Friday, December 26, 2014

Top Five Posts of 2014

       As I complete my first full year of blogging, here is a look at the top five posts of 2014.

       This was published on November 21st.  This post recalled the Apollo 13 moving scene when the Ed Harris character said, "This is our finest hour".  I compared this to educators today that view the exciting things happening in the world of education today.  I said that today's educators do amazing things in (sometimes) difficult situations.

       I do believe that is our finest hour and we are fortunate to be teaching in this exciting time!

       I was inspired to write this post after seeing a middle school student in my district give a speech titled, "Everyone has value."  She told a story of a one-hundred dollar bill.  She said, if she asked anyone of they would like to have a one-hundred dollar bill, people would say, "Yes" because everyone recognizes its value.  And if she were to take that one-hundred dollar bill and crumple it up and step on it and then ask people if they wanted it, people would still take it because we still understand and appreciate its value.

       Then she said that everyone has value and we should appreciate ourselves for who we are.  It doesn't matter how we look or the clothes we wear because all of us have value.  

       What a joy it was to listen to this middle school student talking to other middle school students about self worth.  This post really touched a soft spot in many of my readers.  She is a beautiful example of the many great things that take place in our public schools everyday.

       This post was a reprinting of an essay written by my daughter's middle school principal in the school newsletter.  In it, he talked about looking back at his life and wishing he spent more time telling his children how special they are to him.  The essay talked about appreciating every day and all of the people around you.  It talked about something we all want--no regrets in our later life.

       He said that we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously.  He said that we should do our best everyday and not worry if we make mistakes sometimes.  It was a bit of a tear-jerker essay and my readers real enjoyed reading his words.  I first published this post in May, but republished it recently and (once again) it got a good response.

       Principals are the most visible leaders in our public school system.  They have a huge responsibility.  This is the principal that everyone wants because he cares so much about his students. 

       This was the first of a three part series that I wrote in November of this year.  And it was the most popular of the three parts.  The series talked about the three things (in my opinion) that public schools must improve upon if we are to move forward with higher student achievement in the future.

       This part talked about the achievement of poor students in our public schools.  We know that poor students often have lower achievement than middle class and upper class students.  This has been the case for most of the history of public schooling in America, and we continue to struggle to improve this situation.  Still, we must do better by our poor students if we truly wish to see student achievement (overall) to rise.  Also, we have a moral obligation to help these most vulnerable of our student populations.

       After a successful Google Hangout session in front our our Mid-Maryland Mathematics Specialist Group back in March, I wrote this post about professional learning among educators today. No longer do we need to see people face-to-face to learn and to improve professionally.  Today we have so many options from journals to books to online courses to social media to learn from others.

       This was the most popular blog post in 2014 for my blog.  My readers really responded to this idea of using the tools available to us today to learn from educators and others from all over the world--especially via online tools such as Google Hangout.

       It has been a great learning year for me and a great year to talk about the great things that are happening in our public schools.  Thank you for the feedback from my readers and I look forward to more learning and more positive stories about our schools and our educational system in 2015!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


       What's so good about public education in America?  Everything!

       I guess this is my post of platitudes.  

       Years ago I taught in a middle school that was located in an area where people were struggling to make ends meet.  I met with a lot of parents during my time at this school; and spoke with a lot of parents on the telephone if they weren't able to come to the school.  At the time, I was not a parent.  And, so, I did not have the perspective of a parent.

       We know that schools are challenged to raise the achievement of children from poor families.  We had a lot of these children at this school.  I would hear teachers say that the parents don't care about education and that is why the children did so poorly.  But when I met with the parents, I would hear a very different message.

       The parents told me that they wanted their children to do better then they did.  They wanted their children to get a good education and a good job.  One parent told me that she would tell her children to look out of the window at the house (and neighborhood) across the street and she would say, "Is this where you want to live when you are an adult?"  She told her children that she made mistakes in her life and she didn't take her education seriously and that is why they were forced to live in a neighborhood that was not so nice.

       Education is everything.  Education provides opportunity and options for all that take full advantage of it.  Learning and the ability to learn and to solve problems is a skill that enables people to make decisions, to create, to explore, and to live.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Good Teaching is Still More Important Than Technology

     Lately, we've been spending a lot of time thinking about bringing more technology into our schools.  We say, "This is how students think."  "This is how we teach in the 21st century."  "Our students will be at a disadvantage if they don't use technology in the classroom."

       All of this may be true, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that newer and better technology is going to make our students smarter or better able to learn.  The single most effective tool that schools have to raise student achievement is the ability of teacher.  Good instruction trumps good technology every time.  The more we learn about educational technology; the more we come to understand that the technology is just a tool for learning--no different from the tools we've had in the past.

     Yesterday we had a meeting with mathematics supervisors in my state and during the meeting we had a Google Hangout discussion panel with three Educational Technology experts from around the country.  We asked them questions about different digital tools and what might be best for learning.  All of these Ed Tech experts told us that the tech is just a tool.  The classroom is still all about learning and the ability of the teacher is the most important tool for student learning.

     I think that this is a message that I should remind myself of from time to time.  It can be easy to get caught up in the quest for "stuff" and forget our core mission--to educate.  Technology should be used as we use a car--to get us from Point A to Point B.  We can have a fancy car or an old clunker; if it gets us to our goal, then it is serving our purpose.

Friday, December 12, 2014

We're Never Satisfied

       I was going to title this post, "We're Never Happy", but I didn't think that that would be a good title for a post about a blog that is supposed to talk about the good things about education.  (I guess I haven't caught on to the idea of catching-the-reader's-interest-with-a-provocative-title.  Slow learner [!].)


       A few years ago public schools had a rating system called Adequate Yearly Progress.  The idea was that we would measure the progress of schools by the percentage of students who were learning at or above grade level.  Each year the target (called the Annual Measurable Objective) for what was to be considered "Good" or "Making good progress" was raised a little bit.  The idea was that after 12 years, everyone would have a target of 100%--that is, 100% of the students in your school would be learning at or above grade level.

       People would say, "100% is unrealistic"; and the response would be, "OK. Let's make it 95% or 90%.  Just, tell me which students in your school will be the ones whom we will say 'It's OK with us if you don't learn at or above grade level.' "  Do you want to be the person who says this to a student?  Do you want to be the person who says this to their parents?

  Hence, we (as educators) are never satisfied.  We are the football coach that is always pushing his players to work harder.  We are the sales manager that is always pushing her salesman to sell more.  We are the artist that is always pushing ourselves to paint better.  We are the President of the United States who wakes up everyday unsatisfied because someone in the country is unemployed and wants a job.

       We have lots of successes around us all of the time.  But we never have 100% success.  And we care about everyone of our students; and we want all of them to succeed.  It's not that we aren't happy or aren't proud of our students who have succeeded.  We just want all of them to succeed.

       And that is What's So Good About Public Education in America...We are never satisfied until we figure out a way to help all of our students to succeed.  I believe we are doing better than ever before.  Through professional learning communities and strong leadership at all levels, we are seeing successes that we didn't see many years ago.  Through research about learning and research about how the brain works, we are working smarter than ever before.

       But we're never satisfied until we truly reach all students.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Digital Learning

       This is an exciting time to be in education!

       Educators today grew up before the computer age (or as the computer age was beginning) and we  are witnessing the transformation to the digital learning environment in our schools.  We will forever be able to say, "We were there when...
  • ...when our schools first got wireless internet
  • ...when our students were allowed to use digital devices for the first time
  • ...when we stopped using paper textbooks
  • ...when we first used "blended" resources and then went totally online
  • ...when we first allowed students to use cell phone as their "device" in school

       As with most major transitions, we are struggling with developing new rules and preparing for new unknowns.  Some of us are kicking and screaming our way to this new world of education; as other's of us can't run fast enough away from the past.

       And (I think) the public is struggling with what they expect from us (the public schools) as well.  Parents want their children to be prepared for the world that they will inherit.  But, at the same time, many parents are more comfortable with the old paper textbook coming home every night; "ten math problems"; "read a section from the Social Studies textbook and answer the questions at the end of the section."  They'll say, "That's what I did when I was in school...and I turned out just fine."  While other parents are calling their child's principal and asking what device is permissible under BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)--so they can get it for their child for Christmas or for their birthday.

       Yes, this is an exciting time to be in education.  Our schools are getting Chromebooks for students to use.  I met with a group of secondary mathematics teachers yesterday to talk about the new Techbook from Discovery Education.  Teachers use their school websites to communicate with parents.  And Google Apps For Education (GAFE) is all we ever talk about.

       The transition is happening now.  It's exciting!  It's great!  It's the right thing to do for our students.  It is the way our students live--now.  And it is the way they should be learning--now.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Students with Learning Disabilities Learn


       There was a time when students with learning disabilities were labeled dumb or weak or unmotivated or any one of a multitude of other names from people who didn't understand anything about learning disabilities.  Over my lifetime (I'm 51 years old), that has dramatically changed.

       I'm not a Special Educator, but today every educator knows something about students with disabilities.  This is because every single teacher in our public schools receives some training in working with students who have learning disabilities.  Over the past decade, schools have made an extra special effort to improve the achievement of students with learning disabilities because (under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001) schools were partially "graded" on their ability to educate students with learning disabilities.

       Today most schools have teachers who are specially trained to work with students who have learning disabilities.  These students are given Individual Education Plans that are backed up by federal law.  We now know how to diagnose specific learning disabilities and we are constantly getting better at addressing the educational needs of these special students.

       When we say, "All students can learn.", we mean "all students".  It is still a struggle for these students and a struggle for schools to find the best way to help them; but the successes of today are tremendous compared to the extremely few successes public schools saw decades ago.

       As a mathematics supervisor, I often say that it sometimes seems that we spend 90% of our time on 10% of our students.  And that "10%" is largely made up of students with learning disabilities.  Schools and school systems are always talking about strategies to help these students.  And when smart people get together and think together and share experiences, we usually end up with ideas that benefit students.

       The U.S. Department of Education has an office dedicated to helping students with learning disabilities.  In 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed by congress.  This law told our schools that students with learning disabilities are our students and it is our responsibility to teach them and to help them as much as we can.


       What's so good about public education in America?  Students with learning disabilities learn.  Everyday.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Clubs, Plays, and Sports

       The purpose of school is to educate.  The old saying of "Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic" still holds today.  Textbooks and grades and homework and studying and writing reports; school is about academics and learning and growing intellectually.

       Still, every teacher and every researcher will tell you that students who are involved in extracurricular activities at their school will tend to do better on the academic side of schooling than students who are not involved.

       From elementary to middle (and certainly in high school), schools offer a wide array of groups for students to join from sports to clubs to music groups and even academic teams (!).  Joining a group in school gives students a chance to see and play with different students who share a common interest.  Sometimes students who struggle with the academics and who would otherwise avoid coming to school will have great attendance because they want to be involved in their club or team--and they like to see their friends from these groups during the day in school.

       Many teachers enjoy leading such groups for the same reason that students enjoy being a part of these groups.  It gives teachers a chance to see different students and their own students in a different light.  And it gives students a chance to see their teachers differently.  In the classroom there are strict rules of behavior.  In a group that meets before or after school, there are still rules of behavior, but it's different without the desks and the front board and the pens and pencils.

       Students who become involved in groups outside of the school day are still learning.  They are learning the soft-skills that are very necessary in the world of work as well as in the social world.  Here is a short list of some of the benefits for children:
- Time management and prioritization
- Getting involved in diverse interests
- Learning about long-term commitments
- Making a contribution
- Raising self-esteem

       School is a place of learning and we know that students (and adults) learn inside and outside of the classroom.  We want our children to have many experiences when they are young to help them to decide what they like, what they don't like, and what they may be interested in doing later in life.  Extracurricular activities teaches students that life isn't all about reading, writing, and arithmetic.  All activities are linked to all other activities in some way.

       So encourage your children to be part of clubs and groups--including groups outside of the school arena, such as scouting.  Some of their fondest memories will be about the times they spent in these groups.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Invitation to Guest Blog

       My blog talks about the good things that our happening in our public schools.  Teachers and parents and students and administrators who spend a lot of time in public schools always have a lot of stories of successful students and hard-working people and teary-eyed, special moments.

       I want to invite you to share these positive stories on my blog.  It can be a couple of paragraphs, or it can be one thousand words.  Please feel free to add pictures and videos.  If you are interested, contact me via  Write "Positive Stories" in the subject line.  Or send me a tweet @cincottapeter.
       We know there is lots of great things happening in our public schools.  Let's hear what you have to say!


Friday, November 21, 2014

This is our finest hour

    Do you remember the scene in the movie Apollo 13 when guy said "It would be the worst disaster NASA's ever experienced." and the Ed Harris character said, "With all due respect sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour."?

       After all of the problems that had taken place over the past few days, he believed in his team at NASA and he believed that the astronauts would return safely to earth.  He knew that it would be the hearts and minds of the dedicated professionals at NASA that would ensure this outcome.

       Have you ever looked at your school or school district and said "This is our time to shine.", "We could be the best school district in the country.", "This is our finest hour."?

       Dedicated professional educators working together can do amazing things in the most difficult of situations.  We live in a world with answers to the most difficult educational questions.  Where we don't have clear answers, we have years of experience and mountains of desire to help all of our students to succeed within our staffs.  The daily decisions and the year-long goals of every teacher have the potential to achieve world-class results with every student body in every school in our country.

       Teachers live in a world that sometimes makes it easy to see the obstacles and hard to triumphs.  In the same way that students who are motivated to do well can overcome limitations in ability; so too can schools and school systems achieve great things when they believe that great things can happen.

       Of course it takes hard work and lots of collaboration.  Nothing in life worth doing comes easy.  But it can certainly happen.  Do you believe it?

       Is this your finest hour?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

We Must Do Better - Part 3

       This post is part three of a three-part series titled We Must Do Better.

       I love public schools; and there is a lot to cheer about when it comes to the ability of public schools to prepare students for their futures.  But there are three major areas in which public schools must improve if we want to see ourselves as providing a world-class education to our nation's children.

       1) We must raise the achievement of poor children.

       2) We must increase graduation rates.

       3) We must provide continuous, high-quality professional development to our teachers.

       It isn't that there aren't other areas that can and should improve in our public schools.  But improvement in these three areas are absolutely critical if we truly want our school system to be exceptional and of the highest quality for all of our students.


We Must Do Better

Part 3 - Continuous, high-quality professional development for teachers

       The subjects of the first two parts of this series--the achievement of poor children and the need to increase high school graduation rates--dealt with issues of which many people are aware.  They are discussed in journals and newspapers often.  The subject of this part is considerably less well discussed in the mainstream press and much less well known among the general public.

       When discussing elements of the education that influence student achievement, researchers agree that the ability of the teacher is among the most important factors.  The Center for Public Education has stated:
A growing body of research shows that student achievement is more heavily influenced by teacher quality than by students’ race, class, prior academic record, or school a student attends. This effect is particularly strong among students from low-income families and African American students.
Of course, just about any person who has ever had the experience of being a student can tell you that good teachers have helped them to learn much better than poor teachers that they have had.  Hence, there is very little debate that high-quality teachers in the classroom will lead to higher student achievement.  And so the next logical question is, How do we ensure that every teacher will be highly-able and highly-effective in every classroom?

       A good place to start is the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.  In January of 2013, the NBPTS celebrated its 100,000th National Board Certified Teacher.  After 25 years of looking at the teaching profession and looking at research on developing high-ability teachers, the NBPTS has established five core propositions that represent what "all accomplished teachers share in their expertise and dedication to advance student achievement."

       We know that the best teachers are constantly learning and constantly improving.  They build on past successes and even learn from past mistakes.  They constantly search for better ways to reach every student.

       Teachers need regular opportunities to meet with other teachers to talk about what they do with other teachers.  This professional learning community helps to build teacher ability--which, in turn, leads to higher student achievement.  Its hard work to constantly improve.  You can't merely give a teacher a book or article to read.  They have to think about students; think about classroom strategies; think about questions to ask students; anticipate answers and areas where students will struggle.  They have to try new things and make mistakes and try again and make new mistakes...and try again.

       As a nation, we need to help to provide all teachers with high-quality professional development.  And it needs to occur on a regular and ongoing basis.  It can't be one or two days a year.  It must be ongoing if we really intend to see improvement over time.  Its hard.  It costs money.  It can look different for different teachers or for schools that teach to different student communities.  As with so many things in life, professional development is understood to be necessary, but delivering it in a meaningful way is a challenge.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

We Must Do Better - Part 2

       This post is part two of a three-part series titled We Must Do Better.

       I love public schools; and there is a lot to cheer about when it comes to the ability of public schools to prepare students for their futures.  But there are three major areas in which public schools must improve if we want to see ourselves as providing a world-class education to our nation's children.

       1) We must raise the achievement of poor children.

       2) We must increase graduation rates.

       3) We must provide continuous, high-quality professional development to our teachers.

       It isn't that there aren't other areas that can and should improve in our public schools.  But improvement in these three areas are absolutely critical if we truly want our school system to be exceptional and of the highest quality for all of our students.


We Must Do Better

Part 2 - Increasing Graduation Rates

       Part 1 of this series was about the need to increase achievement among poor students.  I am going to begin this part by looking at the differences in high school graduation rates between poor students and non-poor students.  Take a look at this graphic from the organization America's Promise Alliance:

       This graphic shows that (in 2012) low-income students had a graduation rate below 80 percent in 41 states while non-low income students had a graduation rate below 80 percent in only 7 states.  As a nation, our graduation rate in 2012 was 81 percent.  (source: National Center for Education Statistics - The Condition of Education)  

       Our national graduation rate has been rising since the 1995 - 1996 school year when it was 71%. We are moving in the right direction as a nation, but we still have a long way to go.  Allowing 1 of every 5 students to leave school without a diploma has real and serious consequences.  These include:
  • Higher unemployment rates
  • Lower pay compared to people with high school diplomas
  • Greater need for public assistance
  • Greater chance of incarceration
  • Less effective parenting skills
(sources: here and here and here)

       Public schools clearly have many responsibilities.  We must do everything we possibly can to get more students to graduate from high school--especially poor students.  In decades past, completing high school was arguably less important than it is today.  However, in today's world and in the world that our students will inherit, people without a high school diploma have a greatly enhanced risk of lifelong struggles to avoid poverty and to experience a middle-class lifestyle.

     As a graduate student, I questioned the difference between students who dropout of high school and students who graduate in the bottom 10% of their class.  I hypothesized that such students who barely graduate were no better off than students who didn't graduate.  Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I discovered that weak high school graduates were still better off than high school dropouts.  That's right; even students who struggle to pass all of their courses in high school and eventually graduate are better off than people who never earn a high school diploma.  Why?  I think it is because there is something within these weak students that says, "This (schoolwork) is hard, and everyday I come to school I know that I am going to struggle.  But I am going to continue to come and to work and to finish high school."  I believe that students who (perhaps) hate school and always struggle academically AND still graduate have had a life experience that they carry with them in their futures struggles.

       This message of the importance of graduating from high school is logical and sensible to everyone working in education and probably to just about everyone outside of education.  But despite our best efforts, this message is not getting through to 19% of our youth.  And it is hitting particular groups of students worse than others.  Once again, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (see top of page 13):

Group                  Graduation Rate (2012)
Amer. Indian/
Alaskan Native                68%

Hispanic                           76%

Black                                68%

Poor students              well below the national average (see America's Promise)

     These focus areas will help to improve graduation rates among our most vulnerable groups of students:

  1. Adress chronic absenteeism
  2. Improve middle schools
  3. Re-engage youth who have left school
  4. Provide more and better adult and peer supports
       We must do better at raising the high school graduation rates of our students.  It is important to our nation; it is important to every young man and woman in our high schools.

Monday, November 10, 2014

We Must Do Better - Part 1

       This post starts a three-part series titled We Must Do Better.  I love public schools; and there is a lot to cheer about when it comes to the ability of public schools to prepare students for their futures.  But there are three major areas in which public schools must improve if we want to see ourselves as providing a world-class education to our nation's children.

       1) We must raise the achievement of poor children.

       2) We must increase graduation rates.

       3) We must provide continuous, high-quality professional development to our teachers.

       It isn't that there aren't other areas that can and should improve in our public schools.  But improvement in these three areas are absolutely critical if we truly want our school system to be exceptional and of the highest quality for all of our students.


We Must Do Better

Part 1 - Achievement of Poor Children

       It's easy to find data and information on the topic of Low Achievement Among Poor Students.  (see  Few professional educators and very few education researchers disagree about the effects of poverty on a child's education.  And children living in poverty in the U.S. will soon become the majority of our public school students.

       The list of obstacles for children living in poverty is long and difficult to overcome.  (Which is why school system continue to struggle to solve this problem.)  Here's the short list:
  • higher absenteeism
    • when poor kids get sick, they tend not to go to the doctor; then they get sicker and it takes longer for them to get well
  • higher dropout rates
    • poor kids need to work to make money for the family
    • poor kids see school as "not for them"
  • academically behind from the start
    • poor kids tend to have parents that didn't go to college or didn't finish high school
    • poor kids have less books in their home and parents read to them less than their non-poor peers
    • poor kids also tend to actually hear less words prior to entering school which adds to their academic shortcomings
  • less than 30% of students in the bottom quarter of incomes enroll in college and less than 50% of them graduate.
(source for all of these bullet points is here)

       In the past decade, public schools have shone a light on the academic achievement of poor students--which is a good start.  We cannot address a problem unless we recognize it as a problem.  But the next step--improving the achievement of poor students--is still a struggle for most schools and school systems.

       The Educational Testing Service (ETS) Center for Research on Human Capital and Education put out a report in July 2013 that laid out seven strategies that education policymakers can address that would have an effect on the problem of increasing achievement among poor children.  There strategies are:

  1. Increasing awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences 
  2. Equitably and adequately funding our schools
  3. Broadening access to high-quality preschool education
  4. Reducing segregation and isolation
  5. Adopting effective school practices
  6. Recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher workforce
  7. Improving the measurement of poverty

       These strategies require a national response. This is something that can happen in America.  I know this because it has happened before.  Civil Rights for African Americans; Women's Right to Vote; Reduction of the Prevalence of Smokers; wearing seat belts.  All of these things were (at one time in America) considered impossible dreams.  Yet a national effort that lasted decades led to each of them becoming a reality.

       We can do the same thing with the education of children living in poverty.  We can and we must.  We have a moral responsibility to help our most vulnerable citizens.  We must do better than we are doing now.  For us as a country; and for every individual citizen.  We can begin to see the reduction of this problem in our lifetime; and the elimination of this problem in our children's lifetimes.  

       This is a huge problem that can be fixed.

       We must do better.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Should we abolish Grades in our schools?

       Why do schools assign grades?

       Grades and grading are such natural parts of our educational system, it seems almost silly to ask this question.  It's like asking, Why do people walk?, or Why do have eyes?  Still, if we think about the meaning and purpose of grades, I would say that most people have an answer to this question.

       Grades provide a measure of success in a student's learning.

       Grades tell us our ability in a particular academic area.

       Well...maybe that is what grades are supposed to do, but (in reality) do grades serve other purposes?  If you are a teacher, have you ever given a student a bad grade because the assignment was handed in late?  Have you ever taken points off of a test because a student was talking during the test?  In these instances, the grade was determined (at least partially) based on a student's behavior and not on the student's ability.

       As a student, have you ever received a good grade and learned nothing about the thing you were graded on?  Have you ever received an "A" on a test based on what you were able to memorize?  In these instances, the grade didn't represent ability; it represented compliance.  You did what you were told to do.

       As a parent, do you ever question the good grades that you children earn?  Do you encourage your children to get good grades, or do you encourage your children to learn?  Do you view grades as a sort of competition...Your kid vs. the other kids...Who is going to win?

     I think about grades and grading a lot.  A quick Google search found other people who think about grades and grading in our schools.  One of my favorite people on Twitter Starr Sackstein. Also Alfie KohnJen Rubino, and Education Stormfront.  I worry that grading is taking over our education system.  I worry that learning--the joy of learning; the desire to learn--has fallen into a (far) second place.

       There is so much pressure on students to get good grades.  Do grades mean what they used to mean?  Do grades reflect a student's ability?  Does anyone care if grades reflect a student's ability?  Grades don't have to be the enemy; but (I think) the desire to seek good grades over the desire to learn is dangerous.  We give students a false sense accomplishment when we say that they have "earned" grades and they didn't.  We give parents a false sense of their child's ability too.  How many students get great grades in high school and then cannot make it to their sophomore year in college?  Surely, this isn't our goal.

       Why do schools assign grades?  Why (should) schools assign grades?  And, can we lessen the importance of grades and increase the importance of learning?

       I hope we can.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Great Learners make Great Teachers

       In education, collaboration is powerful.  Teachers who seek out advice and ideas from multiple sources--within their school, within their school district, on twitter, via journal articles, etc.--probably have the most engaging classrooms.  Teaching is not a profession that expects perfection in the first year.  Indeed, it takes three to five years to develop the skills necessary to become a truly effective teacher.

       Hence, schools that allow for and encourage time for teachers to meet, are really encouraging teachers to constantly improve.  Our best teachers are always looking to improve and always searching for better ways to reach their students.  That's why teachers who love learning become great teachers.  They study how students develop ideas and they help students to build on what they know.

       The TEACH100 website has recently developed the Teach100Mentors.  They have honored me by allowing me to be part of this special group.  I am always glad to impart whatever wisdom I may have collected over the past 20+ years that I have been in education.  But I truly appreciate hearing and learning from others that are part of this group.  My learning will never end--there's so much to know.

     Similarly, our best teachers know that they have so much to gain by hearing from others.  As a younger person, I used to think that only people older and more experienced than me could help me to improve.  But today (at 50), I know that professionals of all ages help me to learn and to grow.

       Thank you to all of our teachers.  And thank you for continuing to teach each other.  It's more than important; it's necessary as we build a community of professionals who will lead the next generation of students who will (in turn) live and work in our futures.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Common Standards

     Well, I've held out this long.  I've tried to stay away from politics in this blog.  But I've talked about grades and grading; I've talked about national testing; and I've actually talked about Common Core before.  However, this time I want to share my thoughts about Common Core and address some of the counter-arguments that (in my opinion) are not sufficient to justify a school district or a state to refuse to use them.

      I support the use of the Common Core standards for English/Language Arts and for Mathematics.  I also support the common standards for Science that are coming to our public schools.  I support these standards because they were created by experts; they were vetted by experts; and they give all 50 million U.S. students a fair and equitable education.  We all know that education throughout the U.S. is not uniform because individual state standards vary widely.  Common Core sets a level playing field for all.  Additionally, these common standards are consistent with those from countries that produce students with the highest academic abilities.  We all love competition and we all love to win; so I would think that we would all want our students to be able to fairly compete with anyone in the world for 21st century jobs.  Common standards allow us to do this.

     So here are some bad reasons for turning away from common educational standards:

1) I'm a Republican and Common Core is a Democrat thing--so I'm against it.

     We live in a partisan country.  Some people are strongly Republican and some are strongly Democrat.  If a cause aligns to a particular political party, then the loyal will support it no matter the cause and no matter the details.  But Common Core is not a Democrat thing and it is not a Republican thing.  It came from the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.  Just as No Child Left Behind was not a Republican thing (Edward Kennedy co-wrote NCLB), Common Core is not a Democrat thing.

2) Common Core is too hard.

     Compared to the academic standards in some states, Common Core will appear to be more rigorous, less rigorous, or about the same.  Since different states had different standards in the past, this comparison will look different to people in different parts of the country.  But the goal of school is to teach and prepare students for the world that they will inherit.  The goal is not for students to get good grades.  We want our students to be successful, but too many of our students have been very successful in high school only to fail in college.  That is a national shame on our nation.  Common Core is trying to prepare students for both higher education and for the word of work.  If it is hard, then students are being well prepared for their future.  Isn't that something we all want?

3) It was implemented too fast.

     States were given four years between state adoption of the Common Core standards and the actual implementation of the Common Core standards.  I think that a lot of people feel that the Common Core came all of sudden--one year we didn't have it, and the next year we did.  There was a lot of planning behind the scenes that the general public may not have seen.  This is why it seems to be so sudden to some.  If there were ten years between adoption and implementation, some people would feel the same way.  Why should we wait to give our students a world-class education?  And why give up on it just because it was fast?

     Also, public education is often accused of moving too slow.  Fifty million students and three million teachers comprise a very large group; and it is often slow for this group to change.  If we drag out the change and take our time, it might never happen.  We have to "rip off the band-aid".  Now is the time

4) (This bad reason hasn't occurred yet, but it will towards the end of this school year.)  See, everyone did poorly on the test.

     This year, for the first time, the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests will be administered to students in grades 3 to high school.  In all likelihood, overall student scores will be low
compared to their class grades in math and English/Language Arts; or compared to past standardized test grades.  And there will be all sorts of renewed calls to cancel Common Core.

     In fact, whenever a new standardized test is administered, scores are often low at first and then increase over time.  Remember, the content of the courses are more difficult, so naturally the tests will be more difficult and some students won't be able to rise to that challenge as well as other students.  Once again, the goal of school is to teach and help students to be prepared for their future.  We are not helping students by giving them easy tests and then telling their parents that they are smart and then having these same students struggle after high school.  Colleges will recognize these new tests that same way they recognize the SAT and ACT tests.  They have to be the sort of tests that really prepare our students for college.

     We have a real chance to improve the education of millions.  And it could happen to this current generation of students.  We can say that we were there when U.S. public schools took a bold new step toward becoming the new standard in world-class education.  This is education's "moon shot".  Let's make a real difference; let's give our kids the best!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Improved and Improving Students Abilities in Mathematics

     Over the past generation (or two), the mathematics abilities of students in the United States has improved.

     Take a minute and let that opening sentence sink in a little bit.  We are constantly hearing about how poor our nation's students do in mathematics compared to other nations; sometimes we hear the same comments compared to previous generations in the United States.  But the truth is, we are improving when in comes to mathematics abilities of our students.

        The graph (above) depicts the average NAEP mathematics scores for 4th and 8th grade students since 1990.  NAEP stands for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  It is sometimes referred to as the Nations Report Card.  Among many other subject areas, NAEP periodically tests the math abilities of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students throughout the United States.  This test is given to a representative sample of students in every state.  It is a "low-stakes" test and only aggregate results are determined.  (That is, there are no individual student results reported for NAEP tests.)

     We can see the overall increases over this time period on this graph.  While this is good news, it is also fair to say that students in the United States need to do much better than they are currently doing in mathematics achievement if we ever hope to rival our counterparts in other some other nations.  The ability of American students to reason and problem solve in mathematics is lacking.  Even students who appear to do well in math classes--as indicated by their grades--sometimes struggle in higher level math classes that require reasoning and understanding.

     So while we are improving in overall math ability over the past couple of generations, we need to continue to improve (and quicken the pace of improvement) if we want our students to be successful in world that they will inherit.

     This requires a change in the way mathematics is taught in United States.  We need to de-emphasize "grading" and re-emphasize "learning".  Students (and parents) who are only concerned about grades sometimes overlook the main purpose of schooling--which is learning.

     So let's keep the positive trend in rising math ability going.  We must.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Caring Adults in Every School

     I always hear about the value of relationships in education.  When a teacher builds a strong relationship with her students, her students tend to have better achievement.  I've also (often) been reminded that some students do not have the positive influence of a responsible adult in their home life (or their outside-of-school-life) and YOU may be that only such person in that student's life.

     I think that teachers who take these point to heart are able to make a difference in the lives of their students.  I also think that they help to create a learning environment in which students are comfortable and more able to do their best all of the time.  And it makes sense...Wouldn't you rather have a teacher who cares about you as a person than having a teacher that barely knows your name?
     I am a mathematics supervisor.  So often I see students who have always struggled in math class and they begin each school year thinking that they won't do well.  Some teachers view this attitude as "The students don't like me." when the real issue is "The students don't like math."  (Actually, I think the real issue is, "The students don't like being in an environment where they are pretty sure that they are going to fail and/or not understand on a regular basis.)  Teachers who are able to establish a good relationship with these students enable them to try and work hard and do their best everyday.  They may not get the "A" every time, but they change their attitude toward the subject (and maybe their attitude toward their own abilities) and things improve.

     Just like in life, a little caring goes a long way.  Fortunately, most teachers get into the profession of teaching because they already are very caring people.  They want to work with students and they want their students to be successful and they do everything they can to make that happen.  Think about your favorite teacher...Why is he or she your favorite?  Chances are, it has something to do with the way they treated you and chances are, they were probably very nice to you and made you feel that you were capable of doing anything.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Lower Dropout Rates

     According to a recent article from the Pew Research Center (see article here), the U.S. high school dropout rate dropped to 7% last year.  It has been going down since 2000 when the national dropout rate was 12%.  Educators know that earning a high school diploma may not be a ticket to live-long success.  But without one, you are pretty much guaranteed to experience many struggles in your life--not the least of which would be trying to build a middle-class life for you and your family.

     Hispanic and Black dropout rates have significantly declined since 1993.  Hispanic student (today) comprise 25% of our nation's public school students.  In 1993 their dropout rate was 33%.  Today it is down to 14%--and it has been steadily declining since 1998 despite a 50% rise in the population of young Hispanics in our country.  The dropout rate for Blacks has declined from 16% in 1993 to 8% today.  Black youth represent 16% of our public school students.

     Public schools do everything they can to keep students in school and to encourage completion of their high school diploma.  We encourage students to become involved in school teams and school clubs.  Students who are involved in school are less likely to dropout.  (I have to be honest, I can't find data on that last statement.  But I've heard it from many sources over the years and it makes sense--to me--to be true.)

     We also know that when students can connect with an adult in the school, they are more likely to stay in school and to finish high school.  Once again, relationships is the key.

     This is a major win for our public schools and even more of a win for our students--and for our country.  An educated society leads to less people in jail; less people on welfare; more people working; more taxes being paid; and so on, and so on, and so on.  It all begins with education.  Lowering the dropout rate is very, very good news.

     The next hurdle to clear is raising the college graduation rate--which is well below 50%.  But that's a topic for another post.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Change What You Do (or else improvement will never happen)

     It seems we are constantly hearing and reading statistics that say American students are not achieving very well.  We rank low in reading and mathematics compared to other industrialized countries.  A quarter of our children never graduate from high school and the graduation numbers are even worse in college.  Our poor children and learning disabled children and minority children have lower rates of achievement than our white and economically advantaged children.

     All of this is true.  And we don't like it; and we want it to change.  We want all students to be successful; we want all students to graduate from high school; we want all students to be grow to be capable, responsible adults.  But this is a difficult problem--as is evidenced from the years and years of data with very little improvement on these fronts.

     Something has to change.  We cannot keep teaching the same way we have always taught and expect different results.  Teachers give their best everyday.  It isn't a matter of "not trying" or "not doing our best".  We have to do things differently.

     If I knew the solution(s) to this problem, I would tell you.  The best I can do is offer my ideas:

     (1)  We need to instruct students in a way that they respond to; we need to know what they "get" and what they don't get--so we can help them.
     (2)  We need to use more technology in a more effective way.
     (3)  We need to be more concerned about learning and less concerned about grades.
     (4)  We need to use valuable classtime for addressing student questions and much, much less classtime forcing students to complete worksheets.  (If they already know how to do the work, why force them to show us again and again and again.  If they don't know how to do the work, why force them to do ten problems that they can't do.)
     (5)  We need to increase student engagement every minute of every class.  There should be less teacher-talk and more student-talk.

     What are your five best ideas for changing teaching?  If you could do anything in your classroom to help students to learn better, what would you do?  We have to do something different if we want different (and better) results.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Faculty Lounge of the 21st Century

     I am taking a MOOC (That is a: Massive Open Online Course) on Coaching Digital Learning (check it out here).  Recently they held a twitter chat and I said that the PLN's--Personal Learning Networks--are like the faculty lounge for the 21st century (see tweet here).  This tweet got a lot of retweets and favorites; a lot of people seemed to agree with this comment.

     I know that a lot of educators are on Twitter and I've heard (read) many say that they learn a lot from others on Twitter.  But, it is not just Twitter.  I believe that professional learning today and in the future will come from sources outside of our schools and school districts.  And many of these sources will be regular teachers with full class loads who also happen to be very well connected.  These are the teachers who tweet and blog and write books and speak at conferences and are always very willing to share their experiences.

     Back in August (2014) I planned a Professional Development session on digit learning and all of the speakers came to us via Google Hangout.  From the comfort of their own homes or offices, four companies spoke and interacted with 250 teachers.  We could see them and they could see us.  We spoke to them and they spoke to us.  But it was done without them having to board a plane and come to our school district.

     I am going to do it again in December as I plan a meeting with all of the Mathematics Supervisors in Maryland.  This time the topic is Using Technology in the Classroom.  The speakers will be influential people that I have discovered via their tweets and blogs.

     This is how we learn in the 21st century.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Three Wishes for Education

     As I begin my 27th year in education, I would like to look ahead and think about the three biggest things that I would like to see in education in the United States.  These things may happen before I retire (still a long way off), they may happen before I die (hopefully a longer way off [!] ); but I hope they happen.  So rub the lamp; here are my three wishes.

#1) Poor students learn just as much and just as well as rich students

     We are constantly bombarded with data that shows poor students having lower achievement than their richer peers.  We (in education) know why this happens.  It's not just that they lack money for adequate, nourishing food.  Students from poor families come to school in kindergarten already behind their richer peers.  They have less books in their home.  They have a higher percentage of parents who didn't finish high school and/or never went to college.  They live in more dangerous neighborhoods compared to rich kids.  They don't always have a space at home to study or to do homework.  They don't always have an adult in the home who can help with homework.  When they get sick, they don't go to the doctor as much or as quickly as richer kids; so they get sicker and they miss more school.

     The list goes on and on.  And it's all true.  Poor students have many, many disadvantages when it comes to schooling and learning.  Add to this list that all of their teachers went to college, graduated from college, and probably (most of their teachers) were never poor--since the percentage of poor students going to and completing college (still) remainings embarrassingly low for Americans.  So many of their teachers have little or no experience at what it's like to be grow up in a poor household.

     And so, for all of these reasons (and more) poor students in America have lower achievement than rich students.  I feel that America's public schools have a moral responsibility to these children to see to it that they get a great education and that they succeed in education.  It is our responsibility to prepare these students for the world that they will inherit.  It is our responsibility to see to it that each and every poor student does not continue the cycle of poverty but ends poverty for themselves and for their children.

     It is my number one wish that our public schools do a better job with our most vulnerable students.  In fact, we must do better.

#2 Learning is more important than getting grades

     It probably isn't fair to say this, but a lot of the time I feel that so many of our students are more concerned about getting grades than they are about learning.  I hope that isn't true for the majority of our students, but it certainly seems to be true for many of our students.  We created a monster when it comes to grading and it is out of control.

     Students stay up late and worry endlessly not about whether or not they will learn something, but instead, whether or not they will get this or that grade.  It has led us to a system where many students are great at (what I call) "playing school".  They do what they're told, they read the book, they turn in their homework, they take the test, they get the grade.  And one week later they couldn't tell you anything they learned from that unit of study.

     This is a major reason why so many students begin college and so few finish college.  Heck, this is a major reason why so many students do great in (say) Algebra 1 and do lousy in Algebra 2.

     We have to do a better job and emphasizing the learning and de-emphasizing the grading.  Students need to be rewarded for actually learning.  When they do, they will feel a great sense of accomplishment and will celebrate the learning--and care less about the grading.

     We don't give grades when children learn to ride a bike or play the piano or do a magic trick or hit a baseball.  Yet children find great enjoyment in doing these things--all without grades.  My second wish is for students to find enjoyment in learning--in conquering a difficult subject or a difficult learning task--and succeeding.

#3 All students graduate from high school

     The high school graduation rate in the United States is around 75%.  (Note: In our colleges, the graduation rate is even lower.)  This is a serious problem for our nation and is certainly a serious problem for the people who don't have a high school diploma.  The statistics for people without a high school diploma are awful.  Higher rates of unemployment; lower wages; higher percentages on welfare; poorer health; and (worst of all) a much higher chance that their children will not graduate from high school.

     There have been studies that tell us that many high school dropouts leave school for non-academic reasons.  They don't feel a connection to the school or they don't  feel as if any of the adults care about whether they stay in school or leave.

     We have to take a hard look at what we can do in our schools to keep students in school and to help them to graduate.  I know that this is being done in a lot of places--this isn't (unfortunately) a new problem.  But our economy in the United States is not kind to people who don't have a high school diploma.  This is a problem that can be solved and it will improve the lives of millions of young adults as well as improving the communities all over our country.

     These are my three wishes for education in the United States.  What are your three wishes?  Let me know.  Leave a comment or use the Twitter hashtag #ThreeWishesForEducation.

Public Schools and Choice

       Is it true that public school kids and their public school parents don't have choices?  I'm sure that I will expose my igno...

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