (although, based on other things I'm seeing/hearing in other schools, my hunch is that a nervous teacher complained to The Union).

So, we will put Grading in the back of our minds for a day and work on the other items with teachers. If they have questions about grading, we'll answer them. For the most part, however, we just have to assume that if we don't talk about things, teachers will stay professionally safe and sound.

30 March 2009

Base Jumping

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, public education has been throwing the term "research based" into nearly everything. I'm all for schools having a reason behind what they're doing...but I don't think that the term has been fully defined. Or, perhaps I should say there is no definition that is commonly shared/used.

I have my own ideas about what constitutes a research base. It's been shaped by my recent doctoral work. When I think about the term now, I envision reading the actual research. Studies published within the last five years are preferable, but sometimes it helps to go back and see the staying power of various ideas. Looking at the original work also gives some insight on the relevance of current work.

Now, here is where I start to diverge from most of the educators I run with. A book by an educational researcher? This does not make something research based. By "something," I mean whatever project you're working on: a piece of legislation, a grant proposal, review tools for curriculum, budget decisions, and so forth. The book itself might have some synthesis of work, but it is not the original research. It's filtered and shaped. It often does not contain the opposing citations. You are trusting that the author has correctly interpreted things (and has the background to do so) and picked the very best information available. The book may well make particular ideas accessible to a larger audience...but it, in and of itself, is not a research base. At best, you can say that you've gained some background knowledge in reading it.

I understand that when selecting pieces of actual research to use that we can get into a whole other quagmire about the rigor applied to the design. But I think most of us can tell whether or not something passes the sniff test. We're not writing dissertations. We just need to look as see the kinds of situations where a particular strategy works before jumping to claim "It's research based!"

29 March 2009

No Thank You, I'm Full

I went to a conference this past week where there were lots of people like me who wanted to geek out about assessment, grading practices/evaluation, and data. I understand that most people might not find such an event to be their cup of tea; but for me, this was about as good as it gets. In my day-to-day work, I don't get to have these kinds of conversations---and they are the ones I'm most interested in having right now. So this little convention will buoy me up for a few months.

There are two items that I am still chewing on. See what you think...

Is there such a thing as "too much assessment"? I haven't completely decided. I really think it depends on how the results are going to be used. If we're just talking about a classroom teacher monitoring the learning of his/her students---then, I don't think you can overassess. As a teacher, you are constantly gathering information and responding to students. It's the way the classroom works. But step outside of that, and my answer changes. When we start talking about district assessments, diagnostic tests (e.g. DIBELS), and/or state tests---then, I do think it's possible to go overboard in a hurry. Because here, teachers/kids are often not the users of that information. It's not as meaningful and I think there's a good argument to be made about these sorts of assessments taking away from instructional time. However, would we pay as much attention to equity issues without these?

My second thing to chew on is about the focus of teacher collaboration time. In December, I heard a national expert in assessment state that he thinks the development of department/district assesssments is a waste of time because sample size will never be large enough to achieve any reliability or validity. Even at the state level, developing high quality items takes a lot of time and money...so why waste precious resources at the district level for such things? And then, there was the national expert last week who had a very different view---perhaps the more "popular" one these days. His idea is that the process of planning school and/or district assessments provides rich opportunities for conversations about curriculum and instruction. So, perhaps validity and reliability don't matter as much because ending up with the highest quality assessment isn't the point. I find my own thoughts somewhere in between these two views. I do agree that collaborative conversations are important, but perhaps it's not the assessment that needs to be the focus. Perhaps it's just looking at student work that matters. Even if teachers don't give the same items to students, couldn't conversations about what the work shows and what instructional practices were used be just as rich?

I'll continue to try to digest these two chunks of information. Right now, though, my brain is full.

27 March 2009

Spring Fever

Seems like it's been awhile since we've had some fun around here. All grading and no playing makes for a very dull blog indeed. So hows about I share some of my current favourite toys?

Kicking things off is my new Acer Aspire One. For those of you who haven't seen one of these before, it's a teeny-tiny laptop: about the size of a thin hardback book, but a lot lighter. Yes, the keyboard is small---but I'm not finding that to be much of a problem. Typing is a simple adjustment. The greatest problem has been remembering where special keys (e.g. del, pgdn, arrows...) are, and even that isn't too much of a headache. I have also been surprised to discover just how much I rely on my touchpad for navigation---and how little I rely on a keyboard at all. This little toy will accompany me on trips from now on. It easily slips in my purse and allows me to leave my regular laptop safe and sound at home. I love it!

I have been doing my presentation on grading practices and student motivation for almost a year now---which means that I am going to retire it from the circuit soon. It doesn't mean I won't support school/district requests to work with them, just that now that I've hit the area conferences, I probably need something new in my repertoire for that crowd. I have to say that the biggest response I get is about record-keeping strategies---especially using Excel for this purpose. So, I hope to expand that piece into a full session on information visualization for the classroom. The newest version of Sparklines is sure to be a crowdpleaser. I may actually spend my Friday night playing with this.

Speaking of presentations, I'm always looking for unusual ideas and images to capture the imagination or use as transitions between sessions. From my most recent YouTube meanderings, I recommend Extreme Sheep LED Art and Humans! I'm also liking this tiltshift approach to video (you can make your own tiltshift photos here) as shown in this Mardi Gras parade.

Need a game to keep you amused? Adam Savage from the Mythbusters recommended Balldroppings. I admit the name of the game seems slightly risque, but it's quite family friendly.

Or perhaps you need some new digital tools? How about Contxts where you can create a mobile business card? Thinkature, Blellow, and Mixed Ink supply you with some interesting new ways to collaborate on-line. If your travel and meeting budgets are now as extinct as the Dodo due to budget cuts, have a look at these as alternatives. And if, like me, you're trying to be more visual in your approach, you may want to have a look at Lovely Charts and Exploratree for ideas and support.

It's the weekend, and for many out there, Spring Break. Even if I don't have time off, I plan to get out for a bit (weather permitting). Michael Perry said that "Seed catalogs are responsible for more unfulfilled fantasies than Enron and Playboy combined." He's probably right---as this is the time of year when I begin longing to dig around in the dirt and see things come to life again. It's time for Nature to pull out her frocks and sandals. When you're done checking out the links above, I hope you'll join me in the garden.

25 March 2009

Deep and Wide

I can't think of any educators who aren't overwhelmed by the amount of material they are supposed to "cover" with their students. I hate the term "coverage" (and its variations) as conversation should be more about what kids learn than what teachers cover. But I digress. The question really is, do we as teachers succumb to the volume of content...or do we pick out a few concepts for our students and delve deeply into that subject matter?

A recent article in Education Week renews this debate as it applies to science:

The scientific world is vast. One key to students' developing a strong understanding of it could be having them focus on relatively few topics, in great depth.

That is the main conclusion of a recent study that examines one of the most enduring debates in science instruction—whether "depth" or “breadth” of knowledge is most important. Its authors come down on the side of depth.

High school students who focus more intensely on core topics within their biology, chemistry, and physics classes fared better in beginning college science than those who delved a little bit into a larger list of topics, the study found. Observers say those findings could offer direction to developers of science curricula, tests, and textbooks.

A central finding is that "breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses," the authors conclude, "although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests."

On the surface, the argument of depth-based high school courses leading to college success makes some sense. "Mastery also can help students overcome common false impressions in science...'If you study something in depth, you have the time to deal with some of the misconceptions that impede you when you get to college,' Mr. Sadler said."

But not so fast, says ASCD. ASCD is not against depth in courses, but seems to believe that the research study's conclusions may be incorrect.
He basically said that while it was fair to look at shortcomings in high school science teaching, not enough attention gets paid to how college-level science is taught. College science courses are heavily oriented toward lectures and covering reams of material, he said. The goal often seems to be to weed out people who don't have the skills to pursue college science majors, Eberle told me, rather than attempting to nurture and build the skills and interests they already have.

Eberle's organization, of course, represents the K-12 teacher's perspective. But he's not the only science advocate I've heard make this argument about college science instruction. And he raises an important issue, particularly at a time when policymakers are keenly interested in boosting the number of students who pursue "STEM" careers. What if the "STEM pipeline" as it's sometimes called, is springing leaks at the entry-level undergraduate, rather than high school level? If anyone can point me to any useful data or studies on this point, I'd like to see it.
I kinda like putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Perhaps it isn't the "fault" of k-12 that students aren't performing well in college science courses. Maybe universities shouldn't throw stones at us until they have a look inside their own glass houses.

23 March 2009

March Grading Roundup

It's that time again! Time to look at the bits and pieces about grading that have accumulated in my Reader account over the past few weeks. Ready?

Up first, is my favourite project-du-jour to watch: Cash for Grades. The WaPo had a recent update on the program in DC. Cash Incentives Create Competition: Payment Program is a Source of Pride, Shame for DC Schools looks at the various impacts this program is having on kids and families. I can't say that I'm particularly impressed so far. "The D.C. students earn cash based on behavior, attendance and three other criteria. Many schools, including Hart, pay students for wearing uniforms, completing homework and getting good grades." Okay, so the program is not necessarily about rewarding grades (although that can be part of it), but is really more targeted at academic behaviors. Most of the students profiled in the article are getting a portion of the potential $100 monthly payday just by doing the things we would expect: showing up to school ready to learn. Many of their reactions to the checks, however are unexpected, such as dripping water onto them until the paper falls apart or outright ripping them up. There is clearly a disconnect between what the "reward" means to those to give it and those who receive it.

But what about their grades?

"In some ways, the checks are like alternative report cards. But Woods said he hasn't seen grades improve noticeably. D'Angelo still gets A's and B's, higher than his brother and sister, who tell of getting C's and D's." In fact, even the A student profiled in the article was getting A's before the program. Cash for grades doesn't seem to make a difference in the short term. Long term results are some time away, of course, but I really don't anticipate that there will be anything positive to report. You might be able to buy compliance to put on a uniform and show up at the schoolhouse door...the promise of money might even buy filling in a worksheet...but engaging with the material and learning? Not going to happen.

Via Joanne Jacobs, there is continuing concern about grade inflation. My ideas about whether or not grade inflation actually exists continue to change. There is an underlying assumption that there should be normal distribution of grades. Does such a utopian classroom model exist (at least without manipulating it)? Not even in Lake Wobegon do we approximate "normal." In my research on grading, I'm come across two studies that touch on these ideas. In the first (Determining Grade Boundaries), someone looked at how professors tend to try to manipulate the distribution of grades in classes. For example, they give the first test---the results of which show that 60% of the students failed. The test was "hard"...so next time, the prof makes the test "easy" in order to adjust the distribution. And so on and so on. The simple truth is that no one ever gets a nice bell curve out of that. The various performances of students don't necessarily fit our rigid idea of percentages. The other article, An Unintended Impact of One Grading Practice, is even more relevant in this situation. Let's say that you have a group of high school freshman...some of whom do poorly and drop out of school. Once the earners of D's and F's are gone, what happens? Ah...teachers readjust expectations for those who are left, and a new crop of "low" students are identified. If they drop, the cycle repeats. The article doesn't follow these kids to colleges, but I can't help but wonder if what we think is "grade inflation" is really some variation on all of these adjustments. Meanwhile, who cares? If every student in a class learns the material to standard, shouldn't they all get A's? Why do we even pay attention to bell curve conformity?

Is there something else out there on grading that you've seen whilst prowling the interwebs? Drop me a comment.

21 March 2009

Stand Back...She's Gonna Blow

It isn't that I haven't wanted to blog...or had relatively blogworthy events and ideas to probe as of late...but rather that I can't seem to get things to coalesce into anything resembling a real post. Longtime readers here will argue that this lack has not stopped me from writing before. Fair enough.

Some snapshots from the week, in no particular order...
  • Finally met Jim from 5/17. We've each been blogging for several years. You'd think that with all the events for educators (and the fact that we live relatively close to one another) that we would have stumbled across one another before now. But, better late than never. It was fun to get to know him a bit better. Other than Dr. Pezz, I've now had the pleasure of hanging with most of the other Washington edubloggers. Dude, you're up!
  • There seems to be a lot of bad news in the air. I enjoyed some time this week with a wonderful group of educators who will likely have to take different jobs next year. I also had to tell members of another enthusiastic group "No." to a lot of their ideas. This was due to budgetary restrictions, and it made me nauseated to have to deliver the message. When people are focused on what's best for kids and teachers, it makes no sense to put up roadblocks to this mission.
  • I did another intro to grading presentation at an area conference. At the end, a teacher in the front row said, "I think my head is going to explode." Interestingly enough, this is not the first time I have gotten that type of feedback, along with variations such as "You're making my head hurt." or "My brain is really fighting with itself." as a result of this presentation. I'm not sure what it is that engenders these comments. Is the cognitive dissonance that jarring? It would be kinda cool if it was, but I suspect it's due to more of a confluence of events rather than the presentation itself. In other words, the presentation is just the proverbial straw and thoughts about classroom performance are the camel's back. Anyway, I'm still amused when I hear it.
  • Today, however, was the first time anyone asked me if someone was out there blogging about grading practices. Another person said, "I tried to for awhile." I found it intriguing that (more) teachers are open to using blogs for information on classroom practices. I think this is a very positive step to see this sort of communication going more mainstream.
I do want to have some time to catch my breath and blog a bit about some resources I've run across, grades as predictors of college success, and a couple of other ideas that have recently been kicked my way. Because this long time between posting? It blows.

15 March 2009

Meme 2.0

The ever-resourceful Nancy Flanagan recently posted her version of 20 Questions---all about her professional experiences. I'm a sucker for a good meme, so I am going to take her up on her suggestion to abscond with her ideas. Got a blog? You can play along at home, too.
  1. Teaching assignments, how long? Mostly secondary science for nearly 18 years, with some elementary, instructional coaching, and curriculum specialist work thrown in for good measure.
  2. Favorite class taught---and why? I'm going to change up Nancy's intent here and say The Class of 2000. I had those kids as sophs in 97-98 and there was just something special about that particular cohort: bright, creative, positive and hopeful.
  3. Worst class taught---and why? I can think of a few stinker class periods over the years, but I have to say that the worst class was more a function of subject matter than the students themselves. I was assigned to teach something far out of my expertise and knowledge base (even though it was pointed out to the PTB that I did not have the appropriate certificate...they didn't care). It was miserable for everyone.
  4. Favorite class taken? Oddly enough, I don't know that I have one. I've enjoyed lit classes, stat classes, and music classes. I've taken good things away from them all.
  5. Favorite education book? Hmmm...I have shelves full of these. Maybe Jim Burke's Reading Reminders? I frequently pull this out for work with both kids and adults. There's so many great strategies for learning here.
  6. Best teacher buddy? Someone I worked with in Curriculum, who has also moved on to bigger and better things. Her thoughtful ways, good humor, and professionalism are missed by me every day. I get to see her socially now, but not getting to work with her anymore is a real loss for me.
  7. Best administrator? The first Boss Lady. In spite of the disappointments I had along the way, I admire her clarity of thought and belief in doing what's best for kids should drive all decisions. I'm so glad she's in a position now that allows her to share her wisdom and talent with many districts.
  8. Most disappointing experience? Working for a district that doesn't care about kids.
  9. Most thrilling moment? Watching a struggling student finally "click" with a skill or piece of information. Seeing that sort of light bulb come on is fantastic.
  10. Funniest incident in your classroom? I've been trying to think of one. I got to laugh a lot in the classroom---from lab experiments that went awry (including kids who were afraid for pillbugs) to the times when my high school kids would work with primary kids (who inevitably walked all over my students) to puppet shows about cell parts and more. I'm grateful for all those memories.
  11. Most memorable student? Again, it's hard to say. I'm still in touch with some kids (though they are well into adulthood now), so I suppose that makes them memorable. Was it the one of the ones I've written about here over the last 4+ years? Was it the ones who went off to college to study something in the sciences, citing my class as an inspiration? Was it a teacher who sent me a kind note after one of my presentations? They're all part of my continuing work.
  12. What about unions? Should never ever be mandatory for teachers. If they exist, their power should be limited to teacher contract issues only---not student-related factors.
  13. What about charter schools? A nice idea; however, I hate seeing them touted as a solution when they get to set all their own rules. Is it any surprise when they succeed when they are allowed to stack the deck in their favour? I do think that many schools are looking for curricular or instructional freedom from district-driven decisions with the idea that "their kids" would benefit from something different. This may or may not be true when put into practice, but plenty of schools out there would like to try.
  14. What about merit pay? I like the idea; however, I can't think of any reasonably fair way to make it happen. It can't be simple hoop-jumping...it can't be wholly dependent on student test scores...it can't be decided by an administrator's evaluation. There needs to be elements of all those things (and more), but what a nightmare of bureaucracy that would be. Instead, why don't we just focus on supporting classroom teachers to be their very best...and move out the ones who are just there to mark time?
  15. What does "21st century learning" mean? To me it means that we reach kids where they are---which includes cell phones in the classroom, cloud computing, gaming, and/or whatever tools students are choosing for their own personal learning. I don't think "old" skills for literacy and math are going to evolve, but the way that we reach kids in order to support their learning will.
  16. What makes a teacher "effective"? I think an effective teacher is one who is skilled at developing relationships within the classroom; building those teacher-student connections is the basis for so much more learning.
  17. Most overrated "reform"? Reform-based science materials. (Yes, I'm looking at you FOSS, STC, and Insights science kits.) These are great materials; however, if the National Science Foundation had poured money into supporting science instruction instead of science "stuff," we'd be so much further into improving student understanding and achievement.
  18. Best professional development? Being able to work with an instructional coach on lessons for my kids. Her support in implementing ideas and helping me revisit and reflect on things was invaluable.
  19. Personal education hero? Right now, it's Organized Chaos (with nods to her teaching partners Elementary My Dear, or Far From It; Kindergarten Chaos; and Together, We Are Unlimited). I am in awe of what she does and the grace with which she does it---in spite of all the variables in her school life.
  20. Priorities, if you could spend $5 billion on education? I hate to sound snobby, but five billion is not very much. Personally, I think the number one thing that would have an impact is simply time for teachers to reflect/plan. At secondary, this would mean hiring more teachers so that every teacher could have two planning periods (one personal, one for collaboration with others in dep't/grade) and fewer students. At elementary, this would likely mean more specialists (science, art, PE, library...) so that classroom teachers had more time built into their days. Yes, I know all of this impacts physical plant space and other issues...but I'm dreaming here.
So, there you have it. Some fence-riding. Some wishes. Some stabs in the dark. What would you say to these?

13 March 2009

Learning Isn't Its Own Reward

Part of my EdD work involves student motivation, so I am always keen to see what the media at large is reporting in this area. Seems like over the last year, there have been a few articles describing incentive programs for grades. I am immediately distrustful of such programs. I don't think we can foster of a love of learning in students by substituting a love of "stuff," such as money or stickers. I also think that these programs either confuse or overgeneralize what we know about positive reinforcement. We can change the behaviors of all kinds of animals (including ourselves) through the use of rewards. If you need a kid to remember to raise his hand before asking a question or follow the rules for lining up at lunch, a rewards system will do that. These kinds of behaviors work really well within a rewards system. And while you can argue that learning of all sorts has a behavioral basis, critical thinking and analysis don't really fall into the simple "peck the dot and get a peanut" category. This is where I think rewards systems for student learning fall down.

The New York Times recently put Rewards for Students Under a Microscope. They note several studies that show that rewards based systems only result in short-term gains...not long term or permanent changes in students.

However, in today's testing and dropout accountability environment, I'm wondering how many schools won't see a downside in the lack of long-term change. If I just need to show some impact for the current year, what do I care if kids lose interest in a few weeks? Maybe I just get them pumped up for the testing...or stay in school long enough to not count as a dropout...and that's all I need. Because under NCLB, I'm trying to get rewards and avoid punishment, too, only at a much larger scale. I don't necessarily have to learn as a system, I just have to jump the hoops. Perhaps that's all I need kids to do, too. Does it matter than we don't really get anything from the experience?

I think it does matter, but this is a systemic issue. NCLB has its heart in the right place in terms of student equity, but its bludgeoning of "underperforming" schools is just plain wrong. In some ways, it has made it okay for schools to treat their students in the same manner. Can we hope to make learning its own reward for kids when we value trinkets?

12 March 2009


One of the best teachers I know has a luxury that nearly no teacher has. She teaches because she wants to---and so chooses to work half-time (spouse makes more than enough for the family---so pay, no matter how meager, is no concern) in the classroom and spend as much time as she likes planning instruction and reflecting on assessment. Kids love being in her classes.

But at the end of this year, she may well lose her job because she won't have enough seniority. Even though she has spent several years with the district (more years than many other teachers), the fact that she's only worked them part-time makes her overall contribution appear small. And so, out she may go, while other ineffective teachers stay.

If you keep up with Dy/Dan, you know he's in the same boat. It's the first year in his new school...and it will be his last. With the district making cuts, he's out the door, no matter how good of a teacher he is.

Maybe it's just me, but there is something wrong with all of this. Maybe not wrong from a Union perspective, but wrong from an ethical perspective. Don't kids deserve the very best teachers? The fact is, some of these will be your most experienced and longest-serving staff members---the people who are still excited by the classroom after 30 years. (WaPo recently published a letter calling them on their equating of "older teachers" to "jaded" and ineffective.) But some will be those with 5 years experience. It would seem that there could be some way to retain the best.

According to Education Week...

Seniority-based layoffs are the norm for the profession. According to a database maintained by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group that advocates stronger state teacher-quality policies, all but five of the nation’s 25 largest school districts follow seniority-based layoff policies set by contracts or state law. And all but one of those five is located in a right-to-work state without mandatory collective bargaining for teachers.

Typically, layoffs—frequently referred to in contracts as reductions in force, or RIFs—are enforced within teachers’ certification areas. If a district needs to cut high school social studies teachers, for instance, it cuts from the bottom of the high school social studies seniority list until the budget has been balanced. Then, it will redeploy the remaining teachers as necessary the following school year.

Teacher-quality experts have questioned the place of seniority in other personnel decisions, such as the pay and transfer of teachers, but layoff policies have attracted a lesser degree of scrutiny. In fact, some districts that now disallow seniority-based transfers, such as Rochester, N.Y., do not have a similar policy in place for layoffs.

"I think people assumed that revenue for schools could only go up, that the economy would never get so bad again that we’d have to have layoffs," said Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that trains new teachers and supports changes to districts' personnel practices. "Nobody changed the rules or even talked about them since the 1980s. I honestly think the [poor economic] situation has caught people by surprise."

Since then, however, firm evidence has emerged to identify high-quality teaching as the single most important school-level factor for improving student achievement. Now, critics argue that seniority-based RIF policies not only fail to take teachers’ effectiveness into account, but they also necessitate the cutting of more teachers than seniority-neutral layoff policies, hurting both teachers and students in the process.

But alternatives to seniority-based layoffs have been tied up in the knotty question about how to evaluate teachers’ performance in a fair, uniform way, researchers and union officials say.

Many teachers and their unions, for instance, oppose using "value added" models that purport to estimate a teacher’s effect on student learning for high-stakes purposes. Alternative methods of evaluating teacher performance—including the peer-assistance and -review model used in Toledo, Ohio, and several other districts—aren’t yet widespread.

"We're mindful of the fact that there are old issues that we have to address sooner rather than later, but at this point, seniority is the only fair way [of determining layoffs] because without an effective way of monitoring principals, we don’t know whether their selection process would be accurate," said A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a merged affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that is bracing for layoffs this school year. "We are willing to discuss revamping the evaluation of teachers, if that is accompanied with a discussion on the evaluation process of administrators."

Principals frequently lack the tools to make appropriate personnel decisions, added Robin Chait, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, who co-wrote a recent article on seniority-based layoffs.

"In some ways, [seniority] might be easier for them,” she said. "Their hands are tied."

Joanne Jacobs recently posted on the ability of administrators in Providence, RI, to select teachers based on who is best suited for a position as opposed to strictly using seniority. Other states may change their teacher tenure rules so that the way seniority works changes to allow districts to keep the best teachers they have. I can't imagine that this would have any immediate impact, but perhaps over the next decade things might start to change when the RIF notices are handed out.

You know, I'm grown up. I understand that life isn't fair and so forth. I accept that the system isn't perfect and is a work in progress. But I would like to think that equity within the classroom can be improved. I'd hope we could start making some sense where choices about teacher retention are concerned.

10 March 2009

Standard Rhetoric

In the not-too-distant future (i.e. around the end of the Legislative session next month), Washington state will have new science standards. They are being billed as a revision; however, they are a drastic departure in both content and format from the current/previous version. (If you're interested, you can see them here.) I know I'm just an old fart who doesn't like change, but I really don't like this new version. In my opinion, the old ones did a much better job of stating conceptual understanding and allowing for higher order thinking. I also have issues with some of the scientific inaccuracies (e.g. Explain that a balloon expands when you blow air into it because air fills up the container by pushing against the outside air.), but more importantly, several of the targets have nothing to do with academic concepts. Here are two examples from grades 4-5:
  • Work collaboratively with other students to carry out an investigation, selecting appropriate tools and demonstrating safe and careful use of equipment. (WTF? Are we endorsing group assessment instead of individual learning?)
  • Respond non-defensively to comments and questions about their investigation. (I don't even know where to begin with this one. Cultural bias? Ability to validly assess? I can't wait until some parent sues a school over this one.)
Setting this aside for the moment, it should be mentioned that these standards might not last very long...so perhaps I shouldn't get too worked up. The state supe has made some rumblings about looking at tossing our state's hat into the ring of national standards. According to Education Week, he isn't the only one:

Some schools deemed to be failing in one state would get passing grades in another under the No Child Left Behind law, a national study found.

The study underscores wide variation in academic standards from state to state. It was to be issued Thursday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The study comes as the Obama administration indicates it will encourage states to adopt common standards, an often controversial issue on which previous presidents have trod lightly.

"I know that talking about standards can make people nervous," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently.

"But the notion that we have 50 different goal posts doesn't make sense," Duncan said. "A high school diploma needs to mean something, no matter where it's from."

Every state, he said, needs standards that make kids college- and career-ready and are benchmarked against international standards.

The Fordham study measured test scores of 36 elementary and middle schools against accountability rules in 28 states.

It found the schools failed to meet yearly progress goals in states with more rigorous standards, such as Massachusetts. But they met yearly progress goals in states with lower standards, such as Arizona and Wisconsin.

No Child Left Behind is misleading, said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the nonprofit Fordham Foundation.

"It misleads people into thinking that we have a semblance of a national accountability system for public schools, and we actually don't," Finn said. "And it's produced results I would call unfair from one state to the next."

No Child Left Behind was championed by President George W. Bush and passed with broad bipartisan support, though it has since become hugely unpopular.

The law prods schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014. It is up to states to set yearly progress goals — "annual yearly progress," or AYP — and each state has its own standards and tests.

It is unlikely the Obama administration or Congress will try to force states to adopt the same standards.

Rather, they favor a carrot-and-stick approach that offers states funding to develop new standards and tests or offers more flexibility under No Child Left Behind.

The House Education Committee chairman, Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, called for incentives when Congress prepared to rewrite the law in 2007, an effort that subsequently stalled.

In the Senate, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander pushed legislation that offered to waive the rigid annual yearly progress structure in exchange for raising standards to national or international benchmarks.

And in the newly enacted economic stimulus bill, there is a $5 billion incentive fund for Duncan to reward states for, among other things, boosting the quality of standards and state tests.

Several states are moving in that direction; for example, 16 of them working with Achieve, a nonprofit founded by governors and corporate leaders, have adopted common math and English standards.

Any effort toward common standards is likely to have support from teachers' unions.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, wrote an op-ed piece Monday in The Washington Post arguing for national standards.

Like Duncan, she used a football analogy, comparing the patchwork of standards to a Super Bowl where the Pittsburgh Steelers must move the ball a full 10 yards but the Arizona Cardinals must go only 7.

"Every other industrialized nation has national standards," Weingarten said in an interview. "When you start thinking about how are we going to create a school system throughout the United States that helps enable kids to be prepared for college, prepared for life and prepared for work, you have to start with common standards," she said.

Nancy Flanagan has already conducted an excellent Thought Experiment about the idea of national standards. As I have reviewed the new standards for science here, I have had the same question she poses: Will these really change anything? The fact is, I don't. When classroom instruction changes, perhaps we will see differences in student learning. Also, after my recent experiences with educational "experts" lending their voice to conversations about science instruction, I'm turned off by the idea that these same people would likely be the type to be invited for a national level conversation...while teachers would be left out.

Over at ASCD, there is quite the slew of comments over a post relating to national standards.
A topic that has been making noise lately is whether the United States should develop national standards so that all schools would have a common core curriculum. The National Governors Association issued a report saying that not only should the United States adopt national standards, but international curriculum should also be incorporated so that students can be globally competitive.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is also calling for national standards, saying that nations performing better than the United States have national standards. Weingarten cites Minnesota's and Massachusetts's high performance on international assessments as proof that a common, rigorous curriculum would be a boon to all states.

According to recent reports, having national standards in place would allow students to compete with the rest of the world and can help strengthen the economy (smarter and skilled workers have better paying jobs). Because the world rapidly evolves due to technology, it is naive to think that the United States can continue to educate students without a set curriculum that will allow U.S. students to excel in their studies and make them competitive after completing school.
I encourage you to go have a look at what people are posting...because I get the impression that this discussion isn't going to subside anytime soon. If anything, we're just at the beginning of this rhetoric...and perhaps not too far from words becoming actions.

09 March 2009

Separate But Equal

Someone made an intriguing comment to me last week about curriculum integration. And while I'm sure the comment wasn't intended to elicit as much thinking as I have done about it, I've been grateful for the prompt.

Here was the basic statement: curriculum integration (e.g. science + literacy) can only be effective if the teacher has depth of knowledge/expertise in both areas.

As I think about this, I fear she may be right. I also think that there may never truly be such an animal as integrated curriculum (but that may be due to how I'm defining it in my own mind). When I think about all of the reading and writing skills and strategies I've used with students over the years, I have to say that I taught them as discrete skills first. Science may have provided a context for constructing a graphic organizer or application of 6-trait writing, but the focus really was on the skill itself. The tool itself could be applied in any content area. My goal was to have kids use the tool as a vehicle to understanding the science content. Does this make my lessons "integrated"? Or was I just wearing different hats at different times? I can't say that I knew my Teaching of Reading even half as well as my Teaching of Science. Perhaps this did inhibit integration---I didn't have the ability to see more connections.

Here's another thing I was thinking about. If an elementary teacher uses a non-fiction text following a hands-on science experience...does this count as integration?

What I think many elementary teachers want is to "double-dip." In other words, if I use a non-fiction text on a science topic---can I count that time for both reading and science? Because let's face it: there are only so many instructional minutes in the day and expectations for what should happen in that time are unreal. I don't have time for both reading and science, so if one lesson can count for both, I'm golden. This is not some comment about elementary teachers slacking off or cheating kids of learning---this is the reality of the burden placed upon them to perform curricular miracles in only a few hours a day.

But back to the original thought. Does true curricular integration exist to the point where it is nearly impossible to see where one facet ends and the other begins? Or will it always be separate but maybe equal bits of knowledge with a tenuous connection?

07 March 2009

The Great Divide

I watched a clash this week. It was a butting of the heads between those who have daily contact with kids and teachers...and those who do not (but think they know what's best for schools). As you can imagine, this wasn't a particularly pretty thing.

I don't know many teachers who aren't suspicious of higher ed and/or other "experts" in the field of education. Most of us have had the experience of how disconnected education courses are from the real work of teaching. While it would be unfair to expect that we would spring like Athena, fully formed from the heads of ed school, it would have been nice to have had a better connection between theory and practice.

I've more or less made my peace with this...or, to be honest, I've resigned myself to having a quiet standoff: I can't take them seriously because they can't walk their talk about best practices...and they don't listen to me because I'm "just" a teacher. So be it. I can't do anything about that situation, but I can go out to schools and work side-by-side with teachers and principals to do the best we can for kids.

But it's different when teachers new to this situation are in the room. It's also very hard to watch as classroom educators realize that schools are at the mercy of "experts." As one vented his frustration at this situation, I thanked him. Usually I'm the only one in the room speaking for teachers and reminding people that our conversations should end in action that is best for kids. It was good not to be alone in this voice, shouting across the great divide.

02 March 2009

The Whole Enchilada

I had a call from a school district today asking for the full meal deal: a presentation on grading practices, data collection and information visualization, differentiation, and Response to Intervention ideas. All of this should fit within a one-day session, with time for teachers to reflect, discuss, and plan.

This is a tall order---and really, shouldn't be attempted. Each piece is worthy of exploration. However, my job is apparently to lay out the buffet and whet the appetites. The district people will come along later with the Lotus leaves.

In my mind, I see how the pieces fit together. I know what the recipe is. The challenge is being able to translate this into a feast for the senses of others.

Here's hoping that we all don't end up with a serious case of indigestion.