Thursday, December 29, 2016

Beginning teachers need to learn to teach.

Teaching's a profession. Like all professions, it takes training ... and practice. This practice can't be found in a Wheaties Box and it's can't be found on Twitter.

To be a teacher, you need to be an intern, an apprentice, a beginning teacher. In the beginning you need to get help and guidance from experienced teachers. You may be smart and may have gotten good grades in college/high school, but that doesn't mean you can teach.
  1. Your "digital native" status is not even worth the paper it isn't printed on.
  2. Your youth is worth nothing (and for a while, you'll be paid accordingly).
  3. Your opinions about how to teach are worth pretty close to nothing.
You'll have to learn from the older teachers. They didn't learn math using a MacBook nor do they Tweet every random thought, but that doesn't mean that those older teachers don't have a lot to offer. Some of us are hidebound, curmudgeonly old bastards, but you must learn to look past that and filter out the years of accumulated irritation at Professional Development.

Six weeks in summer camp can't replace six months of teaching actual teenagers under the supervision of an experienced teacher, nor will those six weeks ever prepare you in any meaningful way. On the other hand, there are plenty of people in TFA who MIGHT make good teachers someday.

Vilification is just as silly as beatification. The problem I have with TFA is the tendency to assume sainthood of someone who is treating two years in public school as temporary thing, as if some court sentenced them to 2 years of community service for the crime of not acquiring a 6-figure income job.

Now that you're a teacher ...

This profession is unbelievably screwed up in many ways and we're going to need you to keep it together long enough to pick up on the difference between stupid shit that sounds good (a "deepity") and good ideas that sound stupid at first.

You'll see both kinds.

From whence, "Deepity"?

We (and by this, I mean people who make decisions and influence school boards) listen to the opinions of people who haven't ever been teachers. We take seriously the suggestions and complaints from CEOs and computer wizards who couldn't be bothered to finish their own education. We listen to Andre Agassi's opinions about the ideal school and take him seriously when he says he wants to start a school and he knows what works with kids and how teachers should teach ... except that he quit school in the ninth grade and turned tennis pro at the age of 16. His father was supposed drive the kids to school but took them to local tennis courts to practice instead. How is this supposed to instill confidence in his opinions about how schools should be run for the majority?

Here's a talking head:
“Both sides ignore this fact: The classroom performance of beginning Teach For America instructors is about the same as that of education school graduates just starting out. On average, both do poorly. More supervision and support would help both groups. How does aggravating the feud make that happen?”
Let's set aside the idea that more Supervision would help because Supervision never helps a first-year teacher. Help and support from other teachers would help.  Supervision does nothing.

What scares me is the idea that this starting incompetence is the norm, that the classroom performance of TFA teachers equals that of "education school graduates" ... if that isn't an insult to the TFA, then someone's not paying attention.  TFA are supposedly the best and brightest of the Ivy Leagues and the top-notch colleges. Shouldn't we be striving for a level of competence higher than that of the people who failed out of every other program in college, that of those who were so bad at everything they settled for an education degree?

Scott MacLeod, in MindDump, quoted this guy, who said, in part,
re: “Let’s-find-and-fire-the-bad-teachers”
The problem with the approach that Friedman and others advocate is that it assumes we have all these wonderful, high-quality teachers just waiting in the wings to take over the jobs of the bad teachers we fire. In reality, there is no such supply, even in a bad economy with high unemployment. We have a shortage, not a surplus, of great teachers—and so it’s na├»ve or shortsighted (or both) to think we can somehow fire our way to a great educational system.
This is true. If you fire someone in the middle of the school year, there aren't all that many applicants that are worth even as much as  John Garner's assessment of the Vice-Presidency. Your ad on SchoolSpring will get a lot of response because it's really easy to push that button, but the candidates' qualifications will be dubious at best.
There are almost four million K-12 teachers in the United States, which is more than twice the number of lawyers and doctors combined. Teaching is America’s largest profession. And so we need teaching to be a job that an average person can do reasonably well, which means we probably need to rethink how the job is structured. ( Justin Snider )
Holy mackerel.

"Change teaching so that the average person can do it well." Why not improve it, instead? Why do we care what some economists have found and what some random blogger says about it?

"If the teachers can't measure up, then we must measure down."

I can't accept that.  We need more teachers than lawyers and doctors because those two professions aren't needed by a third of the population for 7 hours a day for ten months of the year.

Where do you come in, newbie?

You come in right here. You read things. If you've read this far, you'll probably make a great teacher.

How to be a Math Coach

As a long response to Math on the Edge, I have a few questions for prospective and current math coaches. Hereafter, I will use the words "we" or "us" to refer to me and/or to the "teachers who you plan to coach".

Here are nine questions. If you can't answer "Yes" to at least one of these nine questions, then you have no business being a "coach".

Subject Matter Knowledge:
  1. Do you know more about math in general than we do?
  2. Do you know more than we do about a specific topic in our subject?
  3. Have you done research in our field that would prove useful to us in the classroom - a new understanding, a new meaning?
  4. Have you spent time creating content that other math teachers have found useful?

Relevant Experience
  1. Do you have experience (that we do not have) teaching our subject at the grade levels we teach?
  2. Do you have significant experience teaching our subject at any grade level?
 Teaching Techniques
  1. Do you know teaching techniques that we do not - new ideas that we could learn from and improve with? Theoretical knowledge is useful.
  2. Do you have a lot of experience teaching anything at any level - experience that might inform someone in a completely different situation? Practical knowledge is useful, too.
  3. Have you done research into teaching that would prove useful to us in the classroom -- cognitive research into children's learning or a change in the philosophy of classroom management or the use of a new technology that makes a true difference -- to the extent that you know this work, know what we might do to improve?
"Yes" to any one of these? Great. If not, don't expect that any of the people you are pretending to "coach" will take you seriously.

If you said "No" to all of that, you are not a coach ... you are an intern and I am coaching you.  I may learn a lot from you, but only as a test subject or a guinea pig in my experiment.

Coaches teach their teams, guide their teams, or at least pressure them into doing things in a certain way together. These people make the team successful, improve the team. If they don't, they're fired. If this isn't what you think you're doing, don't call yourself a coach.

For 1 - 4.
I enjoy talking to, and working with, people who know more than I do about a topic. My education was in engineering, not in pure mathematics and not in secondary teaching. It is refreshing to have Mike Olinick in to give a cryptography lecture to an auditorium full of high schoolers or Jeff Suzuki to give one on an important aspect in math history.  If I could convince Don Steward to fly over and work with us, that would be very cool. Dan Meyer's a good speaker and a good coach and he has ideas that resonate. These people all have something in common: they've worked with math in ways I haven't. I can learn from them and others like them. Even if their contribution is a different way to work with math, like Fawn Nguyen's Number Talks, or - these are people from whom we can learn.

If you haven't worked with math in ways that I haven't, if you don't bring anything new to the table, if you aren't improving our/your instruction in SOME way, then you have to be outstanding in some other way.

For 5-6:
If you don't have any experience, what can you offer me? What are you basing your "coaching" on if you have never done any teaching yourself? The bar is higher for you because my field is so very different and my difficulties and problems are not solved by amateurs and dilettantes.

What do you base your "advice" on, if your sole experience is teaching a existentialism course at a small New England prep school? Your research? Your work as a content aggregator? Your charming personality? If your opinion contradicts my own experience, then you need to really convince me that you aren't just another blithering idiot on the Internet.

For 7-9:
If you can't say WHY your new idea/technique is a good one, then I'm not going to take your word for it. I might implement it in my classes but only after considering how the change will play out, what I might do to measure its effectiveness, or at the very least consider how the class is currently running so I have a clear and concise memory to compare the "after" version to.

If all you have is a "yes" in 7-9, then you're gonna need your research, your "proof" or at least a damned good explanation. I want to see that your research/evidence applies to my discipline and my grade levels. Don't tell me that I need to change my HS math classes based on research done on K-2 students. I look very skeptically on any statistics that include Singapore and Hong Kong, or Finland and Norway.

I understand that I am not completely up-to-date on everything to do with teaching. I'm using technology a lot, in some very interesting ways, and my students are doing things I'd never imagined in the 80s and 90s. I read others in the #MTBoS and I travel quite a bit to hear them speak. But I know there's a lot going on out there and I'm in the middle of a very poor section of a tiny state.

SO, if you're going to come into my classroom and tell me to change, for example, to Proficiency-Based Grading, then you had better understand it yourself. If you are going to tell us to re-imagine our teaching in a certain way, then you NEED to be competent in its variations and minutia.

If not, then you're not a coach, you're a pain in the ass.

DO NOT do as our curriculum coordinator did: raise up a book at the first *weekly* in-service (2.5 hours each) and announce that you had just read this idea in this book and you think we all should do it. If you haven't been trained in ThisWork, haven't done any work in or research in ThisWork and your only teaching experience is as a less than stellar elementary teacher whose "specialty" was social studies ... then you shouldn't be a math coach.

DO NOT speak to a faculty meeting and say, "I don't know anything about what you're doing but I've just been hired for this new job to help you with your teaching. Here is a list of topics that I can help you with by *Googling* them for you", which is what two fresh new admin did.

DO NOT insist that teachers adhere to the practices of your 4th grade classroom when you are attempting to "coach" us in these new ideas that you don't particularly understand. We're all adults and most of us have master's degrees and we average 15-20 years of experience in our fields, some of us more than 40. You're not being cute. You're not being clever. You're being a pain in the ass.

DO NOT walk in and say "I'm the Math Coach" and proceed to tell us nothing new, even going so far as to use material from *my own website* in your presentation (true story).

I could continue but I've got to get back to work.

Bring something to the table or GTFO.

Monday, December 26, 2016

New Year, Same as the Old year

From Poor Elijah:
We raise academic standards on paper even as we’re compelled by policies and pressured by politics to lower them in reality. We crow about “standards-based” grading, as if teachers will miraculously agree about what “proficient” means more than we now agree about what a B means. Our “objective” scoring rubrics rest on the distinction between sentences that “wander” and those that “meander.” Advanced placement is less advanced, and everybody takes algebra, even if it isn’t really algebra anymore.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

End-of-Year Testing

(I started this article several years ago. Just getting around to editing and publishing these drafts.)

I love the idea of End-of-Year testing in a purely hypothetical sense. Students should be able to demonstrate what they've learned. The teacher doesn't grade it or write it. The students can't weasel out of it. A group of math people decide what "Algebra I" should entail and write some questions to measure it.

The test is never perfect, as NY teachers will hurry to emphasize, but it is out of the hands of the teacher and that is good. We should not be afraid to let our students measure themselves against a common standard and we should be open to change if the unexpected happens. SATs serve this purpose as well.

Differences between what you expect them to get and what they get are the prime indicator. If your grades are all As and your kids can't succeed in appropriate tests, then you need to review what you are doing. If the majority of kids can't succeed on an EOY exam, then you the teacher needs to make a determination: is it the individuals, the exam, the curriculum, or me? If you are passing kids and the next teacher isn't, someone might need to adjust.

In theory, EOY exams should be perfect for this - it's just too bad that they'll be useless for it.

not linear.
The State of Oklahoma requires these tests and they will *attempt* to write them to be an honest assessment of the skills that should have been acquired in any particular course. Just like Texas, just like New York Regents.

What will happen is that End of Year testing, like WilyECoyote, is going to run full-speed into the Cliffs of Reality. The "passing" score will be set to 60%, then too many kids fail so it's quietly lowered to 45%, or 35%, or lower. If enough people still can't pass the test, the cut-score will be lowered again. Or you wind up with the weird raw score conversion charts of the NY Regents (right).

So ... is it poor preparation and teaching or poor test-making?

The graph that's been misunderstood
by admin everywhere.
Or could it be that the test is trying to apply the "Higher Standards" that everyone is crowing about? You know the trope: "Raising the Bar improves performance."

Unfortunate reality #1: If you raise the standard, more people will fail to reach it.
Unfortunate reality #2: Calculus kids do better on their SATs than Algebra I students. Selection bias. Duh.

What should we do?

Avoiding all EoC testing is silly. Pretending that some "3-week portfolio question is demonstrably superior" is the canard put forth by all those people who have never watched or judged a science fair. Individual teacher-written final exams are suspect because of quality-control issues and because of grading irregularities. Department-wide final exams are probably the best unless your state has Mr Honner holding your Regents exams to account, in which case, go with the Regents.

Unless your school just voted to eliminate all finals in light of the transition to Proficiency-Based Grading, but that's another post for another day.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


Does applying hard deadlines really make students learn to meet deadlines? 10 points off for each day late? Or does it just give an excuse to the procrastinator (or the kid who knows he's not that good at the task) that he is no longer responsible for the low grade?

Is our Calvinistic work ethic really a good thing here? Has anyone really considered its effect on the students and the climate of the school?

For all of those who so desperately want deadlines, let me propose one ... set yourself a deadline and then pay $10 per student per day late returning those essays.

end broadside ...

Here's what I feel works better:

Set a deadline if you have to, one that makes sense. Set it for Friday if you REALLY plan to grade over the weekend. If you're going to procrastinate, don't get on their case for it. Taking points off for lateness doesn't make your assessment of the work any more accurate. Grade the work and the lateness separately.

You can certainly set a deadline but be reasonable about it. Allow a kid to hand it to you as you walk out the door - the fumbling and muttering will make him feel bad enough - and you'll probably give him time to proofread and print it.  Maybe he's just yanking your chain, but perhaps he's not.

"Here's how well you did" is far more powerful when you are discussing the work itself. 

"Okay, give it to me tomorrow morning so I can look at it first period and get it back to you" may occasionally be taken as a sign of weakness and an excuse to persist in tardiness ... but far more often, it is a sign that you want good work rather than hasty work.

And it's a policy that fits much better with Proficiency-Based Grading.

Customer Service

Customer: “Excuse me.”
Me: “Can I help you?”
Customer: “I’m trying to return this orange juice.”
Me: “What seems to be the problem?”
Customer: “It’s brown.”
Me: “Oh, wow. When did you purchase it?”
Customer: “The 19th of this month.” *hands me her receipt*
Me: “Miss, this receipt says you purchased this orange juice on the 19th of last year. You bought this 367 days ago.”
Customer: “Yes, and it’s gone brown. I’d like a refund.”
Me: “Did it not occur to you that orange juice would expire over the course of the year?”
Customer: “I thought if I waited until the 19th of the month again, it would be okay.”