28 May 2010

Confused about Gender Equity

Last year, there was an opportunity in the state for certificated teachers who wanted to add a math endorsement to their certificate. There is no simple route to adding endorsements in this state outside of your major field. Basically, you have to do enough college-level coursework in order to be eligible for consideration---and depending upon the endorsement, you have to do a whole new round of student teaching, too. Seriously. The new program for math would pay all associated fees for teachers who wanted to take the math coursework---sponsors were even willing to send professors out to the masses, so if there were several people in a district participating in the program, Muhammed would indeed go to the mountain.

Someone suggested that I participate. "No way," I said. I like math, but I don't want to teach math. Just because I'm aware that I could be math teacher doesn't make me want to run out and be one.

I have wondered if similar sorts of things might be influencing the perceived gender inequities in other areas. I read a recent statistic that only 17% of college graduates with computer science degrees are female. Some are outraged by such a statistic. Me? I think it's possible that we're mixing equity of access with lack of interest. If there's no policy preventing females from majoring in computer science, all the outreach in the world isn't going to lead to equal representation at graduation.  Seventeen percent doesn't necessarily mean women are adverse to computer engineering, it may well mean that they're interested in something else even more. Can we reliably tell the difference?

16 May 2010

When Duct Tape Won't Do

I heard a principal talk once about the repeat offenders she would find in her office. As the school year wore on, the referral slips came not only with increasing frequency, but included ever more petty offenses. The student might have first been sent to the office earlier in the year after the teacher had exhausted all options: called parents, had meetings with student and family, sent to counselor, place in time out, etc. The student was insubordinate and defiant. By the end of the year, this was usually still true, only the referrals had things written on them like "didn't bring a pencil to class." They were things the teacher would never have turned out a student for earlier in the year; but by this point, the teacher was looking for any reason to not have the student present. (If you've taught, you can likely think of at least one student like this.)

The principal's reflection on all of this was interesting. She said that teachers didn't really want her to punish these students (although they may have thought they did). What they wanted was for her to fix the kids. And the simple fact was, she couldn't. As easy as kids are to break, they are certainly not easy to repair. I think some of our frustration as educators is that on some level, we know this---and yet the feds want us to fix every kid and send them on their merry way to college. (If you missed TeachMoore's post about this a couple of weeks ago, I highly recommend reading her call to Get Real about Parent Accountability.)

All of this makes me think about how we interact as adults. Sure enough, as I consider the ways some teachers complain about peers or parents...or how one secretary will rage on to her boss about having to work with another...or any of the myriad of times I asked my principal to "do something," I wonder what we expect to happen. I'm not sure what I expected. I think I just wanted him or her to make any interpersonal issues just disappear. I think I assumed that the other person was the one who needed to be set right. You know, that probably wasn't so smart on my part.

I have found myself thinking about this a lot recently. I'm not asked to fix kids. I rarely deal with irate parents. I am occasionally called upon to navigate interpersonal waters. Diplomacy? Frequently. (My favourite moment from last week was telling someone that their work had been a great model for me. I didn't tell them that it was a great model of what not to do.) But most of the requests I get are for me to fix the system. I wish I could. I wish I could tell teachers that I will replace red tape with duct tape...but I can't. (At least some supes and school boards in the state aren't being shy in saying that the RttT Emperor has no clothes and are not going to participate in a Race to the Trough.) Sometimes, I really can make something happen to solve a particular problem. Most of the time, I can only listen and see if there is some sort of temporary solution to be had.

Many years ago when I got divorced, the court papers contained a statement that the marriage was "irretrievably broken." I wonder if the same term might apply to certain people or situations. But more importantly, I wonder what should happen next when it does.

15 May 2010


We're nearing the end of the school year. And, like a seemingly interminable road trip, everybody is starting to get cranky by this point. Are we there yet?

And even I, without a job that follows the school calendar, am down to my last nerve, too. The things that are sticking in my craw as of late all have to do with the fact that it is "testing season." Pick your favourite acronym out of the alphabet soup: AP, MSP, MAP, DRA, DIBELS---they're all ready and available for consumption like some All-You-Can-Eat Assessment Hell Buffet...and the soft serve ice cream machine is out of order. No wonder educators and students are ready to riot, just as the days turn long and summer holiday is so close you can almost touch it. As for me, I'm ready to kick some tail over two comments I am seeing repeatedly.

Comment #1: Teaching to the Test is Bad

I am seeing this usually in reference to state tests/standardized tests. Here's why I want to strangle the people who keep repeating this myth. In the case of standardized tests, teachers don't know what questions are on it. The tests represent only a sample of standards and there are different forms of test questions. There is no way for a teacher to teach to "The Test." Teachers can teach to the standards. We can tell them what sorts of formats the questions come in (multiple choice, short answer...). That's as far as we can go.

However, if we're talking about classroom level assessments, then I truly hope that a teacher is teaching to the test. Teachers should not be using "gotcha" ways to assess kids. Tell them what they should be expected to know and do...how you will ask them to demonstrate this...and then keep your word. If you want to drill and kill, that's your business, but I would hope a wide range of instruction would be made available for students. Teaching to the test is the fair way for students to know what you expect.

Comment #2: WASL Is Dead!

This particular rant only applies to those of us in Washington, but you may see variations in your own state depending upon how elections go. Here, we have a new state supe. He changed the name on the test booklet, and voila! the old test is gone! Um, no. The test was already shortened last year when it had its old name. The test banks are the same ones used to build the old tests. Just because kids have to answer all the questions in one day instead of two doesn't make the test shorter: Kids need just as long to write. It costs the state just as much to build and score the "new" tests as it did for the old ones.

It is the same test, people.There's just a different cover on it. What's so hard to understand?

This sort of ignorance is even promoted in our newspapers: Goodbye---and good riddance---to WASL. This is creating further issues in terms of what the public is willing to believe. I had an EdTech type express concern earlier this week because schools would have to buy computers to be available for testing 5 days a year (and available for instruction the other 175). IT staff might have to set up computers and test connections. Yup. And for the past 15 years, schools have had to set up testing environments, pay for subs and extra para-educators, buy math "tools" (rulers, calculators, protractors...), have extra dictionaries, etc. It just never impacted EdTech---so they didn't have to care. Now that the tools (both writing and mathematical) are being replaced, suddenly IT is interested in the test. Costs aren't new---they're just shifting.

So...same test. Same costs. Tell me again why you're so happy the test is "dead"?

My mantra as of late has been "Summer is coming...Summer is coming." Sure, I don't get the sort of break that I used to, but I can't help but think the opportunity to get out and garden and enjoy some time in the sun will make me a whole lot less cranky. Maybe it will help others, too.

07 May 2010

Mapping Out the Big Picture

In December, I had a district level administrator tell me his wish for the ability to overlay his student achievement data with a Google Map. At the time, I thought it was a very intriguing idea, but I was unaware of any tool which would automate that process. It seemed unlikely that anyone would actually take the time to build a map in Google Maps, student-by-student. I had seen visitor maps on websites that somehow captured IP addresses and then pulled them into a map displayed on the sidebar, but I was sure that required way more code than I was interested in dealing with.

And then, a few weeks ago, the link for MapAList appeared in my Twitter stream. MapAList is "a wizard for creating and managing customized maps of address lists." Hmmm...

I pulled some public data off the state website and stripped off what I needed (name of school, address, score on 5th grade 2009 science WASL) in Excel. I then uploaded the spreadsheet into GoogleDocs and logged into MapAList. After fussing a bit with the settings, this is the result (or click this link):

What you're looking at is a map representing nearly every elementary school in the state. Be sure to zoom in so you can have a better view of things. Looking back on the process, I probably should have used a smaller data set to begin with (there are over 1000 pins in that puppy), but I do so enjoy a challenge. My divisions by percent meeting standard are arbitrary. Perhaps other pieces of data would be more valuable to show. But for proof of concept, it's a start.

I do find it interesting to see just how much the Cascades really divide our state. The map also gives an interesting view of population. While not every elementary school is the same size, the effect of clustered pins provides a different way to think about distribution. The yellow and green "outliers" definitely grab your attention. What's happening in those schools that are all by themselves (in terms of geography) and are doing all right?

Right now, you are limited to two pieces of data/information showing in the pop-up for each pin. This is a bit of a limitation---I would like to show school district name or % free/reduced lunch or size of school or ethnicity data in addition to school name and score. The tool is also clunky if you want to go back and change any settings---for the most part, you just have to start over. The map will autoupdate if your spreadsheet changes, you're just stuck with the labels and appearance of the things.

As an educator, what are the uses for a tool like this? Might I want to mash my district achievement data (however that's defined) with a map? Would I see intriguing things as the neighbourhoods changed or gain other insights? I do believe that one would have to be very careful of running afoul of FERPA. I'd want to leave student names off the spreadsheet---they're unnecessary in some ways if the goal is just to visualize the interaction between geography and achievement.

I wonder how many other interesting ideas for data mashups are out there. What else is on the wish list for teachers and administrators in terms of data visualization?

01 May 2010

Building a Better Monster

At long last, I've been spending some time updating my gradebook template. I believe I last shared an Excel version 2.5 years ago---and the thing has been begging for a makeover ever after. Since then, I have posted several times about my interest in using conditional formatting (to create a "stoplight effect" for determining interventions) and sparklines to summarize data (see Data Viz: Part I for a refresher). I've now been making the time to put all these pieces in place. This sort of template is the number one request I get from teachers. It's time I had more than just good intentions.

I have a file ready for your beta testing. There are a couple of screen shots below, along with some explanation. The one thing I am still working on is a student progress report worksheet which automatically updates. (I am only a Yellow Belt and some of this work requires Ninja standing.) In the meantime, I am hoping that some of you might be willing to download the spreadsheet and play with it a bit. You will need Excel 2007...and will need to enable macros when you open the file.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I have to give major kudos and props to Fabrice over at the Sparklines blog for the original template file. He has done an amazing job producing this open-source (not to mention free!) add-in for Excel.

This is the template worksheet:

This shows the basic setup for tracking student data and the advantages of using Excel over most electronic gradebooks. The commands you would need in order to make changes are provided in red font.

The image below is of the "Sample Gradebook" worksheet. It's my pride and joy at the moment.

This puppy is fully loaded. Based on the previous template, it has sample student scores and then the various rules applied: conditional formatting, formulas, and various sparklines summarizing the data sets. You can change any of the numbers in the coloured squares and the worksheet will update for you. Heck, hide the numbers and just enjoy the graphs.

Update 3/2012: 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.