Thursday, November 23, 2017

PBE part two - The Gist of the Problem

For those whose states haven't yet been jumping on this bandwagon, what is PBE?  PBE is short for Proficiency-Based Education, sometimes called Standards-Based Education (SBE).

The gist of PBE is that education should be structured around knowing and understanding the Big Ideas, being able to do and perform those Important Skills, becoming students who learn and retain because they understand what the school was teaching.

There are several things that have pushed this initiative; most of the concerns are with the fact that so many kids seem to drift through high school (and especially HS math) without actually retaining anything. Of course, many students passed because they deserved to, because they understood the material and were ready for the next level. On the other hand, students have also "passed" by:
  1. being good at only a few topics but their average was above a 60.
  2. sitting like a lump and getting passed on. "It's all about Seat Time."
  3. bringing a pencil everyday, always handing in homework (even if they didn't actually learn anything from it) and having good attendance. "She's a GOOD kid."
  4. expending "Great Effort". "He really tries HARD."
What other problems were there with "traditional methods"?
  1. Courses are comprised of a few Big Ideas and a lot of filler that has gathered in the margins over the years. Reformers argue that we should focus on those Big Ideas instead of on the filler.
  2. What's so special about 120 hours of class-time? What if a kid needs 135 or only 80 to master the material? Reformers ask why every class goes for 180 days, 45 minutes a day.
  3. Teachers giving some kids a passing grade allowing them to move on to Algebra Two, just to get rid of him or to allow him to graduate.
  4. You don't measure understanding of a concept by simple repetition of a question. 
  5. Percentages are more precise than accurate. 
  6. Fine-grained reporting leads to a "Horse-Race" mentality in students and parents. "I'm better than you by a point." 
  7. Marking a question as 4 points out of 5 is less informative than a comment or some type of written feedback.
  8. Learning is a process that shouldn't be measured only once. Practice shouldn't be included in the grade, especially if the student had help.
Some of these claims are bogus, of course. Most are not.

Let's be honest here. There are a lot of adults who walk into meetings who begin by saying "I was never very good at math." There are memes aplenty that laugh at us math teachers saying "I've never had to factor a trinomial in my career. Everything I've ever done was done with 7th grade math."

Students have their own version of this game, "When am I ever gonna have to use this?" and then they promptly shut down if the answer doesn't fit into their narrow view of their future life and career.

Reformers claim, "Clearly something isn't working."

Despite the fact that the most important problems that exist in traditional education won't be solved by switching to PBE, the switch is worthwhile in my view.

The most important problem is that someone has to subjectively measure the student's performance.
This has been the problem for centuries and it won't change. There are so many ways that this judgement can be altered, massaged, changed, or mangled.

Every teacher knows it.
  • "Why did you give that grade to my kid?"
  • "You can't fail a kid if you didn't contact the parents."
  • "She didn't deserve that grade. She worked so hard."
  • "Do you really want him back in your class for another year? He's taken this same course two times already."
  • "If I fail this class my parents are going to kill me."
  • "Did you tell his parents every week that he wasn't doing his work? I don't see any record of this in the contact log."
  • "What are you going to do to help him pass?"
  • "Why didn't you assign him to afterschool help?"
  • "My son was always the best in his class in math, until he had you."
  • "I looked at her test. She should have gotten full credit on this question, and that one isn't wrong. You have to give him a 90."
  • Sometimes it's less subtle: "I'm gonna break your fucking arms if you fail my son. He only needs this one fucking math credit to graduate. I know where you live. I'm going home to get my gun."
These problems remain, no matter the system.

Under PBE, however, we have an opportunity to reframe education. We're going to measure only what they know, and focus on the Big Ideas.
  • Random quizzes on the way to understanding don't count. Only understanding counts.
  • Homework that was done with other people's help doesn't count. Only understanding counts.
  • The "Gentleman's C" is no longer a thing.
  • "Pity points" is no longer a thing.
  • "Extra Credit" is meaningless.
  • A 90% on Order of Operations can't mask a 50% on linear functions.
  • No more marks of 89.5% being considered "better" than 89%.
  • No averages of 60.001% just to allow a student to pass.
Can we do it?


or maybe not.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

PBE part one - getting started

This is the first of several posts about PBE, Proficiency-Based Education. I am trying to set down my understandings and beliefs, give some advice from my (very) limited experience, and lay a groundwork for improving what we're doing in my school and in my state of Vermont.

I plan to discuss what I think my school is doing right, what I think they are doing wrong, and try to find the best answers that I can. Who we are is irrelevant; the entire state public school system is under mandate from the VT AOE to make the change to PBE in order for the class of 2020 to graduate having had four years of high school PBE.

Yep. We are a year behind. We, and almost every other school I know of, have been procrastinating badly. We've spent 4 years on this so far, and been required to write only four modules for our courses because teachers whine "We don't know what you are asking us to do" and, since the person in charge of PD doesn't really know what the end goals should be and what PBE looks like in practice, we waste lots of time making empathy maps, rating and watching videos that are demonstrably ridiculous, and other tasks that don't really advance the program.

The State A.O.E. reps have openly admitted that they have no idea about how this will work. When I ask for sample transcripts, I get "We don't know. This conference is for you teachers to tell us what a typical graduate should be able to do and be." Ask for sample curricula, or sample frameworks, or sample anything and you get "We can't tell you because we don't have any of that and you have local control." That law was passed four years ago and this conference was one month ago!

Much of the Vermont AOE website focuses on convincing people that this is a good idea, rather than on what this idea actually should look like in practice. Here, you can look for yourself.

The Supervisory Union has openly admitted that they have no real idea of how PBE is supposed to work. "We're not sure. Nobody has done this before. We're on the cutting edge. We don't know what the Graduation requirements should be -- you teachers have to decide. Write your modules to this template, but we're not going to look at them critically - you have to do that."

The principal and other school administration are just as much in the dark but, to their credit, are willing to let teachers do this exploration and possibly fail on our way to succeeding.

I'm going to focus at first on what I feel PBE should be and why I feel it's a good idea, then on some of the things that are really making this transition problematic and may end up destroying the initiative and ruining the educations of many students in the meanwhile.

Hopefully, this exploration will prove useful to both of us.

Another Problem with Computer-Based Learning

I am not a fan of computer-based courses except when the alternative is nothing. If the choice is Moodle or nothing, then Moodle wins, but it's not a great solution. Even a mediocre teacher is better than an online course. Charter schools who offload the majority of teaching onto computer programs are doing a real disservice to their students. Computer programs are far too often limited in what they accept as correct answers, too limited in their explanations, and not particularly well thought out.

Style and colors win out over physics.

The example that prompted this note is below. In the exercises for an online edition of a physics textbook, there was this unit conversion problem that asked students to convert km/hr to m/s, a fairly simple but important task. The student had to drag and drop circles onto a fraction structure - the task was to replicate this pattern:

This is the only acceptable answer, however. Any different arrangement was deemed incorrect:

Those "Learn more" links simply repeated the advice to convert the length measurement first without ever giving any reasons why the fractions should be in that order.

It's programmed that way. No exceptions allowed, even if they are correct.

The worst part? It hasn't been fixed. I sent a note three months ago. This content was written and published at least four years ago. Why the holdup?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Consistency of Message

Short speech this afternoon included the following statement:
"We believe that all students should be able to take any or all AP courses at our school."

This was the concluding talk of a day-long conference on Proficiency-Based Education which has as one of its guiding tenets that
"Students should not progress to the next proficiency until they have mastered the first one and should not be allowed to move from course 1 to course 2 until they have reached proficiency in all of the predetermined areas in course 1."
These two statements seem to directly contradict each other, yet both were met with applause and approval from the assembled. How can you take AP Calculus if you haven't reached proficincy in the topics of precalculus, and before that in algebra 2, and before that in geometry, and before that in algebra 1?  (Granted that the geometry course is not strictly in that place across the country.)

What am I missing?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

More PBE Idiocy

My school is implementing Proficiency - Based education this year. (Some people call it Standards-Based Grading)

We're behind the curve; the State of Vermont has decreed that ALL schools in Vermont will be using PBE so that the Class of 2020 will have had four years of PBE by the time they graduate. That's this year's sophomores.

Yes, that means we're a year behind. Our school's faculty made the decision last May to push forward with this initiative against the wishes of the SU -- we didn't want to wait two more years to begin, putting us three years late according to the directive from the State.

Our reasoning was that, if this is truly a Good Thing, then why should we wait to put it into place?

But our supervisory office and it's IT staff are hopelessly unready. Incompetent isn't a unfair characterization. They have no transcript format ready to go, no sense of how to ascertain academic ineligibility, etc.

So we faculty are doing it for them and fighting against their bad decisions the whole time.

Faculty: "Don't average proficiencies. In fact, don't even think of them as percentages."

"Hold my beer," they said.

Faculty: "Wait, you shouldn't do that ... and what's with the gaps between the levels? .... and what's with 'Not Attempted' being 0% to 15%?"

SU: "Uh, we don't know, and we don't know how to change it."
Faculty: "If you insist we keep percentages AND that they must average, would you at least fix the gaps?"

SU: "Uh, we don't know how to change it."
SU: "Uh, leadership team needs to make that decision."
SU: "Uh, it's your fault for moving too quickly."

Faculty: sigh.

SU: "Uh, you know there's two different scales, right?"

Faculty: "Wait, what? That's ridiculous, and wrong on so many levels. No one would do anything that stupid."

SU: "Yeah, check this out. Hold my beer."

Faculty: "Okay, so the percentages are the same but why is it called Approaching in this scale and 'Nearly' in the other?"

SU: "We thought it would be fun to change it two days before school starts, but not everywhere. You'll randomly see one or the other."

Faculty: "Whaaaat?"

Faculty: "By the way, if I enter a 3 out of 4, I get an NP. It should be Four Levels means One thru Four, but it isn't working that way. Please explain that."

SU: "Uh, we don't know what you're talking about and we don't know how to change it."
SU: "But, we just figured out that if you use a 5-point scale, and enter a 4 out of 5, then you'll get proficient. Think of it as a feature."

Faculty: "You went out of your way and insisting that it was four levels, not five. Would you please get it straight?"

SU: "BTW, did we mention there's a third scale? Check this out!"

Faculty: "WTF is with those percentages changes?"
Faculty: "If I enter a 3 out of 4, I get an NP again. Please explain that. While you're at it, why is 'Emerging' now 0%-50% instead of the 15%-45%?"

SU: "Uh, we don't know what you're talking about and we don't know how to change it, but all three are active in your gradebook at the same time."

Faculty" "Are you serious?" 

SU: "Yep. We're kinda proud of all the work we've done."

Faculty: "It's been all different, the kids and parents are fuming, and we're going back over everything and rescoring everything to make things consistent. THIS HAS NOT BEEN HELPFUL."

SU: "Don't be ungrateful ... BTW, you know how you asked that all of the Common Core State Standards for math be put into the gradebook?"

Faculty: "(Nervously) Um, yeah?"

SU: "We changed the names of each one of them."

Faculty: "Keep your goddamn beer."

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Don't Average Proficieny-Based Grades

Either you are proficient or you are not proficient.

You can pretend to other "Levels" but that is the crux of standards-based education, or Proficiency-Based Education as it has been recently renamed.

What you can't do is assign a percentage to each level, then average them to get an average proficiency, then average the proficiencies to get a final score.

How is "Nearly Proficient = 70%" even valid? Right, it isn't, but in the exciting world of education, there's a difference between what the state of Vermont mandated and what our school is doing and what the superintendent and the district chief IT person seem willing to support.

So we get to start the year with everyone up in our shit over Proficient being a 75% ... and instead of eliminating the percentages, they changed it to 80% hoping that parents and students would shut up and return to their homes.

Can we turn off percents already?

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Students You Have

Periodically, one hears the clarion call:
"Raise Your Standards and the Students will Rise to meet them!"


To paraphrase Dick Cheney:
"You teach the kids you have, not the kids you wish you had."

(Dammit. The history teacher reminded me that it was Rumsfeld.)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Education Research, part 2

Peer Tutoring is great. All the best teachers set it up in their classrooms. Research says it raises achievement. After all, studies prove that "Teaching something is the best way to learn it."

I personally hate it. I've hated it since 7th grade when teachers started "encouraging" me to tutor other kids. I hated it in high school because I always got paired up with kids I didn't like or who resented that I was smarter than they were. Call me selfish? Tough shit; I was a teenager. It was NOT MY JOB. Teenagers have enough stress in their lives.Telling them they're responsible for some meathead's education? Oh, yeah, that is a *great idea*.

I won't require anyone to do it. EVER.
Purely voluntary, "working together"? Absolutely.
Homework club? Bring it on.
Labs? I'll encourage collaboration but if a student wants to go it alone, I won't stop them.

But studies show ...

From dcox, Research is great until you have to use it.
The EEF toolkit rates ‘peer tutoring’ as having a positive possible effect. I could see this and tell my staff ‘I want to see ‘peer tutoring’ in all your classes because that will enhance learning by ‘+5’ months.
However, the evidence behind this summary wouldn’t support this action. It specifies that the tutoring is most effective with cross-age tutoring, with two years between the students. That wouldn’t be the case in one class in the UK.
And crucially it also states:
‘Peer tutoring appears to be less effective when the approach replaces normal teaching, rather than supplementing or enhancing it, suggesting that peer tutoring is most effectively used to consolidate learning, rather than to introduce new material.’
Research in the wrong hands and with superficial or no in-depth analysis can be dangerous….

John Hattie's Visible Learning is a great tool but you've got to pay attention.

Perhaps Dan Willingham's Bill of Research Rights for Educators is appropriate here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Problem with Education Research

"Education Research." Even in these times of political ignorance of research, science, and fact-based decision-making, there's still a place in every American's brain for education research.

It's probably due to the ever-present mantra of "Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?" coupled with an ferocious need to believe that one's own children would be superstars if only the damned teachers weren't so terrible. Parents tweet, post, and search for information about "best-practices", proCCSS or anti-CCSS, pro-disease or pro-vaccination, in a desperate search for confirmation that they have a brilliant child.

The problem, of course, is that the searchers don't connect with the research.

Linda Graham, in an article on TES, Teachers Need to Trust Research Again, complained that
Just over a year ago, I was disturbed to read the suggestion – tweeted by a teacher attending a ResearchED conference at the University of Cambridge – that education academics should be made to pay schools for access to research participants. I was shocked because education research was clearly not being perceived as a public good; something we should support in the way that we do other forms of research.
I'll say this: it takes a certain chutzpah to complain that education researchers should be any different from others and pay subjects for their time. If you can't do that, then the taxpayer funded research based on studying taxpayer's kids in taxpayer-funded schools should at least be made available to read after its completed, without a $49.95 access fee. It's not that I think this research is a public bad, it's that few understand it and I want to see that it says and means what those above me think it says and means.

This giant game of "telephone" is getting frustrating. I've named it the "Workshop Effect". Here's how it works:
  1. Educational researcher (e.g., Kamii) presents results from her research (e.g., examining 3rd and 4th graders and the appropriateness of the common algorithm for subtraction) at large conference with consultants and workshop presenters in attendance. These folks take notes. Some completely understand what's being said, others less so. Not everyone is an elementary school teacher with a nerd-on for math.
  2. Consultants and presenters then travel, collecting $3000 for a day's workshop in Central Vermont. The presenter has collected several sets of research results and displays them all. Superintendents and Principals from K-12 are here because that's $3000 and "let's make the most of it."  They pick up some details to bring back.
  3. High School Principal hold faculty meetings or PD and mandate that "Research has shown that students should not be taught the common algorithm for subtraction." 
  4. Curriculum coordinators and teachers spend months adapting curriculum to the new paradigm. Anyone who objects, or wants verification, is called "Anti-Team Player", a "Naysayer", a "Curmudgeon", or is criticized or written up for "not obeying District policy."
And that's how the rot begins.  Why should my 10th grade Geometry students be bound by research on third-graders, research that expressly states that it is done on 3rd graders? Nothing in the paper said that extrapolating 7 or 8 years held any meaning.
Underlying much of the critique of research in education is the charge that it doesn’t tell stakeholders “what works”. My first objection to the “what works” mantra is that this is based on a very insular view of what is important in education. My second objection is that it completely discounts the importance of researching what doesn’t work, particularly from the viewpoint of the largest stakeholder group: students. Nonetheless, the value of research in education is increasingly being judged in relation to the “what works” agenda: if something works, then there must be evidence to prove that it works. If there isn’t evidence (perhaps because the research is not about what works but what doesn’t), then that research has no value.
Maybe the criticism that Graham reads is like this, but mine is over not being able to see the original documents. I am not going to spend the money to download and read this research. I only got the Kamii paper because someone sent it to me (Grant Wiggins, Dave Coffey, Bowen Kerins? I can't remember). I understand that research often is intended to find a connection, a correlation, and that a cause is more elusive. I understand that sometimes we need to run the same study again and again to confirm (or not) previous findings.

The problem is in the interpretation and filtering that happens between the researcher and the teacher. What did the research actually say, and what can I actually take from it?
Teachers are now being encouraged to “challenge” education researchers for “evidence” to support their views. That’s OK – if the request is accompanied by an understanding of the research process and how knowledge is accumulated.
Sure. It's called peer-review.

It would be nice to be able to tease out findings instead of leaving it up to the ex-fifth grade teacher - turned curriculum coordinator.

Publish your work or face the criticism.

If you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to work.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Please Stop Saying it, part 6

Things we really need you to stop saying, part 6.

Fun Fact:
"What you get out of it depends on what you put into it."

I'm their teacher, not their counselor. I agree that I can't be an asshole, but I'm here to teach and they're here to listen, learn, practice, contribute.

Otherwise, don't go to college.

"They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

We really need you to stop saying that.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Things We're really going to Need you to Stop Saying, 5b

part 5, update:

It's a goddam supercomputer. Why don't you just put it to use?
  • Look things up.
  • Calculator. If you turn the calculator sideways, it becomes a scientific calculator.
  • Desmos.
  • Formative Quizzes.
Then, they can put it aside and you can be a normal teacher with your worksheets. (I'm not being sarcastic. There's nothing wrong with worksheets for practicing a skill in isolation.)

The phone is just a TOOL. Use it for a purpose. Students need to experience when to use a TOOL and when not to. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Things We're Going to Need You To Stop Saying, part 5

False Dichotomy, aka. Twitter Broadside

Education seems to be full of these things, but perhaps they're in every business and I'm only paying attention to education. You see them often, pithy statements that fit into 140 characters by eliminating all the gray area and reducing everything to black or white extremes of "The Right Way" vs "What You're Doing". Often well-meaning but ultimately harmful:

If your exam questions can be googled, then you're asking the wrong questions.

Google is useful for information, less so for understanding. Googling the answer doesn't "show your work" and, given the nature of the Internet, isn't particularly trustworthy.

If kids in your class are more engaged by a fidget spinner than they are by your lesson, the spinner isn't the problem. Your lesson is.

Learning is hard. Kids fidget. Fads come, then go. Your lesson doesn't suck simply because two kids out of 25 are fiddling with this thing.

If your exam questions are multiple choice, then you aren't asking the right questions in the right way.

There's always a place for quick, multiple choice questions, even on summative assessments.

If your exam questions only use integers then they aren't Real World(tm) Questions.
If your exam questions require a calculator, then you're asking the wrong questions.

Integral answers allow students to show their work, are useful to the learning process because the arithmetic is secondary to the learning. Integral answers can also encourage students to search for different solution methods. Decimal answers that require a calculator are great for Real-World data but Real-World data is often confusing and isn't usually appropriate during the learning process. Learn first, then use the learning. Calculators make guessing too easy and encourage kids to waste time with it.

If you are asking questions at all, then your students aren't agents of their own education. 

This is just silly. Teachers are there to teach. Sometimes the students "lead" the class down the carefully prepared road through the weeds ... but the teacher has laid the groundwork for that.

I am really tired of this nonsense. These blanket statements that reduce the complex world we teach in to just two colors (what you're doing and the right way) are unnecessarily reductive. It encourages simple-minded extremist fads that wither away after a couple of years of damage to children's education.

It's a false dichotomy and we're really going to need you to stop saying it.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Repoped Search

Just what is a Repoped Search anyway?

Assuming its for a teacher ...

Ah, yes. I always wanted that job, but I wonder why no one has noticed it yet? It doesn't make applying there very appealing.
"Windsor Schools, in Windsor, Vermont is in search of a high school Geometry teacher to join our middle and high school math department, beginning July 1, 2017. Windsor Schools is a PreK-12 educational facility and implements the Eureka Math Program across all grade levels. All candidates must have a current Vermont Educator's License. Experience and familiarity with the following is preferred:
-Universal Design for Learning
-Habits of Learning and Vermont's Transferrable Skills
-Effective Communication and Collaboration

Perhaps a candidate with proofreading skills, as well?

Friday, April 21, 2017

PBGrading Pitfalls

Two of the selling points of Proficiency-Based Education are the elimination of the "False Accuracy" of percentages and the averaging of things that have nothing to do with each other.

We will score a test on Quadratics as 90%, score a test on rational functions as a 40% and then average those two scores to a 65%. Throw in a couple missing homework assignments and it's a failure. Add a bunch of homeworks handed in (100% each, weighted average), another test on square roots (80%), "Participation points" for having a pencil every day and not being an asshole, and some "extra credit" for a well-done project on exponential functions that was mostly a rehash of something done in Algebra I, and now this is a C+ or a B grade. If it's 79.43%, then it's a C+.
  • How in the name of Cthulhu can we be that accurate?
  • Why does having a pencil raise your grade?
  • Why does missing homework lower your grade?
  • How does "extra credit" on one topic cover the fact that you don't know what you're doing on a second or third topic?

Can't solve an equation, can't find asymptotes or holes, can't factor quadratics if a != 1, can't determine the missing terms in an geometric sequence ... but can grub points here and there, and "Boy, he's trying really hard and he deserves to get a few extra points so his grade is above 80."

How can you assure the Pre-Calculus teacher that this kid is ready for it? How about the college professors who are constantly droning on about freshmen in remedial math classes?

Look at those standards. Sure, they're all about working with quadratics in some form or other, but skill in N.CN.2 does not equate to skill in A.SSE.3 or in F.IF.7. So how does the good grade we get in part of this "help raise" the poor grade in another?

Shouldn't we be asking for skill and understanding in each of these? Don't we want proficiency (to some standard) in all of these before we say "Algebra 2" on a transcript?

And so we arrive at Proficiency-Based Grading.

At its ideal, it's perfect.
  • List all the proficiencies.
  • Set up a scale: Proficient w/Distinction, Proficient, Nearly Proficient, Emerging Proficiency.
  • Assess: Decide the rubric/scoring method, be consistent, ignore the names, begin.
Let's pretend we've decided that proficiencies #1 through #10 are required for a credit in algebra 2. Determine (using as much time as needed) whether each student can do the things you want understood for Algebra 2. If retakes are needed, do that. If they're good on 9 of those standards, then they haven't fulfilled your requirements. No credit until they understand all ten.

Repeat to the students, "There are ten things you need to know before you can say 'I understand Algebra 2' and can take that to the next course."

Ah, but this is education, and now we need to "fix" things.

First, having only ten grades in the gradebook is not going to cut it with secondary level administrators.  You need to include all of your formative and summative assessments.

Then, because we have to use PowerSchool, we need to list all of the standards for math, even if we are only focused on those 10 for this course. The other math teachers need their 10 things, and Powerschool can't be configured differently for each course ... blah, blah, blah. Probably it can, but the tech people and the curriculum coordinator can't figure it out, so fuck you.

Every column needs a grade, so the pilot teachers enter E for everything not covered in Algebra 2. (That's a lot)

Parents immediately complain that there are all these Es, "Why is this?" So we make a fifth category, "N/A, Haven't done this yet."

People who should know better insist that everything have a numerical value. So we label the levels 1, 2, 3, 4 (and 0 for the Haven't Done it Yet" category) ... and PowerSchool promptly averages the scores.

That's right, it takes the old problem of averaging things that have nothing to do with each other and magnifies it by averaging Ordinal Data of things that have nothing to do with each other.

"Advanced Understanding of Adding and Subtracting complex numbers" combined with "Nearly Proficient in Graphing Functions" somehow equates to 3, Proficient.

Not only that, but if you have something like N.CN.2 which you have determined to be only a 1, 2, or 3 scale ... well, your students are going to be shocked when they can't "get a 4" for the course.

XKCD: 937
Ordinal data is qualitative data; you can't average qualitative data. Doing so is a sin against mathematics. It would be akin to a newspaper writing this headline about a marathon. "The top ten people averaged fifth-and-a-halfth place" -- how stupid is that statement?

Then there's accuracy. How accurate is that 3 or 4, anyway? The teachers who piloted this program in the other building began to think that "this 3 is different from that 3; I want to show progress" and promptly began to use halfs.

Then came re-takes. If I give a ten-question assessment of N.CN.2, and a student is deemed nearly proficient on those ten questions, does that mean the student is proficient? Probably not. Let's test him again. He takes four more tests over the next few days, scores proficient all four times. His average is less than 3. To be exact, 14/5 = 2.8

So we compensate by telling PowerSchool to "take the most recent four scores" every time, thinking that we want to see improvement. The kid who scores 4 because he absolutely understands it and can use this knowledge to write a computer program to run a Lego MindStorm robot to draw the function on the hallway floor, still has to take the test three more times so PowerSchool can find an average of the "most recent four". And, just to be funny, he scores 4, 4, 4, and 0, and lets PowerSchool average that to "Proficient".

Remember that comment about needing all of the formative and summative assessments?  Formative work is simply assignments and quizzes that help your students learn. They try, and fail, then try again. You need to assess this work, but it doesn't count. All you want here is "Does the student understand N.CN.7?"

I said that formative be recorded but be worth  0% - enough to be noticed but not enough to matter. Of course, telling admin that something won't count means they assume that students won't do it, so it has to count. Those "in charge" at my school decided formative was 25% of the grade, summative 75%.

Thus, formative scores of 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, and 3 (because the student is still learning) and then summatives of 3, 3, 3, and 3 (all proficient, meaning this kid understands this topic) will result in a final mark of 2.7 (nearly proficient).

How does this make sense? It doesn't.

I'm certain that many of you are saying "Hey, the old way did most of this, too?"

Yes, Mr. TuQuoque.

My point is that we should have Proficiency-Based Grading without these pitfalls. If PowerSchool can't do it properly, then you should stay with the old grading methods until you get a proper gradebook.

Warning Signs that you're Doing it Wrong:

  • You find yourself using 3.5 because the student is "More Proficient than just Proficient" but not quite "Advanced Proficient"
  • You average what shouldn't be averaged.
  • You let the learning process alter the proficiency measurement. 
  • 90% of the marks in your gradebook are 0 because those standards aren't in this course.
  • Workarounds of any kind in PowerSchool.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Charter Schools, Surprise!

In Spending Blind: The Failure of Policy Planning in California Charter School Funding, Gordon Lafer -- a University of Oregon prof who also works for Oakland's The Public Interest -- finds "hundreds of millions of dollars ... spent each year without any meaningful strategy... on schools built in neighborhoods that have no need for additional classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools. In the worst cases, public facilities funding has gone to schools that were found to have discriminatory enrollment policies and others that have engaged in unethical or corrupt practices."

Sunday, April 9, 2017

On Relevance

John Spencer has this on relevance.
I despise the notion that urban, low-SES students have to analyze hip hop before they can "get into" poetry. It's not that I'm opposed to hip hop poetry (we do a few Def Jams poems and analyze the occasional rap song), but I disagree with the notion that poetry can only speak truth to coffee shop geeks or grad students in the literature department.
Which is a great point. I would argue that it is either relevant or not; if you feel the need to "make it relevant," you will fail and the lesson will fall flat. Students do not need to be conned by relevance and will resist any imposed relevance.

Sometimes Math is just math. It isn't Real World. It has nothing to do with answering "When am I ever gonna have to use this?"

It's a topic we're exploring, and we can follow it a ways down this path.

Two roads may diverge in the yellow wood, but fortunately we can follow both. In most of high school mathematics, there's no need to choose only that which is "relevant".

In fact, that's probably the worst option available.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

After a while you give up.


Consider the following scenarios:

A conference at St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vermont. The speaker is Professor Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert) and he is presenting his work with flipped learning to an audience of college professors and a few HS teachers. He speaks well, he is prepared, and he has given out material well in advance that he expects that everyone will have read, and questions that he expects everyone will have answered. Not surprisingly, everyone has. We discuss FL and his new book. We see what he has done with FL: what works well and why, and what doesn't and why. People work throughout the time, notes are taken, the food is lovely and the workshop is a success.

Or a Bio-Ethics conference at UVM Medical Center. Similarly, everything is straightforward, talks are given, information is presented, people listen and take notes. the food is lovely. The workshop is a success

A running theme throughout is the assumption of competence, treating everyone as if their time was valuable and that they were there because they wanted to be, that they wanted to hear what the speaker had to say.

Then, there's a conference geared towards high-school teachers.

Invariably, there's a bowl of candy. Your choice is used to sort you into groups. Most of the time, you need to stand up and hold hands with the next person and play "telephone" to demonstrate that ground-breaking idea that teenagers don't always listen attentively to your instructions.

There's a stack of post-it notes to stick to chart paper. Here's some colored markers. This presenter uses grade-school vocabulary and that sing-song voice one uses with 10 year-olds. That coordinator has 60 people crowd into a 20x20 foot space and then "Move to that side if you agree that that differentiation is a good thing, move to this side if you are wrong."

Did I mention that you have a Master's degree?

You'll be handed a paper copy of an article that was emailed out a few days before because "Not everyone is as advanced technologically as you" and couldn't be expected to have read anything ahead of time. I know, right? We can't expect anyone to know how to read something sent by E-Mail, apparently.

"Read this article and find the sentence that means the most to you."
 The "scribe" will write it on the chart paper.

"Find the phrase that means the most to you."
The "scribe" will write it on the chart paper.

"Find the word that means the most to you."
 The "scribe" will write it on the chart paper.

90 minutes later, you are done with a 3-page double-spaced article on the wonders of Common Core State Standards. You'd think we'd be further along in this process eight years after the introduction of CCSS, but no, we're examining a propaganda piece instead of developing course material to align with standards.

Did I mention that you have been teaching this material for 30-odd years?

Did I mention that the state of Vermont has decreed that all public school will be using the Common Core and that there's no particular reason to read about how wonderful it is?

I am not exaggerating. The whole thing would be demeaning and ridiculous but you get the feeling that the presenters aren't capable of anything more strenuous intellectually than 6th grade social studies -- your course work is gibberish to them.

"We're going to use the Gallery Walk protocol today."

"You have thirty-two minutes to discuss this topic in your groups of four. Person A will speak for 3 minutes with no interruptions. Following that, the table with remain quiet for 2 minutes to deeply consider what was said. Then persons B, C, and D will take 1 minute each to respond."

"There are easels around the room. Please take your Post-It note and attach it the the chart paper next to the statement that most closely matches your opinion."

You can resist only so much. After a while, you begin to go along with it all just to keep some progress happening. You know that if you ask a question, the gears in their heads will seize and jam and you'll never get anything done.

You dutifully watch the videos in the group, even though everyone is watching it starting at a different instant and the cacophony is making people twitch.  The video could have been viewed on our own time, but I guess not. In Bizzarro World, it's better to have us all use the limited time we have together to not work together. Again, it's not informative; it's a college kid's project touting the glories of the work we're going to begin doing someday.


Then, you'll write down what color the video was ... I chose "FUSCHIA" because it included lots of letters from the word I really wanted to use.

It becomes easier to let them ramble, to let them play their games of "Pass the ball of yarn back and forth and then it will represent the network of caring that we have here." You resign yourself to never getting anything actually finished during inservice. Proficiency-based grading isn't slated to be implemented for another three years because "some people can't even use Google Docs" and "I'm trying to teach the faculty how to fill in my template for learning" - you know we should be doing this more quickly but it's easier to just give up.

Let's call it: "Inservice Stockholm Syndrome."

Monday, April 3, 2017

Missing the Point

If most students learn better one-on-one, why then don't we always break class into groups or make learning partners?
Maybe because students "learn" from teachers and "practice" with other students?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Innate Skills

Every time we talk about "digital natives" and "Kids' innate skills with technology", we reinforce the idea that you've either got it or you don't, that if you are over thirty then you can't be good with tech, that if you're under thirty you don't need any training because you're simply imbued with an understanding of all silicon-based circuitry.

Fatuous self-indulgent hokum.

Let me state it for the record: There is no such thing as "Innate Skill" with technology. Kids have had more practice at playing games and chatting via FB, text, or IM, but nothing else. They are, on average, more comfortable holding a device but not better at using it for anything academic or work-related (unless that use includes playing games, or chatting via FB, text, or IM).

We are running counter to the ideas of lifelong learning, laying a downfield block on any need for a student to persist when faced with a computing obstacle. In fact, we are teaching them and they're learning.

We're teaching them to give up instantly.

We have had decades of computer games with puzzles and problems and every single one has a cheat code or "God mode" that is readily found on the Internet … meaning that every student has learned to try a problem for approximately 15 seconds and then Google the shortcut or cheat code.

But we still have to start with the simple problems.

College professors who shout from their Ivory Towers that "If you can Google the answer, you need to ask a better question" are foolish. Those who advocate for direct plagiarism in all things under the premise that "Research skills are important in the modern world" are delusional and flat-out wrong.

The simple and the intermediate questions are already answered somewhere, but we can't give up and jump right to the higher-order connections because the kids have not answered the simple questions yet -- Google is not answering. They don't have the simple understanding they need in order to make the higher-order connections and that critical thinking EduWonks are always going on about.

The simple questions that need to be asked first (formative) are being ignored for rote guessing, but we still have to find a way to ask them anyway.

The intermediate questions that form the bridge between formative and summative and require the mental processing to form long-term memory through understanding are being ignored, but we still have to ask them anyway.

This came up most obviously in my Intro Coding class. I gave some students selected problems from, wanting them to have a serious mathematical question to answer using spreadsheets.

Here is one of the early ones:
By considering the terms in the Fibonacci sequence whose values do not exceed four million, find the sum of the even-valued terms.

Instead of thinking through the issues and working towards an understanding of the tools at hand, they googled the question ("project euler question 2") and worked backwards from the MathBlog entries.

I learned quickly to change the targets and to not advertise the source of the problem. The Archimedes Cattle problem becomes much harder to solve when you don't tell them "Archimedes" or "Cattle" and change the wording from "1000 cattle" to "1500 horses".

If we ever expect them to do anything more complicated, we have no choice.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Evaluations are difficult everywhere.

One of the common complaints I hear is that of "not being able to fire bad teachers." It comes only slightly more often than "Teachers make too much money" and "Why are there so many bad teachers?" What we have here is a difficulty of evaluating teachers by administration, but I figure it's more than that.

It's that evaluation is a bitch, and it's not just teachers. It's everyone and everywhere.

When you complain that teachers make too much money, you are subconsciously saying that it's too much money for someone that bad, meshing the top-of-the-scale salary with the bottom-of-the-scale ability and assuming that it's the same person (it rarely is).

The anti-collective bargaining group wants to be able to pay the superstars at a superstar rate and pay the slugs with a pink slip.

The problem is, of course, figuring out who is who.

Years ago, I had a terrible dentist. He drilled holes everywhere and messed up my teeth pretty badly. There was no way to find out if he was bad or not before I sat in the chair. My current dentist insists that the teeth that are deteriorating under the old dental work would have done so anyway but it's stunning how well the tooth right next to it is doing under his work. Thankfully I have dental insurance and I'm getting a lot of this work done.

You will never hear a dentist talk ill of another - it's always your fault for not brushing or flossing enough.

Mrs. C. had an even worse dentist experience and has had to undergo a great deal of expensive repair. Lawsuits finally brought the guy out of his office but it turned out that the dental review board didn't dare state publicly that they thought he wasn't up to snuff. They didn't want "to turn on one of their own."

I've finally found a decent mechanic, no thanks to any review board or any kind of Craigslist or Angie's-list or State Cert Panel. Certifications line the walls of every shop in town, but mostly they suck.

When we look around, we find that every job is filled with average workers. Some are good and some are terrible but most are just okay. Teachers are no different.

A local first responder just got his fifth DUI.
Contractors are legendary for their variability and lets not make any cracks about plumbers. ;-)
The writers for the paper are so-so and don't always compare favorably with the students who write for the high-school section.
Politicians? We won't go there.
Doctors? Lawyers?  Used Car Salesmen?

How do we judge thee? Let me count the ways.

Teachers judge teachers very differently than admins do. Parents use a different yardstick and the taxpayer with no kids and an attitude about taxes and education still another.

Algebra in The RealWorld

Dan Meyer poses Three Questions about a problem from his professional development:
A youth group with 26 members is going to the beach. There will also be 5 chaperones that will each drive a van or a car. Each van seats 7 persons, including the driver. Each car seats 5 persons, including the driver. How many vans and cars will be needed?
"One, is the problem realistic? Would a real person need to solve this problem?
"Two, is the solution realistic? Would a real person solve the problem using a system of two equations?
"Three, in what ways does this problem help our students become better problem solvers?"

I think he's right, in many ways. The problem he's discussing is contrived and convoluted at best. It does have that "algebra-book word problem from hell" feel about it, but word problems in math textbooks are a funny thing. They have to straddle the line between being realistic and being useful in a classroom for teaching. When constructing a word problem or using one, you need to keep this line in mind. If the word problem doesn't fit your topic, you should change it.

I take a slight issue with the questions, though, in that I don't want to always be asking for a real-world solution that a real-world person would find for a real-world problem.

First, define a "real person". Do I pick me or a mathphobe? If you purposefully want a problem that takes creativity to solve, then separate it from the track you're in. Call it the Puzzle of the Week.

This particular problem doesn't have enough information to come to a single solution anyway - how about adding in the cost per mile of van and car, as well as an additional payment for driver responsibility. Are we trying to minimize cost or make sure all chaperones drive? Do we have a reason to not use the vans unless necessary?