29 November 2009


In September, I mentioned that I'd been reading Yong Zhao's Catching Up or Leading the Way, an exploration of the fervor toward standardization by the US in order to be more like China and India...while China and India are wanting their educational systems to be more like the US, valuing creativity and choice. I was excited to hear that he was going to be speaking at a conference I would be at in November. I ultimately ended up missing the event due to a funeral; however, our state government station replayed the speech Friday evening and I found several points as food for thought.

Zhao shared a story about kindergartners in India...and his own kindergartner. Bob Compton of Two Million Minutes fame told Zhao that he was inspired to make the movie after asking kindergartners in India what they wanted to be when they grew up. Those five year olds said things like scientist, engineer, and doctor. Big dreams, indeed. Zhao said he wondered if he should be worried, because his own kindergarten daughter wanted to be an elephant. Does this indicate that American kindergartners are already behind in international comparisons? Zhao doesn't think so. He believes it is a luxury to be able to dream of being an elephant---to really think that you can be anything you want to be. I find this to be a rather refreshing viewpoint...and, unfortunately, unusual these days.

FYI, the Chinese kinder said she wanted to grow up to be "a corrupt government official." I kinda like the blend of whimsy and observation of public service.

The primary point that Zhao seemed to be making was that the US doesn't need Common Core Standards. In fact, education doesn't need standards at all. I don't want to get into all of his points here (go visit his blog or read his book). What I do want to share is that his twist on things really made me think. I've always viewed academic standards as basically a good thing in the sense that there are some knowledge and skill pieces that every child should have (e.g. how to read and understand what is being read). Children who leave the public school system without these elements are at a significant disadvantage for quality of life as adults. This is not a new problem...and Zhao wonders if lack of standards is a problem at all. The first TIMSS-like study was in 1963---and US students (13-year olds were tested for this international comparison) were third from the bottom. Those students are well into adulthood now and the US hasn't suffered in terms of innovation nor collapsed under the weight of the perceived stupidity of those students. We also don't need standards, according to Zhao, because of the varying developmental rates among children. Is it appropriate to state that every child will reach the same benchmarks at the same time---and then assign intervention after intervention simply because the child isn't "ready" yet? Zhao equates standards with testing/accountability---which I think is a mistake. There is no denying the connection, but there are very different issues afoot with each. Unbridled zealotry for assessment is not the same as a list of learning goals.

And yet here we are a breath away from national standards---and the whispers of national assessments are not far behind. A friend at work was recently wondering if Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize winning reassessment of the Tragedy of the Commons might not have implications for education. The basic idea is that people who have a direct stake in a resource are the best at managing it. Once you make an assumption that people will do the wrong thing and encourage privatization or government regulation, things pretty much go downhill. If our children are an important resource, then are we doing them a disservice in moving away from localized curriculum? Are the qualities of innovation and creativity that the US educational system has fostered for so many years about to become extinct in the name of nationalized standards?

If you're so inclined, you can watch Zhao's presentation on the TVW website. His part of the program starts about 30 minutes in and lasts for about 50 minutes. See what ideas are engendered for you about whether or not our window of opportunity to reverse the national trend is going...going...gone.

21 November 2009

Grading Roundup: November 2009

Shall we see what the interwebs dragged in this month in terms of stories about grading practices in schools?

My personal favorite is a story about a Teacher Who Broke the Law by Posting Top Test Scores (via Teacher Magazine). I have seen any number of teachers post grades (with or without student names). I remember finding out grades on exams in college by looking at bulletin boards and finding my ID number. I had a teacher tell me in the past year about his great idea to put every student's name on a card and then order the cards on the wall showing the rank from top to bottom in terms of grades. He thought it was "motivational." In part, he was right---but it all depends on what you want to motivate students to do: value grades or value learning. There's nothing wrong with individuals knowing their own scores and considering what it says about personal performance. Once you make a public classroom notice, you've changed goals and outcomes for kids---not to mention violating their privacy and opening yourself up for a lawsuit. Find other ways to communicate with students that doesn't involve public posting of everyone's scores.

Meanwhile, Education Week is reporting on a lawsuit filed by five Texas school districts concerning the state education commissioner's interpretation of grading scales. The law requires that the scale for A - F have equal intervals, i.e. if a score of 90 - 100 represents an A...then 50 - 60 must represent an F.

Five Houston-area school districts filed a lawsuit against the state education commissioner over his interpretation of a new law prohibiting minimum grading policies, a lawyer said Thursday.
Commissioner Robert Scott told districts last month that the law applied to grades on assignments as well as six-week or nine-week grading periods.
The schools — Fort Bend, Aldine, Klein, Alief, Anahuac and Clear Creek — assert in the lawsuit filed Wednesday that the law only specifically applies to assignments and should not be applied to grading periods or semesters. The lawsuit, filed in Travis County, seeks to have the minimum-grade ban only apply to single assignments.
"Even though the language of the bill does not address in any way minimum grading policies for report cards or grading periods, that is the way the commissioner is interpreting it," said attorney David Feldman, who is representing the school districts.
"Well over half of the school districts in the state have minimum failing grade policies," Feldman said Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency did not immediately return a call to The Associated Press seeking comment.
"It is a sad state of affairs when school districts are willing to go to court for the right to force their teachers to assign fraudulent grades," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who sponsored the new law earlier this year. Administrators "are willing to waste precious education resources on a misguided lawsuit to continue these policies, which undermine the authority of our teachers and reward minimum effort from students."
Fraudulent grades? I think not. I will be watching this one to see how it plays out. I am all for the use of professional judgment when assigning transcript grades, but I think there are going to be some major issues with parents if one grading scale (50 - 100) is applied to individual assignments and a different scale is used for end of term.

There are a couple of interesting posts from the edusphere worth a click. Jim---blogging over at 5/17---shared an idea about having students track their own progress using GoogleDocs. OKP wonders if she is becoming Softer or Smooshed? as her perspective and policies on late work evolve with her career.

That's all the news fit to print for grading this month. If you've seen an article or post to share, please do so in the comments.

19 November 2009

That Was (Too) Easy

A few weeks ago, I listened to several different people from around the country share some ideas about educational technology programs. The most frequent words used by presenters were "simple" and "easy." I suppose that there is some appeal in that; but, I kept wondering when someone was going to say "meaningful." I would have even settled for "effective."

I understand that there needs to be some room for both. When I buy a can opener, I want one that does the job, but isn't difficult to use. The most important part is that the can opens---I get the result I want from the tool I have in my hand. Someone who sells me a can opener based on how simple it is to use without showing that the tool is able to remove a lid from a can will get no future business from me.

It may be an unfair comparison between a can opener and software for collecting and managing data in schools. I still can't help but think that the bottom line is the same: the tool needs to do the job it was designed for. If it's easy to use, that is a definite bonus---but that aspect should not be the first words out of the mouths of presenters.

It also means that as buyers, we also need to be careful about the questions we ask and the values we communicate. I remember a sign that used to hang in a local store. It had a short list: Cheap, Fast, Good. Underneath that was the instruction for the customer to "Pick Two." I am wondering if our pursuit of Cheap and Fast (Easy), has led to our neglect of Good in education. It would seem well past time for us to insist on quality in our programs instead of taking the easy way out.

16 November 2009

Data Visualization for the Classroom: Part II

In a previous post, I suggested a couple of ways to take a gradebook and make it more visual. I've also been considering ways to share student performance with a larger audience.

There are lots of examples of Dashboards (like the one at the right) for business. The one shown comes from Excel Dashboard Reports. The idea behind using a dashboard is that it communicates a large volume of information in a compact area. Sparklines are used as a way to condense the data. Anyone using the report who might need further information could then dig more deeply into individual data sets.

I have yet to run across a Dashboard designed for the school setting, but my hunch is that they are being used somewhere. Perhaps those using them are not teachers, but rather administrative staff. Or maybe some options are already built in with commercial programs, but they are too laborious to use for teachers. At some point, however, I expect that we may see something like what is pictured at the left (although much better). To give myself something to play with, I pulled some gender and ethnicity data, as well as some summaries of class performance. The pie chart and stacked bar chart at the top are fairly easy reads. The bullet charts at the bottom have this information: a black bar representing current progress, a red line showing where the standard is, and three shaded areas of grey to denote the ranges of performance. Again, a nice snapshot for teachers, summarizing hundreds of data points into one easy to read space. As with the gradebook examples discussed previously, these sorts of things might show information, but they don't tell you the next step. We need different tools for that.

Grant Wiggins has written about the idea that report cards should be more like baseball cards, providing various statistics about student performance. I like this in concept. I think we can even take it a step further with the use of data visualizations (click to embiggen graphic shown below).

At the top I have some of the basic information for a report card: names, places, dates. But below, I've added information beyond some basic numbers. There are some bullet graphs showing current progress toward a standard. I added some Sparklines representing all of the scores in the data set. And finally, for those standards for which there was some student progress, it is reflected in a modified bullet graph. This graph allows stakeholders to see the growth student is making---an element that is missing from most report cards. Again, I've left out a lot of information from this report card that we could add or manipulate. For example, attendance and comments about non-academic behaviors are not included. Future iterations may have that information. In the meantime, I think this is a good start. And with Excel, once the template is built, it can be automatically updated for any and every student. It may be that there are some commercial versions of these graphic report cards available for schools and I just haven't seen them yet. If your school is using something like this, drop me a line.

I'll be interested to watch and see what sorts of tools become adapted for use within school settings. I have three upcoming presentations with different education audiences to talk about data visualization. Perhaps I'll have some interesting things to report back in the coming months.

Update 5/2012: Please visit my page on the Excel for Educators blog for the most recent versions of gradebook and reporting tools. Most have sample workbooks to download and instructional videos.

14 November 2009

It's All Very Personal

While lying in bed the other morning, I was thinking about one particular scene in the movie Beetle Juice. Adam and Barbara (newly deceased) have gone for help, because they're rather frustrated with their afterlife. They end up in a waiting room much like you would find in any "live" government office, but filled with quite the cast of characters: a woman who had been sawed in half, an explorer with a shrunken head, etc. The following exchange with the receptionist takes place:
[in the waiting room of the afterlife]
Barbara: Adam, is this what happens when you die?
Receptionist: This is what happens when *you* die.
[points at a gaunt man smoking]
Receptionist: That is what happens when *he* dies.
[points at a woman cut in half on the sofa reading]
Receptionist: And that is what happens when *they* die. It's all very personal.
I mention this only because it is my mother's time to die. Her nine-month battle with brain cancer is at an end. It's been a difficult few days here with family as we keep a round-the-clock vigil and move into other phases.

Grieving, too, is all very personal. As such, I'm not sure what this space will look like in the next week or so as we deal with funeral arrangements and other issues. I have a few half-finished posts in the queue that I will try to shine up and set to auto-post. Please be patient with comment moderation, as my access to the internet may be intermittent and I have a variety of traveling to do.

Life moves on, sometimes in fits and starts and pauses. So will this blog.

13 November 2009

Data Visualization for the Classroom: Part I

One of my professional goals from last year was to delve deeper into the realm of "data visualization" and think about applications to schools. There are any number of websites devoted to great visualizations of social and economic information (as well as plenty of "Infoporn"/eye candy), but I'm not seeing much in the way of transitions to practical applications for schools. And I think we could use them.

I'm still playing with some ideas for an upcoming presentation, but here is some of my thinking so far...

Consider the graphic to be a piece of a gradebook. I haven't labeled the assignments, just input some numbers representing where students scored (on a 4-point scale) for a given standard. I used boldfaced type for summative assessments---others are formative.

Fuchs and Fuchs (1986) conducted a meta-analysis of feedback types given to students and determined that graphic representations (putting information into pictures---not just words/numbers) increased student achievement by 26%. So, what can we do with the batch of numbers shown above? For one, we can apply some conditional formatting and make a "traffic signal" visual:

It's not bad. It certainly gives me a better idea about whether or not the class is "getting it," depending on the assignment. But we can also take things a step further, and eliminate the numbers altogether:

The graphs above come from a Sparklines add-in for Excel. It is a free, open-source (Thank you, Fabrice!) tool that provides you with multiple options for charts/graphs that are one cell in size. (Note: Microsquash just applied for a patent for their own version, but it is nowhere near what others have developed...and, let's face it, there is nothing proprietary about their ideas in this matter.) But back to the snapshot above, I had Excel generate a simple line graph for each student (with the red line representing "At Standard/Level 3") and the bar chart at the bottom summarizing the data for the entire class.

So far, so good. When I look at this with my teacher eyes, I see so much more of a story appearing about each student. It is no longer a sea of numbers. Now, these fancy-dancy charts won't help me know what to do next (e.g. If students are still below standard, what should the intervention be?), but it may be a better start for identifying issues.

I have a few other tricks up my sleeve that I'm working on and will share in the coming days. What would you like your gradebook to be able to do and show you?

Update 5/2012: Please visit my page on the Excel for Educators blog for the most recent versions of gradebooks and reporting tools.

08 November 2009

What I Learned at Work Last Week

Have I mentioned that I have a very odd job now? Not just the most recent incarnation of my state-level work, but just about everything over the past 15 months. (Guess I did do a short post on my Surreal Life a couple of weeks after embarking on this phase of my career.) As someone who has spent the vast majority of my adult life with the under-18 crowd in classrooms, working with adults all day is very different. Quite often, I wonder if I'm grown up enough to be doing this job. I'm probably not, but I keep trying anyway.

We don't do much out of state travel, mainly because of a "freeze" on such events. There are plenty of good things to attend on behalf of the state and reasons to connect with others across the nation. Some things don't cost the state any money (e.g. the feds pay), but the office paperwork to get permission to travel is so intensive and the process so nonsensical, most opportunities slip by. The recent trip to DC was almost one of these (the pic at left is as close as I ever got to seeing the sights as we were saddled with an unforgiving schedule). Here are a few things I learned last week while meeting with other educational technology folk from around the 50 states...
  • The observation that Educational Technology is not "T Enough" to participate in STEM discussions is not limited to our state. This appears to be a problem around the country. Like Doyle, I am not a fan of "STEM for the sake of STEM," that is to say preferring economic goals over student-oriented ones. However, for those programs which put the needs of students first, I believe that online environments should be part of the mix. It doesn't mean that they're better or more appropriate for every situation, but open source engineering or collaborative tools for solving math and science issues are a piece.
  • There are very few presenters in educational technology who can walk their talk. I find it depressing that the majority of my time in DC consisted of being talked at---not with. And not even about our more meaningful issues. I sat through several discussions about how to electronically collect and present educational data without a single person addressing what they were doing to support asking good questions about the data...let alone what to do with the information. Any number of presenters neglected to offer even one shred of evidence that their programs had a meaningful impact on students and/or teachers. Only one presenter (out of at least 30 I sat through) used any sort of good design for adult learners. Perhaps one of the reasons EdTech'ers aren't considered "T Enough" is simply because they're too wrapped up in the tools and have no understanding about what constitutes learning. If they want to be invited to the table with curriculum/instruction/assessment folks, then they need to show that they understand those pieces and not just the "Ooooo...shiny..." distractions.
  • The US Senate has its own paparazzi. The distinguished looking gentleman in the center of the picture below (and the object of attention) is the Director of the National Science Foundation, Ardent Bement, Jr. He had just been by our table and was now ensconced with a virtual frog dissection beside us. I have to say that it is a rather odd experience to be surrounded by Very Important People (including a senator from our own state who stopped by to chat). I'm just a smalltown girl. Never expected to go to the ball. Mind you, I learned this week that VIPs do not introduce themselves. They will shake your hand while you say your name---but they expect that you must already know who they are. For someone who doesn't run in those sorts of circles, this is an impossible task. You know they are important due to the slew of cameras flashing around them...but there is no way to know their position, let alone their names. Perhaps being immersed in that environment means that it's best to keep all of your cards close to the vest...to listen and not talk.
  • There are going to be a couple of big changes in terms of state leadership for science education in our state. As I noted back in May, I have been concerned that science education would be driven into the ground. While there are no guarantees that new leadership will equate to "better," I can say that there are a lot of sighs of relief happening. I never realized so many people were unhappy with the leadership. I have now heard many "survivor" stories from others who thought the path was the wrong one. Happy dances are ensuing. Personally, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted. There is a chance, now, that someone who puts the needs of students first will be leading. There is hope.
My odd job will no doubt bring other new things to learn this week. In spite of the time away from home (and working with students), I like this part of my job. I like being able to learn from all sorts of people and visit new places. My hope is that I can figure out how best to use it all for the classrooms depending on me.

06 November 2009

Science Fiction

Forbidden Planet (1956) by Dallas 1200am CC-BY-NC-ND

I was listening to a keynote speaker earlier this week who was telling us just how flat the world would be someday. He had some glitzy pictures of technology gizmos---like a bluetooth headset that you could wear on your finger as a ring when it wasn't been used. He espoused tools and connectivity. He told us all about the impact of this on the classroom, where in some Hegel-ian vision, the sum total of human knowledge would be available to each and every child.

Forbidden Planet (1956) by Dallas 1200am CC-BY-NC-ND

I think this was supposed to be very inspiring to the gathering of educational technology leaders sitting in the room. Me? All I could think about was Forbidden Planet. If you haven't seen this 1956 gem of a movie, it's Shakespeare's Tempest set in outer space. (Aside: The Tempest is my favourite of his works. I like the metaphor of Caliban as student and Prospero as teacher. But that's another post.) I won't summarize the film here, as IMDb can do that much better than I, but if you've seen the film, you may remember the context of the image at the left. Walter Pidgeon (seated) has a machine attached to his head which allows him to increase his IQ. Leslie Nielsen is pointing at the 3D holographic image of Anne Francis that Pidgeon has been able to create using his mind. Cool, right? Maybe not. See, the machine had been built by an extinct civilization (the Krel)---a machine used to train the young of that species. A machine that contained the sum total of Krel knowledge. This allowed the Krel to do some wonderful things, but it also led to their own self-destruction (and eventually the destruction of Pidgeon and the planet itself).

In spite of the story, I'm not fatalistic about putting learning tools and information in the hands of students. However, this connection did give me pause to wonder if we've really thought about all of the possible consequences of a flat world.

Jurassic Park by davehunt82 CC-BY-NC-ND
This train of thought led me to another sci-fi connection:
Jurassic Park is another tale of the negative effects of "too much" knowledge. Within both the movie and the novel (which is far more interesting than the film), the character of Malcolm plays Satan's Little Helper in terms of asking the others to consider the consequences of what is being done. He points out to the developer, John Hammond, that "...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Is it possible that when it comes to creating flat classrooms and embracing the idea of globalization that we are so blinded by possibilities that we aren't taking the time to really think things through? Have we considered the responsibilities that come with the power of knowledge?

Toward the end of the keynote the speaker trotted out a chestnut I've heard elsewhere: We're preparing kids for jobs that don't yet exist, where they'll use technology that hasn't been invented to solve problems we don't even know exist. This isn't a particularly deep observation---it's stating the obvious. I wanted to shout out that this is what education has always done. Don't you think that our own teachers were in the same position when we were in school? We are always going to be in the position of preparing students for an unknown future.

However, the speaker admonished us to be futurist and "begin with the end in mind" where technology is concerned. Other than a science fiction world, this is not possible. The platitude in the above paragraph tells us that we can't know what kind of world our students will inherit. Fiction tales from our past remind us that people don't always understand the consequences of the present on the future. The best we can do is help the next generation separate fact from fiction as they add to our progress.

02 November 2009

I Get Around

In another month, this blog will be five---old enough to be eligible for kindergarten next fall. And along the journey with this space, I've been fortunate enough to be able to connect in real life with many of the bloggers listed on my sidebar. I've met Ryan, Jim, Hedgetoad, Kirk and one of the bloggers (Luann) from Stories from School---all of whom are based in Washington. I recently met three teachers I've been following for awhile on Twitter (and now work with another educator I first connected with through that network). I've met Hugh (nee RepairKit and now the Thoughtful Teacher) and exchanged snail mail with Kiri8. There have been other encounters where my online life and real life have bumped into one another---no doubt there will be more.

On Sunday, I was able to make two additional connections. I could hardly stand the thought of traveling to DC for work and not find a way to meet some of my favourite educators. The writers of Organized Chaos and Elementary, My Dear, or Far From It were gracious enough to take some time away from family and their schedules to take me to brunch. I've read their blogs for years and have always been impressed with both the passion for education they bring to the edusphere, as well as the compassion they have for the students and families they work with. I have admired their intellectual curiosity and their ability to connect with readers. My heart has been both heavy and joyful at times as they've shared their window into the educational world. And now, after sharing some ricotta pancakes, bacon, and mimosas, as we chatted a mile a minute about a range of topics, I find myself even more enriched from spending some "face time" with them. Thank you both for a wonderful visit (and to OC for her very kind words).

I will be out and about a bit more this year. Some of it is work related and some of it is personal. Here's a quick rundown of my schedule at this point:
  • Within my home territory, I'll be at the annual WSSDA conference later this month, WERA conference in December, and NCCE and WSTA in March. I have presentations on a variety of topics for each of these.
  • In January, I'm headed to the Triangle area of NC (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) for ScienceOnline 2010. I am hoping to also get to Educon 2.2 in Philadelphia, but right now I don't have a funding source. Keeping my fingers crossed.
  • I'll be taking my grading presentation to the ASCD conference during the first weekend in March. If you'll be in San Antonio, let's grab a margarita on the riverwalk and talk some education.
Are you headed to Washington state? I can tell you from experience that we bloggers are a friendly group. We don't bite, bark quietly, and play well with others. If you find yourself getting around, too, drop me a line and let's get together.

01 November 2009

What Do You Make of This

If you're an 80's kind of child, then the header to this post probably engenders a response of "This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl..." as once uttered by the character Johnny in the movie Airplane! What I'm wondering about at the moment, however, is the various ways you might use video clips like the one above in class---and whether or not using one "counts" as technology integration.

I've been pondering this while sifting through the mountain of links I inherited. Most of the links are fine (and are tagged under a list of "integration resources"), but I don't know that we can assume that just handing a link to a teacher is enough to assume that integration of technology is occurring.

When I think about video clips like the one above, I see potential for a lot of things. I see a launch for a unit of study---especially the opportunity for predictions and observations. I see a chance for formative assessment. I spy (with my little eye) a resource for reteaching or an intervention activity. I also smell a model summative assessment---something to prime kids' pumps before they go out and document an inquiry lesson within their own classroom.

Maybe Johnny was wrong in his thinking about the hat/brooch/pterodactyl. Perhaps I need to look at these links in a more Magritte sort of way:

Ceci n'est pas une YouTube video! Ceci est une "instructional material." Mais oui!

But do other teachers look at such resources in this way? Will they if I simply hand them the link---or are supporting documents necessary?

The bigger question for me, however, is whether or not using a video clip as an instructional material means that technology is being integrated into the classroom. I have been wondering if the answer is dependent upon who is using the clip. If, as a teacher, I use the pickle clip at the beginning of this post at the beginning of a unit, then I may be integrating technology (both hardware and software) into my lesson...but has it been integrated into student learning? Is it better than me actually doing the demonstration for students? Why would I choose a video clip over a "live" option?

When does something stop being a vanilla instructional resource and become technology integration? If a teacher goes to a website and downloads a worksheet to print for students---is that teaching with technology? What if s/he projects the same worksheet on an interactive whiteboard and students answer the questions or edit the passages there? Is a classroom with a single computer (and just at the teacher's workstation) able to integrate technology---or does it require x number of student computers? How many sites need to be able to get through the &$#@*! internet filter? I don't expect a single line here that will divide the issue into "this is integration" and "this is not." However, if we can't at least come up with some guidelines, how will be bring along those teachers who are still struggling to add a row to an Excel sheet or change the size of a font in a document? How do we get them to see the same possibilities as Johnny did for a piece of newspaper in Airplane! when someone sends a link to video on YouTube?