Saturday, December 26, 2015

The New Math Wars

by James Tanton

Monday, December 21, 2015


Just a quick question ...

With everything that goes on in a public school these days, why has actual teaching been shuffled so far down the list of priorities, behind:
  • Fire Drill/Police Dog Drug Search
  • Professional Development
  • Addressing Damage in the Bathrooms
  • Sports in all its forms (mostly afternoon disruptions, but we're coming up on skiing and snowboard season, and spring has golf ... 8am meets and competitions are the norm.
  • "Pardon the interruption for this announcement."
  • Service Organizations.
  • Class Fundraising going door-to-door.
  • Class Meetings 
  • Pep Rallies
  • Anti-Bad Things Assemblies
  • Teacher Education/School Visits/conferences/workshops
  • Principal doing Teacher Evaluations (Major disruption when he sits clicking his laptop)
  • Anything the Administration finds on their calendars.
  • Send the kids to the office if they're late ... to get a pass and come back to class.
  • Talk to the kid in trouble, set up a detention ... for missing class.
  • Meeting with the State College Scholarship rep who tells them they need to be sure they're attending class. Said meeting happens during class.
  • Anti-Drug counselor pulls them to have them sit in her comfy chair and eat cookies.
  • Volunteer Fire Department Rescue calls.
  • Field Trips for non-academic things.
  • Family vacations and appointments.
  • Illnesses that mysteriously occur on test days.
  • Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice. Inservice.
"Give them the assignment so they can make up the work. We'll be out all week."

"This is the only time we could schedule 'Bodybuilders Against Drugs' and I didn't want to let the opportunity pass by."

"I think everyone in the department should attend this workshop."

You might point out that teacher education and workshops and school visits are intended to improve the overall teaching and improve the school. I worry that the professional development is explicitly expected to take a couple of years to come to full fruition ... and this is the only education these kids will get.

Sure, I can take the long view, but what of that senior?  What will replace this year for her if we continually mess with it? It's part of what lead to my previous rant about research.  I WANT to use the best ideas, but I don't care to spend a lot of time trying to winnow out the chaff and uncover the lone jewel of future glory at the expense of the students I already have.

I'm expressly NOT wishing for repetitive, boring, lock-step, soul-crushing monotony. This isn't a prison and can't be run like one. That's not what this is about. It's about predictability and finding security in knowing what's coming and when, and that school, unlike many of their homes, is about habits of mind and habits of behavior and learning everything you can while it's still free.

You might think it silly, but knowing that "Every Friday is a quiz in History" is actually comforting to a majority of students. The worst thing in a high school is to change everything suddenly. When you call "everyone out to the courtyard for an impromptu dance to relieve stress", you frustrate everyone who was just about to get to work, you get the ADHD kids going on something new at the exact wrong time, and you raise the anxiety levels of everyone.

It's easy to sit in an office and look at a shiny new workshop proposal and find a blank day on the calendar to schedule it in isolation, but that's messing with the rhythm of the school. When there's no rhythm in a school, there's no soul and no quiet confidence.

When did teaching move so far down the list of priorities?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Hey Researchers!

Hey researchers. you know what would be cool?

How about if you settle some questions for us?  I've been in education a long time and I've heard what seems like infinite variations on the same questions, along with what seems like infinite new thoughts that came out of the blue.  Every time our principal or superintendent goes to a conference or a workshop, it seems they bring back a new idea, a new structure, a new way of doing things that "research has shown" to be the shiny new penny of educational thought.

When you look a little deeper, you find it was done on 65 elementary students in NYC ... and you're supposed to try and develop curricula for your 10th grade math classes that follows this brand spanking new paradigm.

Answers are NOT overrated. The whole point of research is to answer a question, either to prove or disprove it. Research that is only about finding something new is exploration, and while it does have it's purpose, it's not what we need in this country at this time in this industry.

We have lots of new ideas. I, for one, am sick of all of them. What we don't need is more new ideas to be trotted out, forced on the students and faculty, only to be replaced when the fashion statement of the month changes.

What we do need is to weed out the bad ideas, the bad policies, and the bad science that we already are following, used to follow and are considering going back to, or that we might consider in the future.

If you simply MUST develop new ideas and new ways of doing things, please in the name of anything you find holy, write the results down and save them for the next round of research on that topic.  

Researchers!  Instead of thinking of brand new things, how about you settle a few debates?

I know. It's boring.  You want to be "Fresh!" and "New!" and "Creative!" and here I'm asking you to determine the pros and cons of Semester Block vs 4x4 Block vs 40 min (8periods) vs 50 minutes (7periods).

That would be helpful.

Do a lot of research on it. Use a lot of schools and do it with HS students.  Settle the debate we're having at every goddamned school in the country and settle it so definitively that we can all tell our principals to go pound sand if they say something stupid. And make the research available so we can actually read it?

That would be helpful.

How about Proficiency-Based Grading and Graduation Requirements?  Do they work? If so, what did they look like when they did work and when they didn't? Is this just Standards Based Grading updated with a shiny new name for the new decade or is there really something good here?

How about getting into whether we should be taking statewide tests or home-grown final exams?

How about the use of technology in the early grades; in middle grades; in high school?

Don't tell me about your cutting edge research if it doesn't involve multiple grades and a full range of socio-economic levels encompassing thousands of students taking all the courses. (At least tell me what those grades are, in a font just as large as the headline.)

Don't tell me that research has shown that you shouldn't teach the subtraction algorithm ... unless you also tell me that the research was done exclusively on k-4th graders and was somewhat inconclusive.

Why not?  If you remember, I don't teach k-4 grades and my classes really should know the algorithm.

Hattie does this kind of thing all the time and my principals eat it up. Hattie puts out results with this really precise measurement that isn't very accurate. Why is nearly all of Hattie the stuff of nightmares for HS teachers?

Because our principals can't read. They see a big shiny number and say "We should do that, too."

They don't take the time to delve into the conditions of the research and merely assume that we should be changing RIGHT NOW so they can retain their jobs.

My district has gone to a half-day inservice every week to develop new initiatives .. and that's messing up the students something fierce.  We faculty, in the meantime, are going nowhere fast, wandering through tedious and worthless makework that the curriculum coordinator dreams up. Ill-defined terms, vague promises that "This will all make sense" and exercises that belong in a 6th grade classroom the day before Christmas break, all combine to make us want to tear our hair out.

Show me something that WORKED and let me build from that.  If it doesn't work, we need to have some way of reporting that back to the same researchers so others won't have to go through the same disruption and failure.

EVERY school that tries your new idea is now part of the research; all data should be kept. It never is ... in fact education is the only field where all of the research is case-control, the selection bias is ignored, the publication bias is widespread, and the results don't ever seem to matter ... all while the subjects of the research suffer through another set of changes and failures in the vague hope by the administrators that "Someday, we get it right." I'm here to tell you that "Someday" hasn't arrived yet.

My only consolation is that we're not experimenting on my kids.

"But it's backed by research!"

Yeah, show me. Prove it.

In the meantime, I've got to get back to work.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Foolish Consistency

A discussion with a student at the end of a calculus class began with her saying "I feel that I didn't learn my fractions AT ALL in middle school and elementary school." It made me laugh a little because she was, in the same breath, saying how confident she felt about them now.

And we all know where the errors in calculus are ...

But, her next comment nestled in nicely with something that's been festering in my brain for a while. "My teacher last year had us use calculators way more than you do. He wanted decimal answers instead of √2, decimals instead of fractions. I think I like fractions better than decimals now." (I'm paraphrasing, here.)

Coincidentally, I had had a discussion with him the previous day about why I had given an online quiz on simplifying radical expressions like √300 = 10√3. He didn't see the point while I feel that it's a good thing for algebra 2 students to understand and certainly within their wheelhouse. It helps build the understandings that I feel are important.  Additionally, it's on the SAT, ACT, AP.

His point, equally valid, is that the RealWorldtm is increasingly going digital, demanding numerical answers and using computers to run simulations and solve problems. The diagonal of a square is going to be measured as 14.14 feet, not 10√2 feet.

In reply to my student, I said "We're different ... we focus on slightly different things and both are necessary.  Neither is a better teacher and neither has all the answers, but by having had both you can now apply either approach as appropriate and as suits you.  It would be terrible if you always had the same teacher for your entire career and never saw another point of view, another frame of reference."

Why do I mention this now?

Her comment had resonated with me because we're currently in the process of converting the grading system to Proficiency-Based Grading, and Carnegie Units to Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements.

Transformations this extensive require long and elaborate discussions about how we measure, about what we measure, about how we justify our decisions to parents and colleges, and about how, whether, and when we teachers will measure.

Because our supervisory district administration aren't really teachers, and our curriculum coordinator used to teach elementary school and some MS social studies, everything must have a rubric or it isn't proper.  As well, everything we used to do was BAD and must be changed.

"We can't use the word 'Proficient' because it's not a growth word."
We're being asked, "Do we use a rubric?  Since your answer should be 'yes', which one of these four is the one you're all going to use?"

The fact that we spent nearly an hour discussing whether to use the word "proficient", "competent", or "skilled", and whether the top level would be modified with "highly", "advanced", or "with distinction" should give you a good idea of how divorced this all was from real students and real teaching. We never did finish that conversation, but we did begin to spend time arguing over whether the four levels should be considered five if there was a checkbox labelled "Not Enough Data to Measure" in addition to Highly 'word', 'word', Nearly 'word', Beginning 'word'.

The funny part is the explicit statement is that we will use the same rubric throughout the building, that every teacher, in every course, for every student, for every transferable skill (the non-content skills), will use the same rubric to determine proficiency.  If any measurement does not use the rubric, it isn't measured properly and cannot be defended as fair and consistent across the board.

This is foolish. A foolish consistency adored by little statesmen.

or, in this case, by administrators.

There are differences between students just as there are differences between teachers.  We cannot maintain absolute control over 18 year-old seniors in the same way we do 10 year-old elementary students. 8th-grade Algebra 1 needs a different approach than 11th-grade Informal Geometry. Some kids thrive on general questions that allow them to explore while others need more algorithmic approaches. We must allow some teachers to holistically judge an essay while others are focused on grammatical issues along with the content.

It wasn't that long ago we were all assured that it was right and proper to be adjusting our teaching to the "learning styles" of the students. Whatever happened to that?

Well, now we are to be consistent. Consistent in our teaching, consistent in our grading, consistent in our departments, consistent between departments, consistent across high schools in the SU.  Everyone consistent. Everyone using the same rubric ... as if a rubric were the only way and that rubric the only acceptable one.

Friends, the pendulum has swung towards "ROBOT", the French army is nowhere near Toledo, and the Inquisition is still safe from its enemies. I'm used to this quinquennial flip-flopping but I don't have to like it.

The Inquisition Administration has looked at teaching and decided that everyone needs to be consistent.  That's pure, unadulterated, bull.

The only consistency we should expect should be within a course ... but even that is muddied by IEPs, behavior plans, 504s, and other, very necessary, adjustments.

Here's the important point: Differences are GOOD.

Diversity in background is GOOD. Differences in approach are GOOD. Sure, you need to have a progression through the department that includes everything you've deemed important, but you also need to have individuals and their strengths.

Way back in the depths of time, when I was in high school, Mr. Corbin would just look at my essay and declare it a "B".  I thought him harsh until I looked at everyone else's in our little complaint session afterwards ... lo and behold, that "B" paper of mine was not as well written as John's "A" paper and was better than Peter's "C" paper.

When it came time to take English from Mr. Clark, we knew the rules changed.  Every grammatical error, no matter how insignificant, meant a full letter grade down.  One spelling mistake turned an "A" paper to a "B" paper.   To add to our teenaged angst, it was timed and, while we knew what day we'd be doing this, we didn't know the topic.  We would walk into the class on Wednesday, see the topic on the board, and then have 45 minutes to produce a page-and-a-half essay. (college-ruled, of course -- not of that wide-lined crap.)

Oh, how we bitched about that ...

... but we did learn to write. 

Was Mr. Clark a better teacher?  I would argue that he was because of his amazing command of the topic and the stories he could tell and the standards he set, but part of what made him good was the preparation we all got from Corbin and the fact that the two men were different. Corbin introduced us to American Lit. Clark introduced us to writers; Thoreau, and Frost, and Jacob Bronowski.  Corbin didn't mark down for minor grammatical mistakes; Clark did. We were students; we adapted. That's what you do.

"Yes, you can borrow this copy of Robert Frost's poetry, but make sure you give it back ... he and I wrote to each other by sending this book back and forth and making margin notes. I'm fond of it."
Trying to impose consistency on these two gentlemen would have been foolish and counter-productive.

Trying to impose a common rubric for AP Calculus and 7th-grade civics is foolish and counter-productive.

Trying to impose consistency even within our department is foolish and counter-productive. He's a math major; I'm an engineer; of course we look at things differently.

He uses the calculators more than I do; I ask for more mental math than he does. "Who's better?" misses the point that, over the course of four years, students get both.

"Who's better?" Why would you even ask that question?

In the long run, I suppose, it doesn't really matter what gets decided in these silly little meetings.  I intend to use the AP scoring style for AP calculus, a variation of it for Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus and I will probably do many of the same things that I've been doing for years ... the successful things, at least. I don't think I'll ever stop changing subtly.

And that's the point.  When I find something good, an idea from another math teacher or even one of the curriculum people, I insert it into the folder. As it becomes relevant, I work it into the daily routine or the once-a-week, or whatever.

When it comes time to taking advice on how to teach high school math, though, I don't have much tolerance for people who have never taught anyone older than 12 and who couldn't describe a data set graphically if I did it for them ... and they're going to tell me the words I must use and the forms I must use and the rubric I will use to declare proficiency in standards that we haven't even decided upon yet?

Thanks for Reading.
I've got to get back to work.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Young Girl Learns Nothing.

I love the caption: "A young girl learns how to hold an airsoft gun during Youth Day at the NRA's annual meeting in Houston on May 5, 2013."

If anyone were paying attention, they would notice that the little girl is probably not learning anything; she's completely distracted by the things on the table.

Pretty much sums up the NRA and its vaunted training programs.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Incorrect Data isn't Useful

The other day I went to the Health Center for a followup checkup. I had been in previously and had gotten some anti-biotics for an insect bite that got infected. Simple, right? As part of the visit, the nurses are instructed to take routine weight and blood pressure measurements.

I know my blood pressure, so I was surprised that her diastolic reading was 20 points lower than it normally is. I remarked on that. Her reply was "Lower score is good, right?" in the tone of voice that conveyed clearly that I shouldn't be questioning her.

I'm thinking, "Sure ... unless it's a bad measurement." I get that BP is inexact, but it's a bit silly to refuse to re-measure it when the patient points it out. 20 points can make all the difference to the doctor's diagnosis of my overall health.

I decided that I would request the printout from the front desk as I left, the one with all of the day's numbers and decisions from the visit. I read the scale ... same weight as two weeks ago. On the printout, though, it was different ... she had obviously transposed digits when entering the data. In two weeks, I had "gained 23 pounds" and then lost it again in the 30 minutes it took to drive home. My blood pressure changed by 20 points, and that's a lot.

Bad data makes for inappropriate diagnosis.

Bad data makes for bad education policy, too.

The state of Vermont is "suffering" through the release of the first round of SBAC scores despite our scores being better than most other states (we're usually top 5).  "Results are much lower" and already my principal is bitching about it, despite declaring at the time, "We don't care what the scores are, we just want to get the process right." (I'm paraphrasing but that was the intent.)

I'm all for improvement, but I hate basing change on the back of bad data.  Our diagnosis is flawed because our data is flawed, and the prescription runs counter to other policies that the State has imposed.

First, the SBAC has measurement errors just like my nurse had.  Many students took that test knowing that scores would not be held against them, that there was absolutely no chance that anyone would see the scores in fewer than six months or act upon them to set courses for this year or college applications. Additionally, the test itself is drastically different in format (and it's all done through the Chromebook) ... a test completed entirely on-line.

There are no multiple choice questions and kids can have scratch paper, but they're not used to doing math that way. There's a lot of "drag the factors to the answer box" and write three paragraphs explaining why you know that this is a straight line .. and few can stretch out an explanation that far.

Second, and just as  important, the SBAC "passing scores" were decided upon after the fact, to make the percent-passing numbers match what the state had decided they should be ...

That's right. Before the kids even took the test, they told us that there would be a state-wide passing rate of 33% on the HS math test. Then they set the cut-score to match.

Third, add in the fact that we are a small school and we pride ourselves on being able to provide a more personalized education that your average public school, including having personalized learning plans that had quite a few students taking Algebra 2 as seniors. I'm sure you can see where this is going: many of our kids were taking a test heavily based on mathematics they hadn't seen yet.

This runs directly counter to another major initiative in the State of Vermont, the Personalized Learning Plan. Sometimes called "Personal Pathway to Graduation", the initiative requires schools to design different course pathways to graduation for each student as appropriate. This includes allowing schools to schedule certain kids into a faster progression for math and others into a more moderately paced path that might not even include algebra 2. It means that "pre-algebra, algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2" might be the most appropriate for a student.

Taking that approach and then complaining that they don't know algebra 2 by March of their junior year is silly.

It's the rhetorical equivalent of reading a graph that says that Pre-calculus students do better on the NAEP and then concluding that we must make sure every student takes Pre-calculus by the time state tests are given in the junior year

which a previous principal actually said.

So when the bright bulb in the room points out that we teachers should prepare the kids for college and careers, and should have prepared the kids better for this test, and "If you hold the kids to a higher standard, they'll rise to meet that standard," I will calmly channel Dick Cheney and say that "you go to war with the students you have, not the students you wish you had."

Finally, the teachers are not allowed to know what's on the test.  I don't want to teach to the test, but I'd like to know what is included.I'll give the same assessments I would already have planned, but I might change some questions to a similar format, for example.

Also, I'm not willing to just take their word for it that the test is appropriate. We can't check for bad questions that might have tripped up our students and we can't check that the answers they gave were correct or not. We have to take Pearson's word that the scorers actually knew what they were doing.  After reading Todd Farley's book, Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry and others with similar tales of the realities of corporate test making and scoring, I'm not particularly willing to do that.

The NY Regents is an example of a relatively open and transparent test-making system, but it has many errors. The NY teachers can catch these problems and get them fixed. If we look at Mr. Honner's long-running series reviewing the NY State Regents exams in mathematics, why should we expect that the SBAC tests will somehow be perfect if there is no chance for oversight?

The SBAC is a closed system with no accountability that scores the tests in strange ways, fails to take into account the realities of the students, will not allow anyone to analyze or even examine any of the questions (unlike the SAT which I can see in its entirely within a few weeks), spits out pre-determined results that do not reflect student abilities, and makes everyone wait an unconscionably long time for those results ... much too long for the school to do anything with them.

I can't use the scores because they aren't detailed enough, timely enough or accurate enough.

I guess I'll just teach math and ignore all that bluster.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

I guess we have to talk about cellphones again.

Actually, we need to talk about cops in school, euphemistically called School Resource Officers, as if they were a librarian or something.  This is a bit of a rant, in case you didn't realize.

This came across Facebook.
Sadly, there was a time when kids were taught to respect adults, in general. I work with some amazing teachers, but parents show open disrespect for teachers, so why should their kids be any different? todays parents are so over involved with their kid...
Total and utter bullshit.

"That time when kids were taught to respect their elders" and things were rosy and happy and nobody sassed an adult ... didn't exist except in the fevered dreams of people who think they weren't Royal Pains in the Ass themselves when they were teenagers.

"Back then" kids were just as disrespectful and just as stupid about it. The difference between then and now was that a teacher who made harsh and unreasonable demands could arbitrarily smack a kid - corporal punishment was pretty common - and there was nothing the kid could do. The teacher could be totally and completely wrong and all of society would just fall in line. After the teacher got done slapping or spanking, the parents would probably deal out more punishment when the kid got home, "No Respect for Authority."

After the Tinker decision and other lawsuits, schools began to realize that they didn't have complete and total control of their students and never did, that "students' rights didn't stop at the schoolhouse door", that the Constitution and (in the case under discussion here) specifically, the Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Amendments weren't just for adults.

Kids are citizens, too, and have all of those pesky constitutional rights. Smacking them around for looking at a text (the modern day equivalent of passing a note) is ridiculous. Expecting them to hand over a phone to a teacher who will search through it or not give it back until some unknown time ... is likewise unreasonable if you only do it to one student and only when you catch her and only if you're in a bad mood because your day wasn't going well. If you want to apply discipline, you have to be fair and equitable.

Teachers who do something creative, like having the students line up their phones on the "chalktray", have a much better record because it's done to everyone and becomes a habit. Kids can deal with that.

What they hate is the "I'm annoyed, therefore you are wrong and I'm taking your phone because reasons and if you question my AUTHORITAH, I will have you arrested."

Why does the teacher need to make this an issue? All accounts say the teacher asked her to put away the cellphone but she didn't do it fast enough (emphasis mine). How does this justify a harsh takedown by a cop, public arrest, jail and fines? Any teacher/admin/cop/adult who escalates this to the level in that video really needs to take a few psych courses, and do some serious introspective work ... is that student really threatening you that much? Is the student use of a cellphone anywhere near the disruption that the policeman caused?

Nowadays, schools try to slide past the Constitution by using weasel words and police phrasing and lingo to attempt to do this crap. We changed from "Inappropriate Language or Behavior" to "Assault", "Bullying" or "Harassment" ... or my favorite response to one boy shoving another at a locker, "ASSAULT and BATTERY, Third Degree."

The kid who recorded the incident was also arrested ... for "Causing a Distraction."
WTF, people?
Then, there's the kid who recorded the video on her cellphone: she was also arrested ... for "Causing a Distraction." So a cop in the room who takes a girl forcibly from her chair and throws her against a wall and handcuffs her -- that's not a distraction but a second kid with a phone is? I can assure you that my difficulty keeping the class on task would have a lot more to do with the cop than anything else.

We see this all the time as schools struggle to pretend they're Gods of All They Survey. A girl wears spandex leggings and the administrator calls it "a Safety Issue." It's not.

A kid wears a hat and we call it "Disrepect" and if the kid doesn't take it off instantly it becomes "Refusal To Follow Orders" or "Insubordination" or "Disruption". It's not.

A kid gives an Advil to another kid because of PMS, we call it "Illegal Drug Distribution" or invoke some "No Tolerance Drug Policy" as if that applied here. It doesn't.

South Carolina even has a law against disrupting school, a law that carries a punishment of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted.  "Disruption" used to be shooting spitballs and the punishment was a detention. Now it's a major criminal offense if you want to push it that far.

Police need to use specific, precise language that has been scrubbed of as much bias and humanity as possible because they are dealing with adults and a criminal justice system. If the police get involved, there are serious consequences if guilt is proven.

When the situation calls for jail time or extensive fines, we absolutely must call the police. This is not something untrained school personnel can handle. Anything you say can be used against you in court; you have the right to an attorney; you have the right to remain silent. The policemen can use DEADLY force if public safety is at stake.

The "School Resource Officer" is still a cop. Every interaction with a student is written up, recorded and reported. He is not a friend and he cannot ignore things.

The other 99.9% of the time, school discipline is not at that point and the cops should not be involved. Schools need to get out of the policeman's mindset, to remove that language from our speech and discipline policies.

We are not cops; we are dealing with children, actually and legally.

Passing notes in class, while rude and should be dealt with by school officials, is NOT a criminal offense. Cops should not be involved.

I don't want kids handing out Advil  - there are medical reasons. So I send them to the office/nurse to get some for free (where the nurse can say "That's enough for today" or "Is there something I need to know about that bruising all over your body? Know that I am required by law to call the state abuse hotline.") This kid in this case is nothing for a policeman to deal with. The abuser, yes.

"If all you've got is a cop ... everyone looks like a criminal" isn't quite accurate, really. He's required to treat every interaction as a possible criminal case; he has no choice. He is a policeman and he must follow rules.

"If a major incident occurs that needs the US Justice System, we'll call the cops"
"The SRO is there to deal with major incidents."

But that has become
"We pay him $90,000 dollars a year and he's not doing anything else right now,
so we'll send him to do this task we don't feel like doing."

and in some cases:
"The kid won't listen to us. SRO, you take care of it."

And that's how passing notes becomes a criminal offense. That's how refusing to hand over a phone can lead to forcible takedown, arrest, and jail time.

School administrations have increasingly becoming a cadre of self-important fools who have never taught a day in their lives and who have no idea what they're doing. 

A Professional relationship or a personal one?
Has the administration abdicated its responsibility to teach behavior and self-discipline to a policeman who must follow completely different and far stricter rules of interpersonal contact? I think so.

Here's a thought: If your SRO is expected to be a friendly guy, messing with kids and always has a smile ... do the kids know he is really a cop? Is the disrespect some claim as a reason for the arrest partly because kids have been calling him by his first name all this time?  Does he have a professional relationship with the students or a personal one?

A final point. Some reports claim the girl was recently orphaned. This is not true, but she was in foster care ... still a traumatic and depressing situation for a girl whose mother and grandmother are still alive. Think about what kind of home life that girl has lived. It doesn't excuse, but it does explain.

Thanks for reading. I've got to get back to work.

Anyone who wants to claim that the cop is there to protect the students from a "Bad Guy With a Gun", please just shut the fuck up and crawl back into your hole ... you have no idea what you're talking about.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

For some, College IS a waste of time

Walter Williams writes
"A good part of our higher education problem, explaining its spiraling cost, is that a large percentage of students currently attending college are ill-equipped and incapable of doing real college work. They shouldn't be there wasting their own resources and those of their families and taxpayers."
Absolutely true. For many students, a well-paying blue-collar job is all they want, and all they will want from life.  And that's OK.

But Williams doesn't stop with that:
Another CCAP essay by Vedder and his colleagues, titled "From Wall Street to Wal-Mart," reports that there are "one-third of a million waiters and waitresses with college degrees." More than one-third of currently working college graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree, such as flight attendants, taxi drivers and salesmen. Was college attendance a wise use of these students' time and the resources of their parents and taxpayers?
Well, no, not if you leave it at that.  Why is the assumption that all those college graduates are stopping there or that the jobs that don't require a degree are anything other than temporary?

Why are you making the assumption that college was useless for them just because they are accepting a job at the low end of the scale? This used to be called "working your way up the ladder" and perhaps some few of the waiters and and taxi drivers were looking to remain there permanently, but all of them?
Colleges should refuse admission to students who are unprepared to do real college work. That would not only help reveal shoddy primary and secondary education but also reduce the number of young people making unwise career choices. Sadly, that won't happen. College administrators want warm bodies to bring in money.
More importantly, why must college be the default?

So many people are being told that college is the only option for post-high-school 18 year-olds. It shouldn't be the default.

Not every kid belongs there ...
  • right now ... maybe a couple of years from now, when he's more mature, has gotten a job and realized that he wants more?
  • perhaps a technical school, certification program?
  • at all .... not every kid has the chops to get a college degree ... and that's okay. Honesty in self-evaluation used to be considered a sign of maturity. Not every kid wants to spend $80k to get a degree when he could just start being a woodcarver/artist, logger, mechanic, plumber, heavy equipment operator, welder ... just like his dad.
  • not at this time because he doesn't have the money, but he's going to work for a while and save up.
Come on, guidance counselors.  Your job is to counsel the students on the best options that exist for them, not shoehorn them into some version of your fantasy student.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Lost Learning Time

This clown feels that he has the answer to our time crunch: teach bell-to-bell.

He calculates 5 hours a day of teaching; each 1 hour block takes about 5 minutes to get started and ends about 5 minutes early. Extrapolating out, he gets 10 minutes out of 60 minutes are "underutilized", 50 minutes per day, 250 minutes per week and 8700 minutes per year not utilized for learning. Okay, that's still 1/6 of the school year, or about 17% ... and it is a lot. I'm just not sure that the time can be re-couped so easily.

If you only have a couple of minutes to go from building to building or from floor to floor, there's no way that students can make the transitions if they are writing in their notebooks and not packing up until after the bell ring rings -- pack, walk, sip of water, pee break - walk, and barely make it to the next class.  Bell rings and most are still unpacking, getting out and starting up Chromebooks, etc.

Okay, so a few minutes start and finish. Meh. Just another fool extrapolating way too far ... like the people who calculate that time talking about football is somehow wasting billions of dollars per year in lost productivity.

But here's where it gets funny; here's where he failed miserably ... and where I'm not particularly sure the Good Doctor has been in a classroom recently.
"... and 8700 per year not utilized for learning. Now, let's be realistic and cut that number in half because we all know there are assemblies and other events that cut into learning time throughout the school year. That leaves us with 4,350 minutes of time not spent learning."
Cut in half?

Try "double it".  Assemblies aren't some magic eraser that makes those lost few minutes go away. Assemblies and field trips ADD to the lost time.
Sheesh, dude.

I'll pass, thanks.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Grading and Homework

from Justin Tarte, one of the signals that there is a grading problem in your classroom is:
When talking with parents at parent teacher conferences (which honestly need a complete overhaul by the way) you find yourself telling multiple parents that their child would be doing much better grade-wise if they would just do the homework.
It struck me that there are two ways to parse this.

(1) That the child was not doing the homework and the homework is graded so the zeroes bring the grade down even though the student understood everything and could prove it ... OR
(2) that the homework is key to building automaticity and understanding, and that by not doing any of it, we shouldn't be surprised that the grade, which is a reflection of the understanding and ability to use the material in new ways (proficiency) was an indicator of that lack of proficiency.

Is it any wonder that I hate professional development that takes such a simplistic and uninformed statement and builds policy around it ... despite the ambiguity inherent in the statement?

"Stop grading homework!"
"Stop giving homework!"
"Homework is counterproductive!"
"Proficiency-based Grading explicitly rejects grading homework."

Leading to a blanket policy across the board:

Is this really a good idea?

Saturday, September 26, 2015


Arthur Camins says:
The biggest problem with education is the U.S. is not test scores. Rather, three central problems plague public education in the United States. The most dramatic is inequity. There are vast inequities in educational resources and in the conditions of students’ lives, resulting in persistent race- and class-based disparities in educational outcomes.
Second, we are far too focused on a narrow range of outcomes – reading and math test scores – and not enough on a broader range of subject matter or essential domains, such as critical thinking, creativity and collaborative skills. Third, we gravitate toward partial quick solutions, rather than thinking systemically and having the patience to allow strategies time to develop, take hold, and be refined.
Which is great ... but what do we do about it?

Not sure this is a "Majority"

from the Daily Buzz, not known for its math skills, comes this paragraph ...
Noel Biderman, CEO of Avid Life Media which owns Ashley Madison, claimed that the site had equal opportunity connections for men and women, but in fact, the site’s members were primarily men by a staggering ratio of 28 million men to 5 million women.
Surprisingly, a majority of the email addresses on the site, 15,000 of them, were linked to men who are U.S. government and/or military officials.
15,000 out of 33 million?

Is this like a moral majority?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Strike Against Charter Schools

This argument is one that I've made several times and I'm glad that it's resonating in some places, though I certainly couldn't claim any credit.
"The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that charter schools are unconstitutional, reported the Seattle Times. Conservatives push charter schools as part of their mission to dismantle public education.
It's not just conservatives, but it does seem to be dominated by that point of view.More specifically, it seems to be dominated by a desire to filter out "the bad students", a desire that at first seems like it might be reasonable but that falls apart when examined logically.  It also, strangely, seems to come flavored with class and socio-economic discrimination.
Late on Friday, the state Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that charter schools are unconstitutional because they aren’t “common schools” in that their boards are appointed, rather than elected, said Washington Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. Charter schools are publicly-funded but privately-owned.
This fact is key, in my mind ... how can it be justifiable to allow a private school to be paid out of public funds when the public is paying for a local school already? 
The ruling stems from a 2013 lawsuit in which a pro-public education coalition claimed that charter schools “improperly divert public school funds to private organizations that are not subject to local voter control.” Kim Mead of the Washington Education Association praised the court’s ruling. “The Supreme Court has affirmed what we’ve said all along — charter schools steal money from our existing classrooms, and voters have no say in how these charter schools spend taxpayer money,” said Mead.
Right. I can run for the local school board (and have served on it), I can ask to see their budgets and accounts (and have), I can know about and criticize their hiring practices and salaries and policies. I can't do any of that for the local Catholic school, or any of the local private schools. If taxpayer money is being REQUIRED of me for tuition payment, then I have the right to have a say in how it's spent. Charter schools do not have to tell me any of that.
The ruling is a great victory in the fight against conservative privatization and the attack against public education. Private companies should not be allowed to use taxpayer money to run private, issued based, schools in a pursuit of profit.
The only thing a charter school can offer that public schools don't is the removal of all weak students from nearby classrooms.

The only voucher system I have ever supported is one in which students are allowed to choose a different PUBLIC SCHOOL than the one in their neighborhood. Public money should stay in the public schools.

Just as important, charter schools don't actually offer anything that the local public school doesn't.  The pro-charter reformers always tout low test scores as a reason to allow the best students to go somewhere else, but that's a straw-man argument.

Those top students aren't being forced to take remedial classes, or being ignored and forced into doing poorly because other kids in that same school are doing poorly. Those top kids are taking challenging classes in the public school. They're taking AP courses, college level courses (and receiving college credits from the University of Vermont system), and online courses through UVM and VHS. They're doing well on the SAT, ACT, and others. They're going to Dartmouth and the Ivies, state colleges and Universities. They're not being held back by their peers.

The only thing a charter school can offer that we can't is the removal of all weak students from other classrooms. That's not appropriate for a public school system.
  • Charters don't offer anything better than we do. 
  • Charters don't improve students; they improve averages. 
  • Charters don't improve school offerings; they remove the very students that allow us to offer AP calculus.
  • Charters don't help students; they offer the exact same courses to the same kids that I would.
  • Charters don't have better teachers, either. They have younger teachers, or those who weren't good enough to get a job in the public school, or those who weren't certified to teach in public school (and that's a pretty low hurdle), or those who want to work many more hours for less pay.

Monday, September 7, 2015

We need to rename Herd Immunity

One morning last week, I found myself thinking about vaccines and immunizations as I drove to work. Perhaps NPR had something on the radio, perhaps not.

It occurred to me that the phrase "Herd Immunity" is flawed and I realized that I wished doctors and researchers could arrive at a better one.

It defined "noun: herd immunity"
  1. general immunity to a pathogen in a population based on the acquired immunity to it by a high proportion of members over time. 
My difficulty with this phrase and its definition is that it's not a definition of immunity. It's a probability statement.

Immunity is the capability of the body to resist harmful microorganisms or viruses from entering it, acting as a barrier, the capability to act as an eliminator of a wide range of pathogens irrespective of antigenic specificity, and the capability to adapt to each new disease encountered and generate pathogen-specific immunity.

If you are immune, you can't get that disease. Either your body blocks it from entering (skin or other barrier), it's not compatible with humans in the first place (not zoonotic), or you have antibodies in general that can destroy it, or you have gotten the disease before and developed specific antigens for it.

"Herd immunity," on the other hand, is not a thing you have or a feature of being human. You can get the disease just as easily as anyone, but the probability is low that you'll come into contact with a carrier ....  except in schools, hospitals, churches and any other place where people congregate.

"Community Immunity" (NIH)
Look at the way herd "immunity" works (source):
Top: If no one is vaccinated and a disease carrier enters the group, the group catches the disease. A random few have a natural immunity, or did not attend church that day, or live far enough away from the carriers and did not contract the disease.

Middle: A few are vaccinated, a carrier mingles with the group and again, many people contract the disease.

Bottom: Many people are vaccinated and the carriers do not inflect as many people.

But there's problems with that. This image shows a nice statistical spread, a random positioning, that allows the unvaccinated to avoid being infected.  Schools, churches, hospitals, and other gathering places, are all scenarios in which this nice statistical spread is not in place.

School children are grouped together all day. If there is a red person and a blue person anywhere in that building, they will come in contact at some time during the day. The statement "If you have a high enough percentage in the group who are vaccinated" now runs afoul of the reality that schools are not random distributions with unvaccinated children able to stay away from any potential carriers.  They will come into contact with the un-vaccinated and they will be infected.

Why does this matter?

I think that the term is incorrectly giving people the impression that they are safe if they don't vaccinate when the truth is that they are in danger of infection when they no longer are spread out into their respective suburban cul-de-sacs and are commingled in schools and other gatherings.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

If that's a condition, I want nothing to do with it.

In a discussion the other day with one of the new teachers in the district, I mentioned that I was the NHS advisor, and that I was surprised that the dues for the school's joining for the year went from $85 to $385 per year. That got a strange look and a negative comment about the organization; I'm paraphrasing here: "I hate the NHS."

One raised eyebrow later, the teacher continued, "I was straight As, honor roll, did everything they expected of new members, the works. I and a couple of friends were rejected because our parents were divorced. Yep. The kids who were accepted all had married parents. Everyone rejected had divorced parents.  When we asked the advisor about it, he talked about the morality clause."


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Considering Google Classroom - part1

So you're considering Google Classroom?  Great!

What it is: The best way to explain this thing is that it's an organizing system for GMail communication in a classroom setting. It has tools that make the process of sending out assignments and collecting assignments, from all of the students, multiple classes, multiple artifacts per student, much easier. 

It is NOT an online classroom where each student gets to work at his/her own pace. That would be Moodle ... if you want a totally differentiated system that does the teaching and each kid is at a different place, then Classroom isn't going to work well for you.

Type of class it's best for:
My colleagues in the English and History departments are the most satisfied with Classroom because their myriad assignments are typically written paragraphs that could easily overwhelm your in-box if you were to try and have the students just send them to you ... to the tune of 1000 emails a week, or more.

(update: "Ducks to Water - Google Classroom" details the experience of a New Zealand English teacher's use of Classroom)

It's tough for math, however.  Symbols are limited. There is Greek Delta for triangle, but you have to use < for angle. Complex notes are impossible - handwritten still works best for taking notes, then scan and send from the school copier.  Algebra is possible for me since I'm writing one equation for a problem but the students can't show their work easily. Pre-Caclulus and Calculus are basically a no-go in GDocs.  There's easy integration of Desmos and Geogebra, but you have to let go of the need to show work or steps.

The exceptions: Probability and Statistics, and portfolio/explanation/extended answer questions. P/S using Sheets works great. You can send out data ("Make a copy for each student") and the kids each create a presentation with graphs from it.  Similarly, "portfolio" problems or the new Common Core explanation-required problems work fairly well because there's more writing and verbiage than math equations.

Bottom line: If your students are using Google Docs to do their work, then Classroom is perfect. I gave the Stats class work that they generated spreadsheets and graphics for: Sheets and Slides came back, sorted, tagged with name, a nice little interface that collects all of the artifacts that are submitted with the assignment (also renames them with assignment name and student name, e.g., "6.2 Histogram - John Smitty 2018").

Bonus: If your students have more than one class using Classroom, then they get a dashboard with assignments and such. They LIKE having everything there.

  • Ease of use.
  • Every assignment goes to every kid at the same time. Email notification and bright red "Assignment Due" in the interface.
  • The assignments that are submitted are definitely submitted.
  • Kids appreciate it when multiple teachers use it.
  • You can grade right in the list of students' submissions. Open the kid's submitted files, add comments right in the margins, "Return" it if you want improvements, choose a grade.

  • Typing Algebra. 
  • Drawing graphs. (Desmos and Geogebra integrate well, but DRAWING is cumbersome)
  • Every assignment goes to every kid at the same time. Email notification and bright red "Assignment Due" in the interface. No differentiation.
  • No quizzes (yet. They claim to be working on it)
  • You can't have a class prepped too far out, certainly not a full course. 
  • Gradebook is limited and does not integrate with your gradebook program.

Here's a sample assignment:

It's got a title and a due date. I included a picture for them to look at (student can view), a spreadsheet will the data that each student will work on and submit later (Make a copy for each student) and an another spreadsheet that all students can edit together. The "Make a copy for each" option allows each student to have their own to work on while the "Students can edit" option lets us all contribute data to the same file. It could be raw data, a GDoc that you're using for class notes, etc.

The paperclip icons at the bottom allow you to attach a file from your computer (uploaded), attach a google doc (doc, sheets, drawing, etc.), a YouTube video link, and a general link.

When you student has completed his work, he goes back to this page and hits the SUBMIT button.  Any file that was "Make a copy for Each" is automatically attached, but the student can attach other files, evidence, artifacts, and then submit.

It all gets neatly organized in your GDrive, in a folder creatively called "Classroom", but you will never need to look in there for them.
Nope, don't care.
What you'll do is look in your assignment "stream":

Note: The blue rectangles are just to obscure the students' names for publishing here. The green one covers a student's name as part of the new automatically created filename. Each student's entry can be expanded as I did here to see and open any submitted files. Everything is in my Drive, but I can get to it all here.

Also, to answer the other question asked on Twitter, I feel it's not that difficult to create the same assignment more than once for different sections and this gives me the flexibility of having classes at different points during the year. Not only that, but announcements can be posted to more than one group and can contain PDFs, links, images, etc.

Note: I don't grade them here because I don't want dual-gradebook confusion. I do write comments (ctrl-alt-M) in the documents themselves.

If this works for you, you owe me a beer someday.

There will be a part 2.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

RI rejects sanity.

From Joanne Jacobs:
Rhode Island should stick with a single diploma, says Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist, who’d proposed creating standard, “regents” and honors diplomas. Instead, she said districts should be able to add “endorsements” to the diploma to indicate higher levels of proficiency and honors.
Which is a shame, really. Having more than one diploma makes the students work harder for the better one.

HIP: class expectations

Because there's nothing quite like strict discipline for teaching teenagers, the Highly Ineffective Principal actually came out and said the following (although not all at the same meeting):
  1. Every class should have 100% attendance daily. It is the teacher's responsibility to call parents and make this happen.
  2. Every child should have a hand up for every question. The right hand should be raised if they know the answer and the left one if they don't.
  3. If a paper drops, everyone should be able to hear the paper hit the floor.
Total silence is best.
Teacher-led questions only.
Your kids are not allowed to be sick, go to the doctor, be dismissed early for sports, go to the counseling office, be involved in anything outside of school or else ... what?

And people wonder why teachers bitch about incompetent administrators.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

I'm never gonna use this.

Well, Eighties Music Forever, I never said that you would have to. I notice that you didn't "use" poetry, chemistry, biology, or science of any kind, nor history, psychology, art of any kind, nor Literature; pretty sad that all that schooling has gone to "waste" because no one gave you an artificially simplified problem that you recognized as "Algebra" instead of as a real-world problem that you couldn't have dealt with unless you'd understood algebra.

Of course, you wouldn't be much of a person without it all, though, so it's a good thing you learned it in school.

We could use "I'm bored" as an excuse or "When am I ever gonna have to use this?" as a reason to kick you out the door into the Real-World and let you get a Real-Job and pay Real-Bills, but I prefer to put it more simply:
You're (Black/Latino/Female ... you can fill in the blank) so you aren't allowed to take Algebra - it will be too difficult for you and the community doesn't feel that they should be paying for your education when you'll only ever be a (minimum-wage/slave-labor/custodian/mechanic ... fill in the blank) worker.
If you recoiled when I forbid you from learning something because I didn't consider you worth the effort, why should I allow a student to do this to themselves?

Every student hates algebra because learning it is hard ... learning anything is hard if you've never done anything like it before.  

Reason #722 why Students Have Trouble

Found this at teachers pay teachers.

No shit. And the hundredths place is called that because ....?

This is what Rape Culture Looks Like.

“Gentlemen. This is what rape culture is like:

Imagine you have a Rolex watch. Nice fancy Rolex, you bought it because you like the way it looks and you wanted to treat yourself. And then you get beaten and mugged and your Rolex is stolen. So you go to the police. Only, instead of investigating the crime, the police want to know why you were wearing a Rolex instead of a regular watch. Have you ever given a Rolex to anyone else? Is it possible you wanted to be mugged? Why didn’t you wear long sleeves to cover up the Rolex if you didn’t want to be mugged?

And then after that, everywhere you go, there are constant jokes about stealing your Rolex. People you don’t even know whistle at your Rolex and make jokes about cutting your hand off to get it. The media doesn’t help either; it portrays people who wear Rolexes as flamboyant assholes who secretly just want someone to come along and take that Rolex off their hands. When damn, all you wanted was to wear a nice watch without getting harassed for it. When you complain that you are starting to feel unsafe, people laugh you off and say that you are too uptight. Never mind you got violently attacked for the crime of wearing a friggin time piece.

Imagining all that? It sucks, doesn’t it.

Now imagine you could never take the Rolex off.”

— The Wretched of the Earth: On Rape Culture


In an article about the crash of Flight 447, Automation Paradox, pt. 1
In 1997,  American Airlines captain Warren Van Der Burgh said that the industry has turned pilots into “Children of the Magenta” who are too dependent on the guiding magenta-colored lines on their screens.

William Langewiesche agrees: “We appear to be locked into a cycle in which automation begets the erosion of skills or the lack of skills in the first place and this then begets more automation.”

However potentially dangerous it may be to rely too heavily on automation, no one is advocating getting rid of it entirely. It’s agreed upon across the board that automation has made airline travel safer. The accident rate for air travel is very low: about 2.8 accidents for every one million departures. (Airbus planes, by the way, are no more or less safe than their main rival, Boeing.)
As a math teacher, the parallels to the use of calculators, graphing calculator apps, and various other tools, jumped out at me immediately.  These tools make student progress in mathematics easier, make concepts more easily grasped ... and give the students a crutch that has vast implications when that crutch is whisked away or breaks.

Technology cannot replace understanding. It is a tool, nothing more.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tenure is not about a job for life

Tenure is not about a job for life. Tenure exists to create a formal structure for the removal of a teacher who has been accused of misbehavior or of a crime. The contract spells out the steps that need to be taken and is not a way for the evil teachers' union to keep incompetent people.

The concept of tenure and the wording of the contract work together to prevent one-sided, wrong-headed, or patently false accusations from being used to get rid of someone who really did nothing wrong other than refuse to be a sycophantic lapdog.

And sometimes, it helps people like Rafe Esquith, who otherwise would have been summarily fired.
"There are no suggestions that he has harmed any children. But as many of the great teachers I have written about over the years have told me, if you work hard and show administrators how much better our schools could be if they took their responsibilities seriously, you are going to become a target for abuse." - Jay Matthews.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Playing the Game

Or perhaps the Principal encourages those who will do poorly to "opt out" ... by telling them they don't have to be in school that day with no consequences. Then, when they skip, they're not truant, they're opting out.

It is so easy to game the numbers.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why do Teachers Get the Summer Off?

Funny you should ask. We don't actually get the summer off ... the students do. Our time off is the logical consequence.

The reasons why are more interesting than the "It's a farmer thing" line of reasoning.
If Education Secretary Arne Duncan has his way, kids would be spending a lot more time at school — and a three-month summer would be a thing of the past. He continued by explaining that the American school calendar is antiquated and must be modified so that American students can compete at the highest levels internationally. “Most people realize that our current day is based on the agrarian economy, and we don’t have too many kids working out in the fields nowadays,” Duncan said. 

Most people realize, huh? Then most people would be wrong. And so is Arne.

The summer months are hot. The temperatures throughout the Northeast rise regularly into the 80s and 90s, the humidity is choking, and closed-in spaces like classrooms are no fun when you've got 25 kids sweating and fidgeting. It's bad enough in late May and mid-June.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when a lot of school policies were first considered, it was easier to heat buildings in the winter than to cool them in the summer because, you know, duh, there wasn't any air conditioning. Factories closed. Schools closed. Offices closed. Congress closed. Everything closed. People with the wherewithal escaped the cities and went to the Adirondacks or Vermont or the Catskills, with all their servants and entourage.  People who didn't have money went to Coney Island. That's why everyone traditionally gets two weeks in August ... because it's the worst damn time to be in NY and Boston and Washington D.C. and since that was where the decision-makers were, that was the decision. Time off for major holidays and the occasional week or two here and there - Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter - and the rest is school ... and everyone escapes in summer.

Sorry to all you "It's all based on the agrarian calender" believers - it's obvious you were never on a farm.

Think about it ... if the whole thing was done for farmers benefit, wouldn't it make more sense to have the time off when the real heavy work was done on a farm? Like planting and harvest?

You don't see vacations in October, do you? You know, when the harvest occurs for most of the major crops in the northeast. Halloween and all the corn stalks and pumpkins -- ringing a bell?  Thanksgiving is in November - the only time you get is for the feast, not the work that leads up to it.

The summer months are busy (the definition of farmer is 'a busy man') but nowhere near as busy as other times of the year. About the only farm work done around here in the summer is haying, watching the corn grow and fixing stuff. 

I'm going to go out on a limb a bit here ...

... Kids need a break from school; we have to let them do things OTHER than school. You know that old saying, "Most of what I know, I learned outside of school"? That's a big part of what summer is about. Parents, by and large want their kids to have summer break, want their kids to be able to get a part-time job and learn to be responsible adults, be able to hike the Appalachian Trail, laze about or go swimming, etc.

And why should kids be in school for every week of the year? Shouldn't we let the parents raise them for a while?

There are some schools that have installed a full air-conditioning system and choose to go year-round ... but they still tend to stick to the same 180 days. The only difference is that they have more one-month vacations or they do a four-on, one week-off schedule.

If my school system ever decides to change to that, I'll adapt but I have confidence the students and their parents won't let that happen.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Working in Isolation vs Collaboration

from Dangerously Irrelevant:
Joe Bower said:
I would never ask students to complete anything that is worth doing in complete isolation from their peers, parents, books, or the Internet. I’ve worked hard to encourage my students to see collaboration as a critical characteristic of learning.
I would never lock my students in a closet, forcing them to do meaningless work for years and letting them eat only a small bowl of thin porridge each day. That's the way that reductive capitalism works: a sweatshop producing clothing for Walmart, not the education that we desire in this country. 

Joe is, unfortunately, making the same mistake that almost all "Collaboration Uber Alles" proponents make. There are three stages to learning in my view; true collaboration is appropriate and achievable in only one of them.

First, a definition: Collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals. Good enough to begin with.

The First Stage
First Stage Learning.
  • The first stage of education is learning the basics, learning the foundation work upon which the understanding can be built. If we are examining A-SSE.2, multiplication of polynomials is required before we can possibly recognize and utilize structure in expressions. You need to have done this first part before being able to recognize that x² - y² is equivalent to (x+y)(x-y). 
  • This is strictly solo work in that the student must be doing the learning. The teacher and classmates can explain, describe, tutor, re-explain ... but acquiring this preliminary knowledge is the job of the individual. No one else can master it for him, they can only master it for themselves. 
  • Collaboration does not exist at this stage, only parallel learning. Peer coaching is not collaboration, but a "multiple-teacher" scenario. This is where formative assessment is appropriate because we absolutely do NOT want any misunderstandings to be introduced or practiced or internalized — errors must be fixed here before they are ingrained.
  • The Internet, their peers, parents, books, are useful in that they are teachers with varying degrees of understanding ranging from competent to utterly and absolutely wrong. The "wrong" can be misguided, such as the videos put up by well-meaning folks who say that the order of operations is "multiply first, then divide", thinking 30 ÷ 2 * 3 equals 5 instead of 45. The "wrong" can also be peers playing a joke, such as the "friend" who says that 26 ÷ 65 equals 2/5 because you can cancel the sixes. Of course, the "wrong" can be malicious or deluded, such as the folks who claim that the Earth is 6000 years old.

Andrew Old:
"If you want to learn how to cooperate effectively with others, then the last place you’d start is in a group of teenagers being made to do school work. This is like saying the best way to learn how to make pork sausages is by being imprisoned in a pig farm with a half-dozen rabbis. Putting together people who are neither experienced at doing something, or particularly inclined to want to do it, is not how you learn to do that something."
The Second Stage 
  • The second stage is the time when we take that basic knowledge and develop it, building the deeper understandings that are our goal. Some collaboration happens at this stage, but mostly the individual is exploring, researching, expanding the understandings that are the point of this whole thing.
  • Again, the peer-to-peer work that is happening here is less "learning" and more taking turns questioning, extending the idea (does x4 - y4 behave in a similar fashion?) Where else can we go with this? 
  • The Internet, peers, parents, etc., are still not collaboration, but they do contribute to the student's learning. In fact, this is the ideal time for students to see other points of view, watch different explanations and determine the correlations and reconcile the differences. I encourage watching Khan at this point with the question, "What do you think of his explanation?"
At the end of Stage Two is the usual spot for summative assessment, the dreaded chapter test. Why "dreaded"? Because the students have JUST internalized it but rarely are comfortable with it yet. Done properly, though, the chapter test is often the fusion of all of the disparate details, the time when the students have to put everything together. I often hear students say that "Now I understand."

It's also why I allow retakes, because I feel that understanding on a deadline is less important than being able to say at the end of the course "You know Algebra 2".  I suppose this is the essence of Proficiency-Based Learning, but I have never liked re-labeling what we do in order to pretend that we are reforming.
The Third Stage
Re-purposed wrecking ball.
  • The third stage of learning is the time when students get comfortable with their understandings, where they extend an idea, test it, and revise it themselves, where they produce a product, something new — to themselves at least, if not to the teacher or the world, but there are certainly cases in which the work was completely new, an invention or discovery.
  • This is the only place where collaboration is actually realistic. Since I define "collaboration" as "multiple students working on the same project, contributing to each phase of the work and trusting each other to complete their respective parts", I cannot see collaboration as the time when you are learning the material, but as the time when you take that learning and produce something.
We must discuss Alfie Kohn:
“I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do” is really just code for “I want to see what you can do artificially deprived of the skills and help of the people around you. Rather than seeing how much more you can accomplish in a well-functioning team that’s more authentic like real life.”
If we are discussing education, then I absolutely DO want to know what you can do, what you have learned and internalized. How else am I to re-teach, help, differentiate?

Joe Bower, again:
"In the real world, there simply aren’t that many times you are expected to solve a problem or perform a task in complete isolation – and even if you were, it would be awfully archaic to refuse you the opportunity to reach out for the help you needed to get the task done.
In the RealWorld that I've been a part of, there is not a single company that didn't expect a baseline level of knowledge and understanding. They have no interest in an employee who can't work alone, or who can't do his part of a collaborative task. They don't want someone who needs to consult other resources constantly, in order to do the simplest of tasks. They want to know how good a resource you will be when someone has to ask you for help.

Bottom line:
  • Collaboration is students each working from knowledge and understanding to produce something together, sharing the work or parceling out pieces for each to work on simultaneously.
  • Collaboration is not a pathway to learning and often is detrimental to the learning process since many students leave the thinking and learning to the quickest in the group ... "He answered so I don't have to think about the question." or "I'll just repeat what she said."
  • Collaboration before all of the partners are proficient is counter-productive. If all participants aren't at the proficient point, there will be one who winds up doing most of the work in frustration, worried that her grades will slip because the quality of the product is below her standards.
  • Collaboration is not a substitute for teaching.
Thanks for reading. I've got to get back to work.