30 September 2009

Accept No Substitutions

When I was in the classroom, lab days always had some extra baggage in the form of what to do about absent students. Most materials were not things that could or should be sent home as make-up work...many, especially in the realm of biology, did not keep well. A trail of students, each making up the lab separately was a drain on resources and time. I can't claim that I ever developed a solution I was entirely happy with. There's just nothing like the real thing, baby.

It looks like the College Board might agree with that observation. From Education Week's report on Simulated vs. Hands-on Lab Experiments:

In recent years, the College Board, which authorizes AP classes and offers college-level material to high school students, has been trying to determine whether simulated labs in some science courses can take the place of real-world experiments. It’s a debate that online science providers and hands-on teachers are grappling with as well.

In the coming years, some students taking online Advanced Placement science courses may have to leave their computers and head to an actual classroom as the College Board moves toward a model likely to require more hands-on laboratory experiences for those who take AP courses online.

“Some experiences can be set up online so they can manage and manipulate the data, but some skills we really want them to do in the real world to get college credit,” says Trevor Packer, a vice president of the New York City-based College Board...

Zipporah Miller, the associate executive director of professional programs and conferences for the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, says virtual experiments alone can’t equal real-world labs. “The simulation should be used only as a reinforcement,” she says. “If they go through the simulation, they may get the right answer on an AP exam, but they may not have the experience to apply that knowledge in the real world.”

Some virtual AP providers argue that simulations are being used by everyone from medical students to the military and can suffice...
I suppose that one could reasonably argue that simulations are not student-driven inquiry experiences---they're cookbooky. But then, so are the Dirty Dozen of AP Bio (the 12 labs required by the College Board). What is the role of simulations in the k-12 science classroom, then? What kind of experience is "good enough" to be called a lab? Are we equating seat time with learning---again? Are there attributes of physically manipulating glassware, chemicals, etc. that form the only pathway to conceptual understanding? Should we accept no substitutes?

28 September 2009

Measuring Up

Catching Up or Leading the Way is the most recent tome sent to me through my ASCD membership. Written by Yong Zhao, who was educated under the Chinese system, the book examines the whole "grass is always greener" machinations happening between the U.S. and China/India when it comes to education. In the west, we tend to believe that the hours, discipline, and testing present in the east represent a better system. After all, the Chinese are kicking ass and chewing bubble gum when it comes to international comparisons of student achievement. Zhao points out that the Chinese, on the other hand, are working to implement a more American approach because it allows for a workforce with more critical and creative thinking skills.

If you've been around the educational block, then the early chapters of the book will hold no surprises for you. Zhao does a nice job of summarizing the current American NCLB situation and how we got here. I'm curious to see where he goes from here in promoting "what schools can---and must---do to meet the challenges and opportunities brought about by globalization and technology."

What has me intrigued at this point in the book is Zhao's comparison between the benefits of biological diversity and diversity of talent in the workforce. He mentions the strength of populations which are not genetically identical. (Go, sex, go!) They are able to better adapt to changing environments. So, too, can countries adapt to changing economic times. I find this concept interesting, but Zhao has left out two important considerations.

First of all, while sexual reproduction results in variation and adaptability---asexual reproduction also has advantages. My students could never get that past "What fun would that be?" idea; however, the benefits include being able to become established in a new area quickly and jack up your population numbers in short order. You also save a lot of energy this way. No need for pesky mating dances or other displays. People who think lack of diversity is a species killer obviously haven't had to deal with dandelions in their yards.

If we take this a step farther and try to place it into Zhao's comparison between genetics and schools/workers, what does that get us? Is the standards-based education movement the amoeba of models?

Which brings me to my second thought on all of this. The argument that Zhao is making is that the standards movement is stamping out individuality and diversity of thinking---that in our bid to become more China-like in our systems we are losing the one thing that makes American education different: the belief in the individual...the can do. I believe there is some truth there---that the constant comparison by the US to other countries is leading to more of a focus on what we aren't, as opposed to building on strengths. An emphasis on testing is not a replacement for an emphasis on thinking. However, these are outcomes and are not the only possibilities. I also think that most teachers would claim that the standards movement is eliminating individuality and creativity in their instruction---not student thinking.

I do not believe that the [insert country of choice which outperforms US on international comparisons of student achievement] do it this way, therefore it must be the better way to teach X is the right starting place. It's knee-jerk and not purposeful. (And makes about as much sense as the Obama administration saying that we should lengthen the school day/year because that's what other countries do. Talk to me about what's best for kids, would you?) I do, however, think that the standards-based movement has the ability to ensure that students end up with choices. A student who is not expected to read, do math, write, and/or think scientifically ends up with very few choices as an adult. I really don't think this is the kind of diversity that we're after and will do nothing to break the cycle of poverty.

Zhao is right in that academic tests are not the only measure of a student's proficiency and talents; but standards are not inherently evil and not all testing is bad. It's what we do with them and why we do it that makes the difference. In the end, I keep coming back to instruction---that critical link between standards and assessment and the aspect most often ignored. It's the instruction where the magic happens with learning. It's the instruction where diversity of both teachers and students is honoured. And until it becomes part of the conversation, the rest of this discussion is no different than a "Mine's bigger than yours!" sort of argument among nations. Everyone knows that it's not the size of your (test scores; population) that matters, it's what you do with it. What's your position?

27 September 2009

Road to Nowhere

When I visit schools to talk about grading practices, the number one issue/roadblock that teachers tell me about is their online gradebooks. There are a variety of factors that concern teachers (not all of these occur in every school/district):
  • Their school or district requires them to post grades a certain number of times/week.
  • The school or district decides the grading categories and/or comments.
  • The software only computes and displays averages.
  • The software automatically uses zeros for missing assignments.
I'm ambivalent about the use of online gradebooks as communication tools. I understand the intent of enabling families to have a better idea about student progress---hoping to eliminate the "Surprise! Your student isn't passing the class!" bombshell. The basic problem really is the limitations of the software. Teachers are automatically locked into one---and only one---representation of a grade. Some have told me that they can go in and override the final score, but this is a laborious process (and not realistic to manage each time a new score is entered). With the sheer volume of students at secondary and subject areas at elementary, most teachers are unhappy with having to jump through hoop after hoop. And they fear the repercussions from parents who have watched a student's grade like the stock market, only to not see a match between online gradebook and paper report card. In other words, teachers think that these tools are making grades less fair to students.

Are you listening school administrators? Please don't pigeon hole your teachers and handicap your students in order to CYA with some software.

Moving on...

Education Week's Digital Directions is also outlining some other risks for districts to consider. The biggest one has to do with security:
Along with the benefits, potential problems are associated with online gradebooks, and security of confidential data is may be the biggest one. Some of the information contained in a gradebook system is likely to be protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law that outlines what student information schools must keep private. So a technical glitch in the system that opens such information to the public could mean big trouble for schools.
Not to mention hacking or other unwanted manipulations. Beyond that, however, are the costs: hardware, human resources, training for teachers, site licenses, upgrades, and more.
Nearly everyone agrees, though, that the key to using a successful gradebook system is training, and that costs money, too. Roberts of the Washington County schools in Utah learned that the hard way....

Roberts estimates that PowerSchool costs the district $130,000 a year for the product, plus additional costs for maintenance of the 14 servers that handle the database and applications. He has two employees who do nothing but maintain the PowerSchool system.

If you're out shopping for a new online gradebook system, the article provides a nice list of options (although I don't know how many you can sample). At the end of the day, however, schools and districts need to be think carefully about whether or not the benefits to such a system outweigh all of the costs. Until there are some significant improvements to the software, I would recommend staying with the systems currently in place. We already know what happens when good intentions are used as pavers.

25 September 2009

One Transcript to Rule Them All

I don't mean to brag, but I might be the only one in the state who is worried about Section 9, Part 1 of Washington's ESSB 5889:
The superintendent of public instruction, in consultation with the higher education coordinating board, the state board for community and technical colleges, and the workforce training and education coordinating board, shall develop for use by all public school districts a standardized high school transcript. The superintendent shall establish clear definitions for the terms "credits" and "hours" so that school programs operating on the quarter, semester, or trimester system can be compared.
Don't get me wrong, I understand the need for some sort of transcript document that can clearly communicate to any stakeholder who may be using it; but, I'm concerned about the potential for schools and districts to get locked into a single representation of grades.

Reader hschinske commented on my previous post that "There's a big fight going on in Seattle about starting to let kids graduate with under a 2.0 (with a D average!!!!eleventy!!). All kinds of talk about standards slipping, what kind of message does this send, etc. -- when to me it's really just notation and not that big a deal. You really have no idea what goes into those grades *anyway*."

I couldn't agree more. As most transcripts stand now, every possible measurement about a kid that a teacher chooses to collect during a specific period of time gets mashed into one symbol. Such a symbol is the veritable mystery meat of the academic world. I'm guessing that colleges and employers don't ask many questions about what's in them...they just have to swallow. (Also---how many times in your life did you actually need to show your high school transcript?)

From my perspective, however, there is an increasing number of districts who are interested in both standards-based grading and reporting at the secondary level. But once the legislative requirement above is fulfilled, the die is cast. I would not argue to move everyone to standards-based reporting (at least not within the next two years)---I would just like the door to be left open. I am hopeful that in meeting the task set out by the government, the groups mentioned will focus more on the credits and hours ideas...and not so much about the symbolic representations (or, gulp, a grading scale). Maybe I won't be the only one in the state worried about the prospect of the one size fits all transcript.

23 September 2009

September Roundup

Seems like it's been awhile since I rounded up some grading articles for this space. It may only be September, but the topic has already been grabbing a few headlines (and comments).

Up first, a brief article from Teacher Magazine about grade changes:
A new survey finds one in five Chicago public high school teachers say they have changed student grades in the past school year.
The survey of teachers was conducted in June and July by the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Sun-Times. The results were released Sunday in the newspaper.
Thirty-one percent of high school teachers also say in the survey they felt pressured to alter grades. Teachers say the pressure comes from principals, parents and school employees.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman says prevention will come from new annual grade audits. Huberman told the newspaper he takes the survey "very seriously" and changing grades is unacceptable.
Survey questions were distributed to 7,938 teachers with an 18 percent response.
Not a large response rate, but I think the timing probably had a lot to do with that. In any case, the results are still interesting. As for me, I don't know that I ever felt pressure while in the classroom---but I do remember other teachers either being squeezed (especially at graduation time) or worse, returning in the fall to discover that a counselor had changed a student's grade over the summer. Yes, I've had pleading calls from parents and emails from students. If that counts as pressure, so be it. Looking back, there have been times when I should have been more considerate and entertained a change...but that certainly doesn't mean that hounding teachers or bullying them into changing grades is okay. I hope readers will jump in with their own experiences. What does pressure look like to you?

Over at the WaPo, there's some discussion about the rampant subjectivity of grading. Um...duh. (and perhaps one of the reasons for the pressure noted above) Oddly enough, the "fixes" they report as being suggested by Douglas Reeves are standards-based grading practices. As much as a proponent as I am of standards-based grading practices, I will be the first to say that they do not eliminate subjectivity. I actually think that they increase subjectivity because a teacher is concentrating on evaluating every student fairly...not equally. What these practices will do (as outlined in the article), is exorcise the mishmash of learning and non-academic behaviors.

John Spencer has noted that the standards-based grading at his school sucks. The full post is below:
Our school is shifting from traditional grades to standards-based grading. With this comes a major paradigm shift. We no longer assess a student's work ethic (it's impossible to lose points by not turning work in) but only pure academic achievement.

At first glance, the standards-based grading represents a new philosophy of grading. Shouldn't we assess whether students master a standard? Should we check for growth? How could we possibly be against this process? When I first heard about this, I envisioned student-created reflective portfolios combining their qualitative and quantitative feedback. I imagined projects connected to strands and performance objectives. To me, it seemed like a step in the right direction. All too often students work for the sake of extrinsic motivation. Finally, we were stepping away from arbitrary grades and packets with check marks.

Instead, we use only multiple choice exams. One exam accounts for sixty percent of the final grade. I find this odd, because on our lesson plan format they want to see: connects to prior knowledge, differentiated instruction, metacognition, cooperative learning, higher-order thinking and a host of other "best practices."

While I agree with the list of best practices, it seems strange that ultimately we assess students with none of the best practices: one modality, individually, non-differentiated (entirely standardized), isolated, based upon rote memorization.
I think it's important here to note that assessment and evaluation (grading) are not the same thing. I find this to be a common misconception among teachers when I'm out and about giving presentations. Multiple-choice assessments are not inherently evil and can give excellent information for teachers to evaluate in a standards-based grading system. Grading isn't about the tool, it's about what you do with it. However, I can understand why he is unhappy with the tools. Perhaps he can use his new grading scale to develop more meaningful scores for students.

Finally, Lana stopped by nearly a month ago and left a comment for me on an old post. I've decided to put it here as opposed to post it where she left it. "I can't stand standards based grading. I spend over 30 hours a week trying to complete my gradebook. Trying to figure out how each assigments [sic] fits each standard is impossible. I'm quitting teaching because of this system after 19 years." I'm not completely sure what to do with this...and Lana never returned here, so I think she was looking for place to vent as opposed to get help. It's difficult to say whether this is happening in a district where some sort of change was mandated and no professional development or support was provided...or perhaps Lana has no understanding of how to meaningfully connect standards with her lessons. I find the "30 hour" remark on the hyperbolic side. The teachers I've talked to who have implemented this system spend 1/3 - 1/2 the time grading that they used to with no changes to the amount of time inputting information into a gradebook. I'm going to guess there's some really bad implementation going on here and hope Lana gets some help for whatever is really holding her back.
Be careful out there.

21 September 2009

Modern Problems

Part of my job includes guiding the fulfillment of the following legislative requirement:
Within funds specifically appropriated therefor, the superintendent shall obtain or develop education technology assessments that may be administered in the elementary, middle, and high school grades to assess the essential academic learning requirements for technology. The assessments shall be designed to be classroom or project-based so that they can be embedded in classroom instruction and be administered and scored by school staff throughout the regular school year using consistent scoring criteria and procedures. By the 2010-11 school year, these assessments shall be made available to school districts for the districts' voluntary use.
Kind of exciting, don't you think? I do. My mind has been abuzz with all sorts of ways that these "classroom or project-based" assessments could look. (Tech standards are here, in case you're interested to see what we will attempt to assess.) My goal is to make sure that these assessments rock so hard that teachers will just have to have them, even though it is voluntary. Most of my focus right now is on gathering resources that might be useful for the task ahead. Some things I've learned along the way:
  • NCLB requires that every school with 8th graders report a measure of those students' technology literacy. This does not mean a formal assessment is required---most states are sliding along using a simple survey or reporting tool.
  • According to the most recent version of Education Week's annual Technology Counts report, only 13 states had some sort of assessment of technology skills. Of those, 6 are using a canned on-line test, 4 have their own online versions of a test (I couldn't see what was behind the curtain), and 3 are a complete mystery---nary a shred of evidence on the state department of education websites (most of which are painful, at best, to navigate).
  • Bottom line: I'm hanging out on my own here. Sigh.
To that end, I've been scouring the interwebs, looking for any classroom examples of assessments and rubrics targeting educational technology and/or "21st Century Learning Skills." The good news is that there are lots of nice examples of assessments/projects (unlike the NY ones I shared last week). The bad news is that the rubrics are useless in nearly every case. Keep in mind that I am required by law to develop something with "consistent scoring criteria and procedures."

The problem is that most projects which ostensibly use educational technology end up with rubrics that assess other things, such as writing or speaking skills. These rubrics aren't bad. I have no beef with them other than they supply no way to measure the students understanding and use of technology. Those are the real targets we're after. I find this lack of presence not only frustrating, but careless. With all the passion being put into the educational mindset about 21st century skills---why doesn't anyone at least make some sort of effort to measure them? If we believe that the sorts of tools and thinking that occurs in a "modern" learning environment are important...why do we have no way to provide feedback to students about this? I don't buy the argument that only the product matters. When we say we are placing value on innovation and creativity using educational technology---then there must be some better guidance than "I'll know it when I see it."

I do think that I'm on the right track with rubrics that incorporate thinking skills or focus on the qualities of educational technology products (e.g. What makes for a good podcast?), but this all feels like very new territory. This is odd when I am more or less late to this game. Many others have been focusing on educational technology far longer and more deeply than I. I have no doubts whatsoever as to the high quality of lessons and instruction out there. I just wonder if kids are getting the scores and feedback that they should have.

20 September 2009

Have You Flipped A Rock Today?

Just a reminder that today is International Rock Flipping Day---an opportunity for some informal ecosystem inventorying. A game the whole family can play (indeed, there is a certificate available for the junior rock-flippers out there).

I did go out this morning and do my scientific duty. Unfortunately, I am no photographer (as you might already have noticed). But here is a general description of the event...

It's a sunny morning here in western Washington. According to the weather station just across the water from me, current air temp is 57 degrees Fahrenheit and we have 81% humidity; winds are out of the west at 4 miles per hour. In short, it is shaping up to be a gorgeous day. Perhaps I should have delayed my flippin' foray, but I just couldn't wait. I had to head out into the yard. My neighbour might wish I hadn't, as I looked a bit unkempt; but, whatever. At least I wasn't the one in a bathrobe. Anyway...

I had a hard time picking a good subject for study. This was not due to a lack of rocks. My property has plenty of options---which was what made the decision that much more difficult. Should I pick something in the driveway? Nah...little likelihood of life under there. What about one of the flowerbeds? Rocks were too small. I was starting to flip out a bit, because I couldn't find a rock that was just right. And then, I spotted these lone rangers along the street side of the property:

Now here was some real potential. A good size, which might mean they hadn't been disturbed in some time...settled into organic material, so there was likely some life underneath...on the south side of the property, where there would be the most sun and warmth for small creatures. Perfect! Here's the gratuitous after shot:

Not very exciting, is it? Doesn't appear to be a flippin' thing under that rock! Well, chalk that up to my poor camerawork rather than lack of multi-legged fauna to observe. I did see 4 roly-polys (a/k/a wood lice, sow bug, pillbugs, Armadillidiidae reps). They scampered into the crevices in the dirt as soon as the sunlight hit them. They were obviously not morning crustaceans. I also saw a little critter that reminded me of a centipede or silverfish. It had many legs, was light orange in colour, and no more than one inch in length. It, too, scrambled toward darkness like a tiny vampire scared of turning to dust. On the underside of the rock was some webbing---perhaps the remnants of an egg sac from a long departed momma occupant. You might also notice that there were some crustose lichens occupying the upper side of the rock...and many tiny plant roots underneath. The rock is providing habitat services for any number of organisms. I will now have to stop thinking of it as an eyesore by the road.

So, get out today and find your own flipping rock. Be a naturalist in your own yard. Tell us what you find! Feel free to also check out the Flickr pool for this event or the #rockflip tag on Twitter for other posts and pics.

19 September 2009

It Wasn't Always Like This

You might not know it, but way back when I was a brand new teacher and working on my Master's, my area of focus was Gifted Ed. I actually did put the degree to some use when I lived in NM as there, gifted children fall under Special Ed rules. They are placed on IEPs and receive special services. In Washington? I can't say that ever used what I'd learned about identifying gifted children and developing program needs. (Here, students only have to score well on an IQ test and a state assessment. Not much "gifted" about that...just smart.)

However, I can't say that the investment in my education was a total loss. The classes I took were very specific about how to construct learning experiences for gifted students---how to challenge them and access higher levels of thinking. Things that were, in fact, good for every student and should not have been reserved for a select few.

It dawned on me the other day that perhaps schools are reaching a point where the "special" instruction for g/t kids is (finally) becoming the norm for everyone. This both saddens me (Why did it take SO long?) and delights me (W00t! It's finally happening!). I think it may well be a result of technology driving that change. Perhaps a lot of what happens inside the classroom is the same-old same-old. But outside? It's a different story in terms of how kids are choosing to connect and learn. We have new "verbs" now for the kind of work students undertake.

I had this little Aha! while I was continuing the hunt for the elusive technology assessment/rubric. (This is truly a snipe hunt, if there ever was one...more on that in another post.) It started with this image from Educational Origami:

I had seen the reimagined Bloom's Taxonomy before...but not with the addition of web 2.0 sorts of skills...which then got me thinking about rubric descriptors for products...and reminded me of all the g/t file folders in my basement all stuffed with skills assessment stuff. It's the Circle of Professional Life, fer cryin' out loud. I'm back where I started, except this time, those musty old g/t folders are going to be put to use for every child. Every child. Maybe that wasn't the case in the past, but from now on, them's the rules.

17 September 2009

Kickin' It Old School

I've been on the hunt recently for high-quality examples of assessments and rubrics for educational technology. So far, these items appear to be as rare as "ghosts, goblins, virgins, and other mythical creatures." I've found several multiple-choice tests for tech literacy. Yawn. It's far more amusing to find examples of assessments past their expiration date.

Consider Exhibits A and B (shown below) from Standard 5 of the Math, Science, and Technology curriculum from New York. But before we get there, note the cautionary tale posted on the website:
Some of the learning experiences sections are very graphically intensive in order to show the detail of student work. As an example, the 28 Learning Standards file (1310K) took 10.5 minutes to download on a 486/66 PC using a 28.8 modem and Windows 3.11. It took 35 minutes to print on a Canon 600 InkJet printer. It took less than 5 minutes on a laser printer. Your experiences may vary. If you have lower end equipment, your experience will be considerably slower. Many older printers with limited graphics capabilities may not be able to print these sections. Other printers may run out of memory. You may be able to get around this by printing in smaller pieces.
Yes, friends...these tech lessons/targets/assessments are brought to you fresh from the year 1996. They are vintage tasks. Antiques, as it were.

So, assuming that you've dusted off your 2880 baud modem...here are a couple of things for your students to do.

I got the giggles with this one. A coworker was convinced the book title was "Moose Code," until I corrected her. Is that a walkie talkie I see in the top set of, um, art? And keyboard keys attempting to escape the tech ghetto they're in? Why is there a ballpoint pen in the same set as the bongos? Do you think the floppy disk bay in the computer is for a 3.5" disk...or is really old school and awaiting a 5.25" version? I love the lines around the clip art. Somebody really did physically cut and paste these pictures. (Wonder if the images are/were copyright-free?)

But the best was yet to come:

If you can't read the task (and don't want to "click to embiggen" the graphic), you're missing the following suggestion: "...design a plan for the construction of a homemade radio speaker for the eight ohm speaker jack on an inexpensive transistor radio or cassette recorder."

We have a veritable museum of technology options.

Hey, I understand that websites have a tendency to grow beyond their original borders. It's easy to forget what pages are live and the paths they take. There's probably a lot of information from 1996 still floating around on state department of education websites.

But do you see what I see in the bottom right corner of the page? It says "Last Updated: May 27, 2009." Someone looked at this a few months ago and considered it current enough to keep. Does this mean these standards and assessments are still in use? Please, NY, please tell me you have something less than 13 years old for 13-year olds to work with...something a bit less old school.

15 September 2009

Flip Rocks, Not Birds

Sunday is International Rock-Flipping Day. This year, the event is being organized by Wanderin' Weeta, a nature enthusiast from BC. Cephalopodcast has supplied the above badge and organized the Flickr pool. All that's missing is your participation. Make plans for the following:
  • On or about September 20th, find your rock and flip it over.
  • Record what you find. "Any and all forms of documentation are welcome: still photos, video, sketches, prose, or poetry."
  • Replace the rock as you found it; it's someone's home.
  • Post on your blog, or load your photos to the Flickr group.
  • Send a link to Wanderin' Weeta or add a comment to her post that day.
  • WW will collect the links, e-mail participants the list, and post it for any and all to copy to your own blogs. (Maybe we can Tweet it, too, this year. Use the hashtag #rockflip.)
This event gives a whole new meaning to "social science," don't you think?

13 September 2009


It's been a very busy couple of weeks. I started my new job and am very excited about a couple of the projects I'm gearing up to do. For the first time in a long time, I don't feel like I'm trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Stay tuned for details. Here are some other snapshots.

Sprinkled amongst the work have been some other efforts. I did go to visit my mother---making the 18-hour roundtrip one last time while she is still with us. She continues to decline (both physically and mentally), but is not in any pain. In fact, the fantasy world that she continues to build around herself is very much a happy place. When I left the rest home last Sunday, there was this beautiful (double) rainbow waiting for me.

My new job arrangement permits me to telecommute one - two days per week. Friday was the first day doing this. Below is a picture of my new co-worker.

She was quite happy to snuggle behind the laptop...then check now and then to see if I was ready for a coffee break.

And yesterday, my aunt (birthmother's youngest sister) married. It is the only big event with the family I've ever been to. I went primarily because my mother cannot. My aunt (who is only 5 years older than I) has been especially devastated by my mother's illness. So, I went to the wedding not so much for myself, but rather as proxy for my mother. It was a bittersweet day, to be sure. It was also a bit odd---a variation on P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? as I tried to determine who I was actually related to. I met two cousins, one of them a blonde version of me, for the very first time. To be an adult adoptee can make one a stranger in a strange land when birthfamily is involved. I get stared at a lot as relatives look to find traces of my mother and others in the family. This is not to say that I am unwelcome or excluded. All evidence to the contrary as I sit with the rest of the bride's family at dinner and am asked to be in family photos. Whether or not I had the benefit of growing up in that environment, the end result is the same: I belong.

Today, I plan to get out and enjoy some sunshine...catch up on my reading...and hopefully get a few new posts added to the blog queue. Perhaps the random snapshots that have been making up my days can be stitched together to make sense of a bigger picture.

06 September 2009

What It's Like on the Outside

Most of my friends are back in the classroom---summer vacation over and the frenzy of another school year beginning. My archives here hold some glimpses into my own first days of 2005, 2006, and 2007, as well as their impacts. I do remember sore feet and a sore throat from exercising my "teacher voice" after a summer of rest. I recall sleepy teens in the first couple of classes...and starving ones starting about 10 in the morning, their sense of time and energy jetlagged by the demands of a new school year.

There are things I miss about being in the classroom. Most of all, I miss working with the kids---in all of their adolescent glory. I no longer have any ebbs and flows to my year which are driven by the calendar: no "Winter Break," no counting down the days until summer holiday, no Homecoming Assembly, AP test weeks, or final exams. I have no more grading and reporting frenzies. However, there are things that I don't miss, such as fire/earthquake/emergency drills. I have yet to pine for the interruptions of the intercom and endless student passes from the office, along with every other aggravation known to administration and counseling. And I especially don't miss the pathetic union masquerading as professionalism and collective action.

However, for those of you who have looked longingly at the grass on the other side of the fence and wondered how nice it would be to actually have a lunch every day and/or use the restroom whenever you needed...well, I don't mean to burst your bubble, but it is not necessarily good times on the outside. You know that industrial toilet paper used in schools? It's ever present in government agencies, too. Being able to sneak off to the restroom is really not that much of a gift in that case. Lunch? Sure, I can choose to eat whenever I get hungry, but you don't always get a guaranteed space between meetings for that. And, oh, the meetings...and administrivia...and games played by anyone with a special interest to promote (which is pretty much everyone in my circles these days). Let me assure you that incompetent leadership can be found nearly everywhere outside of the schools.

All this being said, there are some nice things about being on the outside. I might not get the month of July off, but I can take a holiday nearly any time of year. Although I've had to travel a bit too much for my tastes in the past year, I do get to be out and about. I've gone all sorts of new places and met hundreds of new people. I get to work from home a couple of days a week. Those few parents who would make my teaching life miserable? Don't deal with them anymore (or the rare bad apple kid who caused night after night of insomnia). I have the opportunity to think about different things than I did in the classroom, which after all these years, is really a nice change.

I don't know that I can stay away from classroom life forever. And really, I don't know that I should. To do this job for an extended time and not walk the talk I'm putting out is hypocritical, at best. I can't support who/what I don't understand. But for the next year or so, I'm going to see if I can enjoy life on the outside.

05 September 2009

Getting a Boost

Is it just me, or is STEM shaping up to be the Acronym of the Year for 2009 - 2010 schools? If it's new to you, it represents "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," both as individual pursuits and collectively. (Maybe it should be "S, T, E and/or M.") There continues to be some voices of concern about the lack of U.S. graduates in these areas, although other evidence suggests that the country is doing just fine. We can't compete with the sheer number of graduates from China and India due to population number differences as it is. However, student interests should be fostered, no matter where they might occur.

Two tools have recently emerged to guide schools in their efforts to identify and support STEM students.

Via Education Week (Science Panel Seeks Ways to Fan Innovation), it appears that the National Science Board has been focusing on "how can schools produce more mathematics and science students with a distinct and harder-to-define skill: the ability to innovate and become future innovators in American business, science, medicine, and other areas..." noting that policymakers have "become increasingly keen in recent years on providing new and different academic challenges for elite students...Members of the expert committee said their final report will likely have to address several questions. What are the characteristics of an innovator—ability, interest, determination, curiosity, or all of those traits? What separates innovative ability from other, related skills, such as creativity? And can math and science classroom instruction and assessment in the United States realistically be revamped to nurture innovation among students?"

Should be an interesting report to keep an eye out for.

Meanwhile, over at eSchool News, there is a report on an open-source (but not free) tool from the Gates Foundation that "will simulate how schools can draw students to STEM fields most effectively--a trend that would bolster the science and engineering workforce...The program can test more than 200 variables that could better inform policy makers about how programs should be funded. The model measures graduation and dropout rates, gender gaps in STEM fields, teacher and STEM industry salaries, and educator attrition rates, among other factors. 'Whether it's the answer, I don't know," said Sternheim, director of the STEM Educational Institute for 20 years. "But it could be a piece of the answer. It might even make a real difference.'"

That quote doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in me, but there are some guinea pigs in Ohio, Arizona, and California who will use the software first. If it "might even make a real difference," we should know in a few years...although by then, we could well be looking for some real way to give STEM students a boost.

03 September 2009

Carrots and Sticks

A hefty dose of my doctoral work is based in motivational theory---in particular, achievement goals. It's one of three major areas of focus in the educational research regarding motivation (the others being ability and intelligence). As that work wraps up and I think about the applications of motivation to classroom environments, I can't help but also think about the adults in those environments.

Tim over at Assorted Stuff recently shared the link to Dan Pink's TED talk about motivation.

The talk is described as "Career analyst Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don't: Traditional rewards aren't always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories -- and maybe, a way forward." As you might imagine, Pink is a proponent of increasing intrinsic motivation in the workplace (and, hey, what's not to like about that?). He focuses on the idea of autonomy, something I've struggled with recently in the workplace. I don't mind being given a task/goal and a timeline (after all, it is "work" and I am being paid in exchange for completing certain things), but what is so bad about giving me autonomy beyond that point? If I give my employer what is required, does it matter what time of day I do my work...much less where I sit while completing it? And, what if, I was given opportunity to pursue related projects. Suppose that in exchange for the 50 state assessment questions you want me to revise, I get to develop classroom assessment tools for teachers that I think will be useful? I think one of the major sources of my job dissatisfaction over the last year has been the lack of autonomy---no ideas had value, much less the goals I would like to set and reach. At least in the classroom with its various constraints, I was still allowed some creativity and problem-solving.

I can give several parameters for supporting and increasing intrinsic motivation in students. What does an intrinsic environment look like for adults in schools, I wonder? It's not merit pay. It's not canned curriculum. As much as we might like the idea of a Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE), I have to admit that certain concessions where scheduling is concerned are necessary for schools. I do think it has something to do with choice and a sense of personal control in the workplace---and less to do with forced collaboration/collective action. I am wondering how much of it might have to do with some of these ideas of managing people in a 2.0 environment.

So, teachers, administrators, classroom aides, administrative assistants, and others in the schools, lend me your comments. What would you ask to be changed in order to foster your intrinsic motivation for your work? What would you like to see?

01 September 2009

Technology Literacy

I was recently ruminating about the constriction of internet filters on teaching and learning in most classrooms. I wonder how this thinly-veiled censorship will impact students' ability to perform on the upcoming Technology Literacy NAEP. To be sure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is neither high-stakes (i.e. not tied to graduation or a school's/district's Adequate Yearly Progress) nor a part of most classrooms; however, it is one-way to get a comparative snapshot of learning across the 50 states.

An article in the last edition of Education Week by Sean Cavanagh (reg. req'd.) revealed that the first draft of the standards for the national assessment of technology literacy has been made available. The draft represents a "framework for the national assessment of technological literacy, the first to gauge students’ understanding of and skill in using a range of tools."

The computer-based National Assessment of Educational Progress in technological literacy, scheduled to be administered to a representative sample of the nation’s 4th, 8th, and 12th graders for the first time in 2012, will evaluate students’ understanding of technology tools and their design, the ways they can be used to gather information and communicate ideas, and their impact on society...

When it is made final, the framework will guide the design of the assessment. The draft defines technological literacy as the “general understanding of technology coupled with a capability to use, manage, and assess the technologies that are most relevant in one’s life, such as the information and communication technologies that are particularly salient in the world today.”

The committee embraced a broad definition of technology that ranges from automobiles to computers, including many of the tools that are used in daily life.

Students may be tested on their knowledge of the kinds of tools that are available and how they are used, along with their ability to apply technological concepts to solve problems. They may be given tasks that demonstrate their ability to use various technology platforms to communicate information or collect and analyze data, evaluate information, and suggest a technology solution to a given problem.

While the assessment is meant to gauge a broad range of skills that are considered essential to technological literacy, the test design may be limited in its ability to measure some areas, the draft states, such as the habits of mind and critical-thinking skills that are considered essential to a deeper understanding and use of technology.

“This is an important development, I can say that without reservations because technological literacy is such a critical element of being a successful 21st - century citizen,” said Valerie Greenhill, the director of strategic initiatives for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Tucson, Ariz.-based advocacy group. “The progression being made in the technology community away from the notion of just technology competence, such as how to use a computer, to … developing that literacy with the use of technology in daily life and in core academic subjects as well is incredibly important. To the extent that the NAEP is developing a framework that guides the development of these competencies is a welcome move.”

A number of states have implemented tests of technology or information literacy, and most have adopted the national K-12 standards in the field produced by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) committee that has been devising the framework has reviewed state technology standards, studies on assessing technology skills, and the guidelines and recommendations of ISTE and other organizations.

“We want students to understand that technology is not just computers,” said Senta Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, who co-chaired the framework committee. The center is based at WestEd, a research organization in San Francisco.

The goal, Ms. Raizen said at a meeting earlier this month where the draft was unveiled, is to understand “the human design world, where do things come from, where does our technology come from.”

She and others involved in the project say the material represented in the framework could be covered in science class, but also in subjects across the curriculum, such as mathematics, history, social studies, and language arts.

“We’ve seen movement for reading across the curriculum, writing across the curriculum,” Mr. Friedman said. “Well, technology across the curriculum makes as much sense as those do.”

Indeed. I have only given the draft a cursory review, but things look to be on the right track. I worry about the ability to assess many of the targets outside of the classroom---however, that does not make for poor targets. The ideas are general enough that they truly could be embedded with nearly any curriculum. And, most importantly (to me), they include the concept that technology is not just stuff. On the flipside, do teachers need another set of standards to think about? (No.) Will schools embrace technology standards? (Unlikely at the current time, given the focus on literacy/math and placement of filters.) But perhaps these are good "ammo" for those trying to beat down the filters and/or justify cell phones in their classrooms or any other of the myriad battles being fought betwixt those in the trenches and policy-makers outside. It's a start.