Tuesday, October 28, 2014

This is a test. This is only a test.

In teachers' professional development seminars and in-service meetings, We no longer use the word "test" very much, nor "quiz". It's always an "assessment". I suppose that the words "test" and "quiz" have become loaded with too much negative meaning, implying a bar that must be overcome to avoid "failure".

"Assessment" has no sense of "pass" or "fail" but merely a placement along a scale. It's funny because the kids live in a much more black and white world; they hate "assessment," perhaps because it's a complex word while "test" and "quiz" are short and pithy and to the point but also perhaps because it's non-judgemental to the point of insanity. They want to know, "Did I make it or not?"

Testing shouldn't always be one-shot ... and you're either a winner or a loser. There has to be growth opportunity, too.

When you learn to play soccer, you compete against your teammates to get better, failing over and over before you can ever learn and master the sport. Why should math be any different?

You failed this quiz? Take it again. You can't do this homework? Let's discuss again how to do it. Now take the quiz again. I'm not throwing you off the team because you can't beat the starter.

Parent Threatens Disruption over Islam

So this guy threatens to disrupt classes if World History continues to contain mention of Islam.
Wood told Superintendent Morris that the school is violating his daughter’s “constitutional rights” and threatened to “bring down a shit-storm on them like they’ve never seen.”
Oh, brother. "Lighten up, Francis."

It's World History ... and WH has always taught the religions of the regions, from the Egyptian and Isis and the symbolism of the Ankh through the Greek and Roman religions (and mythology is actually an English course), Hinduism and Confucianism of the Far East, and of course, talks about Islam in the context of the development of Northern Africa and the Middle East, along with Judaism and Christianity.
After the meeting, Wood told reporters that his daughter, a junior at La Plata High, should not be forced to study a faith that she “does not believe in.”
Then take her out of school. Otherwise, World History teaches about History of the World and religion is part of that. But this statement from the teacher cracked me up:
“This is a world history class,” [O’Malley-Simpson] explained. “We are not teaching religion. Part of those world history studies involves the economics of a region and part of that is the religion which relates to the economy of that part of the world. In the Middle East, Islam is the only religion and it contributes greatly to the economics of the region.” (emphasis mine)
Oh, really? The only religion? I'm a math teacher and even I know that there are some other religions present in the Middle East.  Perhaps, you've heard of them?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Few Random Thoughts about the Time article.

Maybe you've read it.

A few things jump out at me. Here's a big one:
One research team relied on a "a controversial tool called value-added measures (VAM)" to measure teacher effectiveness, and they "found that replacing a poorly performing teacher with an excellent one could increase students' lifetime earnings by $250,000 per classroom."
That's a pretty big number alright, almost big enough to make you lose sight of the details ... if you're a low grade moron or someone with a axe to grind who doesn't mind being disingenuous.

Lifetime earnings of $250,000 per classroom works out to $10,000 lifetime earnings difference per kid.  Assuming the average person works for about 40 years, that works out to a difference of $250 extra dollars per year, a whopping extra 12.5 cents per hour ... and that's if you replace a poor teacher with an excellent one for all twelve years of schooling.

This is what is known in mathematical and statistical circles as an "insignificant" increase for which we have to use a tool that the Vermont Commissioner of Education (and pretty much everyone else) has said is a "broken measurement system" that "does not work". She went on to say that it would never be used in Vermont because of it's ineffectiveness. "It would be unfair to our students to automatically fire their educators based on technically inadequate tools."

And where, besides a hole in the ground, did that number get pulled from?

Let's not ignore the dubious premise that thousands of "excellent" teachers are just waiting to be hired ... ready and eager to take the place of the losers.

Funny thing is, we're doing pretty well despite the fact that we have been forced to label every single school in the state as "low performing": 
 In 2013, the federal Education Department released a study comparing the performance of US states to the 47 countries that participated in the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, one of the two large international comparative assessments. Vermont ranked 7th in the world in eighth-grade mathematics and 4th in science. Only Massachusetts, which has a comparable child poverty rate, did better.
So Time magazine interviewed a couple of billionaires about their opinions of public education and teacher tenure. "Shocking!" they said. "You can't fire a bad teacher."

Really?  Have they ever tried? The usual reason that principals can't fire a "bad" teacher is because the principal has no way of knowing which teachers are "bad" teachers - the new evaluation procedures are long on typing every word but very short on actually listening to the teacher teaching the class. If you are focused on typing every word said, then you aren't paying attention and you aren't "taking notes" - the inability to multitask is something I warn my students of constantly. Incidentally, and ironically, so does the principal.

The other reason that most "bad" teachers can't be fired? They're not "bad" teachers. Most of the time a teacher who is labeled "bad" is someone who has spoken up at a faculty meeting, stood up for themselves or others, worked against the desires of the principal.

The truly bad teachers are the ones who don't get noticed because they never improve, who hand out the same worksheets year after year, who don't say anything controversial, who allow students to wallow and get mired in an academic mudpit ... but who somehow get As so their parents don't say anything, who have a degree from a prestigious university but who are universally reviled by their students as lousy teachers, who dutifully fill out the silly paperwork and follow every administrative whim with fervor, never considering the best interests of the students, doing just enough to placate but never enough to teach.

Here's how to get yourself fired in public schools WITHOUT tenure:
  • Be gay/lesbian, or any other LGBTQ. (Seen it.)
  • Be Experienced in a cost-cutting era. (Big pressure)
  • Be Muslim, or Black or Latino or other "minority" who is "uppity" or in some other way "doesn't behave" (actually has an opinion and isn't afraid to say something).
  • Get pregnant. (True story)
  • Speak up for the Rights of the students/ disagree with admin is any way.
  • Actually do something bad or criminal.
Except for the last one of course, that will never be the reason on the form letter. That would be discrimination. Rather, you'll find vague job performance metrics and "documented tardiness issues". You'll find overwhelming but never specified "evidence" of misconduct. You'll find everything but the actual discrimination.

Here are some ways you can get fired from a school WITH tenure:
  • Do something bad or criminal.
  • Be a bad teacher.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Stop Common Core (and replace it with what?)


What utter dreck.

10. Your child is unique? Yeah, no two snowflakes are exactly alike, but they are all basically the same. After 30 years of teaching, I think I can lay this ego-driven, touchy-feely garbage to rest. Your child is special to you but he isn't different enough from the rest of the crowd to warrant special teaching.

9. Yup, CCSS was created by special interests. No, it's not perfect. No, I don't endorse all of it and I probably won't hold my breath and teach every part of it. I'm a math teacher. I have the intelligence to modify it when necessary. It is, however, better than that mess of garbage that it replaced.

8. I really don't want the legislature voting on math standards. They have zero experience in education. I don't want them to ask my opinion on the intricacies of healthcare for the same reason.

7. Does it matter that this is false? Does it matter that districts are spending that money on testing regardless?

6. The CCSS do not collect information.

5. The lack of attention for gifted learners is not the fault of the CCSS. And your child isn't gifted.

4. Again, not by CCSS. And again, this is false in many states. Mine for instance wrote definitively that test scores have not, are not and will not be used to rate teachers because it is inappropriate and wrong to do so.

3. Yup, this is the only thing you got right. We are not forcing them to read as much of the classics. Instead the English teachers are using SOME different works, such as essays and non-fiction. Unfortunately for your rather uninformed little screed, Shakespeare and Edith Hamilton Mythology are still very much in evidence.

2. No one changed who was in control. School Boards are still the only controlling bodies. Homeschoolers are not in any way, shape or form, under the control of any CCSS.

1. You have the power to stop common core but in #2 you didn't have any power? Come on, at least be consistent in your paranoid ramblings. The last people who should be exercising control over their kids schooling are people who can't even make a coherent argument.  Fortunately for me and my job, deluded paranoiacs like you are keeping me employed -- although usually I don't get your kid until after you've messed up his education and nearly ruined his chances at living a good and successful life.

But don't let me stop you. The Internet is free to use.

Missing the Point.


Shadowing a student is a valuable idea, but she misses the point in the end.
I have made a terrible mistake.
I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. 
Which is a fine idea ... for an experienced teacher. The newbie? Not so much. That first-year teacher is just out of college and has no sense of what is appropriate for 15yo students, and probably would miss or misunderstand the important details in all of the other data and facts.

So, this teacher-turned-Learning Coach shadowed 2 kids ... for a day.
My class schedules for the day

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:
7:45 – 9:15: Geometry
9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II
10:55 – 11:40: Lunch
11:45 – 1:10: World History
1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science
The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:
7:45 – 9:15: Math
9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry
10:55 – 11:40: Lunch
11:45 – 1:10: English
1:25 – 2:45: Business
Here we begin to get the glimmer of the real problem. The block schedule was sold to faculty in schools as an improvement on some or all of the following grounds:
  • The students could focus on fewer things throughout the day, making for more deliberateness. The phrase "Mile wide and inch deep" is usually tossed in here, as well.
  • They'd have fewer passing times and those minutes could be filled with instruction or projects or meaningful discussion or labs.
  • 80 minutes was a better chunk of time.
  • Teachers would have fewer preps.
In some buildings, including ours, the change was implemented over vacation and the teachers returned to a different schedule. "Surprise!"
  • It's better. We decided. The schedule has changed.
Not a single thought was spared to ask whether 9th graders should be in 80 minute classes or whether Special Education students would benefit from the extended periods. Nobody considered whether having 8 periods for which students could have one or two "free" periods was better than requiring the students to have four academic courses per day and no down time. And nobody dared to question whether 80 minutes was too much math for one day.

Anyway, back to our Coach.
Key Takeaway #1
Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
Thinking is exhausting. Focus is exhausting. Learning is exhausting.  If you're doing it right, education is hard, learning new things is difficult.  I'm not saying that students shouldn't move more, but that's not the issue.

Block scheduling is predicated on the idea that students will be allowed to focus on fewer things for longer periods, that mere "rote memorizing" of content would be subordinated to the intense, "deeper" thinking, critical thinking and problem solving.

If our coach could change the past, she would have implemented "a mandatory stretch halfway through the class", installed "a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class" and have built in "a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day." 

In other words, 80 minutes is too long and teachers need to pretend it's really two 40 minute periods ... or 75 minutes, with a break in the middle and some games at the end.

The most telling comment? "Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine."

Really? The block schedule selling point "Better use of time" goes out the window.  Her point in her article, and presumably to the teachers in her building, "I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective."

Instead of questioning whether or not students should get more of a break between classes, or have a free period to unwind, she is willing to advocate for giving that free time in the middle of the only time her students have to be with her. 
Key Takeaway #2
High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
So change that, if you feel that it's more appropriate to your discipline. The idea that you need to start
every class with discussion, blitzkreig-like mini-lessons is entirely dependent on what you're doing rather than an appropriate plan for every day.

Likewise, worrying overmuch about the length of time you speak (and setting a timer) is not terribly good practice. If you're talking *at* the students rather than talking *with* them, you have a problem. A good lecture, on the other hand, can keep everyone in the room engaged for hours. A constant droning lecture, like pre-recorded videos in a "flipped classroom" or a Rocketship academy or Khan Academy, won't work for much more than as a substitute in your absence.

The bigger issue is the admin's constant refrain that the teacher needs to fill the 80 minutes with something. My admin, for instance, mention that we should "teach bell to bell." I am certain that everyone reading this can also hear the drumbeat of "testing", "accountability", and the political pressure to "excel" and "fire the bad teachers". Remember, too, that one promise of block scheduling was that MORE would be learned, MORE would be retained, and MORE would be understood.
Key takeaway #3You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.
I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention ... you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention ... that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run,  ... That is how students often feel in our classes, ... because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.
And what is part of that cause? In my mind, it's that we seem to have this idea that 80 minutes of math with no time between periods to unwind is a good idea. I am impressed that the schedule quoted above has 45 minutes for lunch - we have 22 - and that there is 15 minutes between classes - we have 3.

I'm going to ignore her comments about sarcasm, because they don't really matter to this discussion beyond the fact that kids not paying attention is a problem for us and that the whole multi-tasking thing is messing the students up something fierce.

We do need to pay attention to that but also remember that kids are kids, they're not allowed to vote, drink, smoke, drive a car, rent, sign a contract, go to war, or make decisions that matter ... and they're learning something entirely new.  Why should we be surprised that Johnny is not focused on the math for 80 straight minutes?

We need to remember that not every kid will be as enthusiastic about math, or learn at the same pace, or be 100% proficient by the year 2014, or care about all subjects equally, or have a home life that's stable, ... and so on.

But let's explore the aspects of Block Scheduling that our Coach didn't touch on, mostly because she seems to feel that it's "obviously" the correct schedule.

To a man, block schedule proponents claim that "more will be done" and that "students will understand the topic better because they'll have more time to work on it and discuss it" and be able to avoid that dreaded "mile-wide and inch deep curriculum."

As someone who has had roughly identical groups -- in the same year -- in 40 minutes classes yearlong and in semester-long block classes, I can tell you that the block classes do less, achieve less, learn less. Other teachers in my district report the same thing.

The differences are subtle but one thing sticks out to me: students in blocks run out of steam. You can't do twice as much all the time. You can't do lesson 6.1 for 30 minutes, stop and stretch, do a little practice, and then do lesson 6.2 immediately and expect that the two sets of homework are possible. Simply doubling the expected work isn't feasible. Sometimes, it works, but not always.

What you often get is Teach, practice, try a little more, and then let them get started on homework. The long period is just too long. If you restructure your course and completely change the way you teach, you can improve things a little but I would maintain that you should be doing that anyway ... and in 50 minute periods.

Other issues? The school's habit of constant interruption for assemblies, sports dismissals, announcements, calling students to the office, and so on. Snow days get in the way, too, as do Fun-time Fridays, and all of the days previous to holidays and days off.

And what of the Special Ed kids, the ADD/OCD/Ed/ODD and the kids who just aren't really thrilled to be there? Why 80 minutes? They have enough trouble settling down for 20; 40 is a stretch but 80 is unfair.

Look at those schedules above. 1.5 hours each of Geometry, Spanish, World History and Science. We don't even do that to college students. It's no wonder they're tired.

And yet, with no significant change to standardized testing or SATs or ACTs or even the state-wide final exams, you get vastly "improved" grades. Interesting, no?