Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Challenge of Educating Poor Students - Part 3

       American Public Schools face many and varied challenges.  Funding, equity, and public support to name a few.  On the top of this list of challenges, I would include: The Achievement of Poor Students.

       It is easy to understand the underpinnings of this problem, and yet it is extremely complex to succeed in overcoming this problem.  The problem stems from two indisputable facts:

  1. Poor students consistently demonstrate lower achievement than their non-poor peers.
  2. The proportion of poor students in our nation's public schools is over 50% and is growing.

       I will examine this challenge from three perspectives:

  1. Poor students who have succeeded in our schools
  2. Understanding the special and different needs of poor students 
  3. Expert advice on successfully educating poor students

The Challenge of Educating Poor Students - Part 2

Expert Advise on Successfully Educating Poor Students

       Despite the great difficulties that our public schools have had in turning the tide of student achievement among our poor students, we actually have a lot of knowledge about best practices and effective strategies for achieving this goal.  People like Paul Gorski, Eric Jensen, and others have done extensive research on this subject.

       However, a mere listing of effective strategies severely undermines the great difficulty that is faced by teachers to engage in these strategies on a daily basis.  As with any long-term problem, we need a long-term solution--and that requires effective and ongoing training.  We mustn't assume that this is somehow "common knowledge" for all teachers.  It isn't.

       The first step is recognizing that we have this problem.  Our accountability measures over the past 15 years (in the United States) has helped in this respect.  Where, in the past, the low achievement of our poor students was often "hidden" in the aggregate data of the "whole school"; since about 2003, our public schools have been required to report the achievement of poor students separately.  This practice has shone a light on the serious under-achievement of our poor students.  While I am not convinced that the general public is aware of this problem, it is fair to say that more people know about it today than was the case in the recent past.

       So until we develop a national strategy for increasing the achievement of poor students in America, here are strategies that every teacher can do:

  1. Good Relationships:  As with any students, when teachers and students get to know each other and enjoy a positive relationship with each other, achievement generally is pretty good.  For poor students it is important that they feel welcome in school and in each classroom.  Even if the student may have a negative attitude toward the subject of the class, he/she does not have to have a negative attitude toward the teacher of the class.  Get to know your students; ask them about their day; talk about things other than the subject matter before and after class time.  Students want to make their teachers proud.  Students will try harder to do their best if they know that their teachers cares about them as a person.

2.  Basic Materials: Paper, pencils, pens, rulers, textbooks, etc. should be available to all students all the time.  While we want students to be responsible to have these items with them at all times, it is not necessary to stop the flow of the classroom just to give a lecture about bringing a pencil to school everyday.  Most teachers have a system of allowing students to borrow pencils.  It's not a big deal.  But when a student is scolded for such minor things, it adds to their negative attitude toward school.

3.  High Expectations: We want all of our students to succeed and we want all of our students to do their best.  However, sometimes in our (well-meaning) efforts to achieve these goals, we set tiny, minor expectations for our students and then we guide them every step of the way and then we (unnecessarily) praise them for basically doing what they were told to do.  I think teachers do this because they either do not think that their students can achieve at high levels, or they don't know how to help them to get to those high levels.  This, indeed, is the hard part of teaching and (indeed) is the very root of our difficulty in raising the achievement of poor students.  Teachers need to identify those best practices--within their subject area or grade level--that is the most effective with poor students.  We have to raise expectations and allow students to struggle sometimes in their journey toward learning.  Merely doing the minimum is not going to help our poor students.

       The education of our nation's poor students can no longer be pushed aside as a difficult problem that effects a few.  It is now a major problem that effects a majority of our students.  And it has long-term ramifications for them and our society as a whole.  We must do better.

       We must do better.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Challenge of Educating Poor Students - Part 2

       American Public Schools face many and varied challenges.  Funding, equity, and public support to name a few.  On the top of this list of challenges, I would include: The Achievement of Poor Students.

       It is easy to understand the underpinnings of this problem, and yet it is extremely complex to succeed in overcoming this problem.  The problem stems from two indisputable facts:

  1. Poor students consistently demonstrate lower achievement than their non-poor peers.
  2. The proportion of poor students in our nation's public schools is over 50% and is growing.

       I will examine this challenge from three perspectives:

  1. Poor students who have succeeded in our schools
  2. Understanding the special and different needs of poor students 
  3. Expert advice on successfully educating poor students

The Challenge of Educating Poor Students - Part 2

Understanding the Special and Different Needs of Poor Students

       People who grow up in a middle class (or higher) home environment may take for granted simple life experiences that poor students and their families never experience.  Well-meaning teachers may have never experienced living in a poor environment and working with poor people until their first year in the classroom.  Particularly since school teachers must have a college degree and it is rare for poor people to earn a college degree, teachers are generally from a middle class (or higher) background.  

       Here is a short list of challenges for most poor students:

1) Regular, quality medical care
       Middle class families generally have a regular doctor for their children.  When children are sick, they go to the doctor and they get better in a couple of days.  When poor students get sick, they don't have access to a doctor or to medicine; this makes them sicker.  When they are too sick to come to school, they generally miss more school days because it takes them longer to get better.  And if they come to school when they are sick, it is harder for them to concentrate on their school work.       

      A lack of medical care leads to other issues that are more prevalent among the poor such as untreated ear infections and hearing loss issues, greater exposure to lead, and a higher incidence of asthma (source).  All of these health issue contribute to higher absenteeism and lower engagement with class lessons at school.

2) Small vocabulary when they start school

       Students from poor households hear and use considerably less words than students from middle class households.  This puts poor students at an academic disadvantage from their first day of kindergarten.  Students who are less able to use words to express their feelings and to explain their thinking because frustrated and soon shy away from activities that involve reading because they don't want to appear less able than their peers.

      Opportunities to increase each students' personal vocabulary must be of primary importance for poor students.  We know from multiple studies that students who are not reading on grade level (or above) by third grade have a reduced chance of graduating from high school. (source)  This is a significant risk factor for poor students.  In 2013, the overall national high school graduation rate was 81.4%  but the rate for poor students was only 73.3%.

3) Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

       Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, and her book Mindset has taken the education world by storm over the past few years.  And so it should.  She has proved that students who believe that they are not smart will refuse to try to succeed.  This is the belief of the "Fixed" mindset; the one that says, "I have a fixed capacity for learning and no matter how hard I try I won't get any smarter."  In fact, nobody has a brain that isn't capable of learning more.

       But poor students are more likely to believe in the Fixed Mindset because they are less likely to see the many opportunities that will be offered to them in the future beyond high school and college graduation.  Poor students need to be praised for their effort and teachers need to point out when their thinking has led to a great solution to a problem.  Students with Fixed Mindsets believe that they just got lucky whenever they get a good test grade.  They need to understand that it is their effort and their learning that led to that good test grade.

       Teachers at every level (elementary, middle, and high school) can help poor students to succeed.  But we have to understand the deficiencies that they bring to school and we cannot label every lack of effort as "laziness".  Some poor students do succeed; they are the lucky ones.  They probably had great teachers and caring parents or caring authority figures at home.  Overcoming these deficiencies is a very difficult job for our public schools; but understanding the problem is certainly the first step.

       All teachers should receive some training in the education of poor students.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Challenge of Educating Poor Students - Part 1

       American Public Schools face many and varied challenges.  Funding, equity, and public support to name a few.  On the top of this list of challenges, I would include: The Achievement of Poor Students.

       It is easy to understand the underpinnings of this problem, and yet it is extremely complex to succeed in overcoming this problem.  The problem stems from two indisputable facts:

  1. Poor students consistently demonstrate lower achievement than their non-poor peers.
  2. The proportion of poor students in our nation's public schools is over 50% and is growing.

       I will examine this challenge from three perspectives:

  1. Poor students who have succeeded in our schools
  2. Understanding the special and different needs of poor students 
  3. Expert advice on successfully educating poor students

The Challenge of Educating Poor Students - Part 1

Poor students who have succeeded in our schools

       Every public school can point to a student who comes from a poor family and (yet) defies the odds and does well in school academically.   Or...Can they?  Unless you know the student's background, it might be hard to find these students in your school.

       The outward signs of poverty are relatively easy to see:  dirty clothes or the same clothes day after day; same, single pair of shoes everyday; no extra school supplies.  And then there is the attitude--opposition behavior, attention disorders, excessive absenteeism.  Taken alone, these are not necessarily signs of students from poor homes, but taken together there can be assumptions of the student's home lives based on these visible factors.

       Unfortunately, it is so common for poor students to have low academic achievement that when we have a poor student who succeeds in the academics of school we (often) don't see that child as being from a poor background.  So what is it that propels a poor student to achieve where his/her peers don't?  And what can we learn from poor students that succeed that can help us to raise the achievement of other poor students?

Vocabulary Acquisition

       According to a study from 1995, from the age of 7 months to the age of 3 years, 90% of the words used by children were words used by the children's parent (or primary caregivers).  Parents with higher educations used more words than parents with less education AND higher educated parents talked to their babies and toddlers more than less educated parents.  This creates an "Achievement Gap" among very young children before they even begin Pre-kindergarten.

       But poor students who succeed in school often come to school with a good vocabulary because they were blessed with parents and/or caregivers that shared with them the (totally free) gift of words when they were very young.  Babies and toddlers can learn words from parents reading books to them; but they also learn from simple talking and singing.  So families that cannot provide a lot of children's books to their children can still provide the precious gift of words by simply talking to their children every day.


       The story of Karvel Anderson is the best definition of grit that you will ever find.  Karvel's story is one of a child who grew up with many challenges but never anything that made him give up on life.  He says that adversity was good for him because he always wanted to prove that he can do anything.

       Most students from poor backgrounds succumb to the narrative that they will never succeed because it seems like the world is against them.  Every where they turn, some one is taking away an opportunity or refusing them something.  Grit is a personality trait in which a person strives to achieve goals regardless of the obstacles that may stand in the way.

A Supportive Adult

       Poor student who succeed usually have an adult in their life that is there to encourage them when times are tough.  It might be a parent, but it also might be a teacher, a grandmother, a school counselor, or a coach.  While some students seems to have the ability to overcome just about any situation, most poor students need someone to guide and help them through the toughest times.

       As schools and teachers look to increase the achievement of poor students, I believe that we have to understand that the world they live in can seem very different than our world.  We need to understand how their lack of resources and supports is a great hindrance to their academic success.  And we have to find a way to fill in the supports that they are lacking so that we can help them to value education and to be successful in school.


Monday, April 13, 2015

I Shouldn't Be Here - Again

In preparation for my three-part series on the urgent need to improve the achievement of poor students in America's public schools, I am re-printing a blog post that I wrote in January 2014.


I Shouldn't Be Here

     I am enjoying my 26th year working in education this year.  In that time I've been a middle and high school mathematics teacher, a high school mathematics chairperson and a district teacher specialist.  I've worked in the research and accountability office and I am now a supervisor of secondary mathematics--overseeing the mathematics program for 20,000+ students in my school district.  Still, had things worked out the way they were "supposed" to, I should have never done any of this.

     You see, I grew up in a lower-middle income family--which is an overtly nice and formal way to put it.  I have a brother and two sisters.  I was among the first generation to benefit from the Free and Reduced Meals program; a benefit I received from elementary to high school.

       When I was in 10th grade in 1980 the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) did a national survey of students from my class.  They followed up with us ten years later and this is what they found:  Only about 5% of the students in my economic family situation graduated from college.  (Good news: NCES did the same study with the 10th graders from 2002 and found that 14.5% of the low-income students from that class ended up with a college degree by 2012.  That's better than 5%, but still much too low.)

     So, had I followed the path that most of my peers did, I should have never went to college; and I certainly should have never graduated from college.  Which means, no teaching job, no promotions, and certainly no Master's degree later on.  Hence, I shouldn't be here.

     The reasons I AM here are many.  One of the biggest is simply public education.  My K-12 teachers never told me I couldn't go to college; they never told me I couldn't do whatever I wanted to do.

       I also had the good fortune of two wonderful parents who struggled to raise four children and to make ends meet while generally keeping a positive attitude.  I often say that "If we were poor, I never knew it."  Still, the ability of my parents to pay a greatly reduced price for lunch for four children was an incredible benefit to my family.  Who knows how much less my parents would have been forced to provide for us had this not been an option?

       And so, with help from my teachers in our (free) public school, and encouragement from home, I was able to attend college, graduate from college, and enjoy the occupational benefits of a college education--as is the case of my three siblings as well.

       Still, I always felt like I was one of the (extremely few) lucky ones.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Learning is not Pass/Fail

        Years ago I worked with a colleague in the research office of a major school system.  He always tried to find a way to make research and statistics understandable to the average person.  He once talked about the infamous College Acceptance Letter.  I'm not sure if this is still true today, but years ago you would apply to multiple colleges and then you would wait and wait and wait for a letter from these colleges that would tell you whether or not you have been accepted.  When the letter arrived, you would open it and there would be one or two paragraphs of "welcome" and "thank you" messages.  And, finally, somewhere halfway down the page you would get to the part that you really wanted to know:  Accepted or Not Accepted.

       My colleague suggested that the most important information in such a letter should come in the very beginning and the other stuff can be written farther down in the letter.  Better yet, he suggested, they should just send a letter with a smiley face or a frowny face!  That would be the simplest way to communicate the message and everyone would understand what it meant.

       I wonder if people outside of education often view learning in the same way?  "You get it."  or  "You don't get it."  We sometimes use the phrase "Filling your brain with knowledge."  I wonder if some people imagine learning to be this (sort of) empty skull or glass that is filled by the teacher.  When it is full, then you have learned it and you got it and you will always have it.

       In reality, learning is much more of a process with a somewhat hazy finish line.  While there are certainly facts that students can memorize (5 + 5 = 10; July 4, 1776 is the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; Paris is the capital of France), actually learning is much more of a process that develops over time and requires thinking and discussing and trying and failing and trying again--and learning from the mistakes.  Learning is much more like a baby learning to walk than it is like a switch that is off or on.

       We should think of learning as being more of a continuum and less of a Yes/No, Pass/Fail dichotomy.  After all, it isn't so much that we want our children to "pass" in school; what we really want is for our children to "learn" in school.  Employers don't care what grade you got on a test in high school.  They care about what you learned and are able to do.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Poverty Should Not be a Barrier to Education

       The Statue of Liberty quote (written by Emma Lazarus) says it well:

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

       At the turn of the 20th century, the golden door was the gateway to America for many people from Europe and other far-off lands.  Today, (I contend) this golden door is our nation's public schools.  We accept all students and we teach all students.  But when we look at the achievement of our students, we see two distinct groups:  poor students (who now make up a majority of our public school students) and non-poor students.

       I just read a great article in the April 2015 issue of District Administration (by Tim Goral) that talks about confronting the crisis of educating low-income students in our public schools.  I'm calling it a "crisis" because of the following two facts:

  1. Low-income students make up half of the population of public school students in the United States.
  2. Low-income students struggle to maintain acceptable academic results.
These two facts are largely undisputed among educators and education researchers.  Taken together they express the most major issue facing our public schools today and (perhaps) our society in the future.  While our students from middle and upper-income families tend to show good achievement throughout their  P-12 schooling experience, the growing numbers of students from poor families continue to demonstrate bleak achievement results.  This is evident on the NAEP results as well as just about any state-level results (and local results).

       I believe that this is the "Sputnik" event of our time.  However, I fear that while this is a well-known problem among educators, it is not a well-know problem for people outside of education--particularly middle and upper-income people outside of education.  We need change on a national level; a national effort.  We need advocates throughout the country to make the general public aware of this problem.

       I believe that our nation's schools have the people and the tools to turn around this "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."  (quoted from A Nation at Risk)  This is a difficult and complicated problem that we must solve.

       And I am certain that we will solve this problem.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

We Want Students To FINISH College

       The importance of a college education is well established.  People understand that a college education will increase the likelihood of entering into a satisfying profession and earning a higher income.  Indeed, college enrollment has risen significantly over the past 15 years.  In 2011, 21 million people attended U.S. colleges compared to only 15.9 million in 2001.

       We have won the battle of convincing students of the value of going to college.  But our goal isn't really for more students to "go" to college; our goal should really be for more students to "graduate" from college.  On that metric we are still far from claiming victory.

       Rates vary depending on the source of the information, but overall it is fair to say that merely getting accepted to college is absolutely not a guarantee of graduating from college.  In fact, many colleges have such a terrible graduation rate among students that have been attending for four years that they prefer to publicize their SIX YEAR graduation rate rather than their four year graduation rate.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the six-year graduation rate means the percentage of students who are able to complete a four-year program within six years [!] .  Even this extra time only raises the overall college graduation rate to around 50%.

       Can you imagine the outcry from the public, from our government, and from our students if the high school graduation rate was only 50%???  Yet, this fact is not widely known by the public.  Little more than half of our students that begin college actually finish college.  And if you look at the data by race, the news is even worse.

       Of course there are many reasons for why students drop out of college.  A Harvard Study cites the following reasons:
- not being prepared for the rigors of academic work
- inability to cope with the competing demands of study, family, and work
- cost

       Our public schools are in a constant battle with students (and sometimes with parents) over the dueling pressures of Learning versus Getting Good Grades.  Some students care little about actual learning and only want to do what is necessary to earn a good grade.  While their teachers are pushing them to learn, to understand, and to use the learning they've acquired to learn more.  I believe that a major reason for the low college graduation rate is students who do enough in high school to get accepted to college, but don't enough (in high school) to gain the knowledge and the discipline they need to succeed in college.

       We must do better on this front.  We must continue to stress the importance of true learning and true understanding of P-12 content.  We have to lessen the importance of grades and increase the importance of real learning.  In the end, it's not that we want students to attend college; what we really want is for students to graduate from college.

Friday, April 3, 2015

No More Worksheets!

       Here is a very simple test to determine the effectiveness of your child's mathematics teacher...

Question 1: Does you your child's mathematics teacher assign a lot of worksheets for homework and classwork?

If the answer is YES - Not a very effective teacher.
If the answer is NO - Likely to be a more effective teachers.

       This idea is a major shift in thinking for a lot of people--both for teachers and for non-teacher-parents alike.  Some would say, "How can you say worksheets are bad?"  Or, "I used worksheets when I was in school and I turned out fine."  And the internet is certainly full of sites with pre-made worksheets that are frequently downloaded and used by teachers.  So (I guess) the next argument is, "If so many teachers are still using worksheets, then why are they so bad?"  Here's why:

#1: We want students to understand the mathematics that they are learning.  Worksheets tend to encourage students to blindly follow procedures without knowing why they are doing what they are doing.  Students might get the answers correct, but if the problems were changed slightly they wouldn't know what to do because they never learned the "Why" of the procedures that they were using.

#2: If students know how to do something, then why do they have to do it 20 times?  It seems to me that if they can do it two or three times, that would be a sufficient amount of proof that they have learned the skill.  If a students does not know how to do something, then why are we forcing them to do something 20 times that they cannot do?  Have you ever completed a worksheet only to find that you made the same mistake on all 20 problems--and got everything wrong?

#3:  Worksheets are not engaging.  In Robert Marzano's book The Highly Engaged Classroom, we learn that students are more able to learn new concepts when they are engaged in the lesson.  He offers many strategies for increasing student engagement.  Worksheets tend to be boring and repetitive and very discouraging in terms of engaging students.

#4: We want students to communicate and collaborate with their peers during the learning process.  As students struggle with a new topic, it is valuable for them to know to ask questions and to try different approaches to solving a problem.  We call this Productive Struggle (also see here and here and here).  When students do worksheets, they are often working in isolation.  They are discouraged from talking at all with other students.  This creates a classroom in which students are expected to listen to the teacher lecturing and only to the teacher and then to learn the new content based on what they heard.  We know that this is not an effective method for learning (see The Learning Pyramid graphic).

       One reason that teachers like worksheets is that they are used to help control student discipline in the classroom.  Some teachers are not comfortable with students talking to each other and asking each other questions because they are concerned about losing control of their classes.  But we know that when students are engaged in an activity, they are focused on the activity and not distracted by anything else.  There is a benefit to allowing students to talk with each other.  And there are many strategies that can be used to do this in a productive and organized manner in the classroom.

       One of these strategies is the use of Math Tasks.  Math Tasks encourage critical thinking, student discussion, and questioning from students that lead to better understanding of mathematics concepts.  Many sources offer great Math Tasks for teachers to use.  Here are just a couple of them: Inside Mathematics and Mathematics Assessment Project.

       The goal of our public schools is learning.  We must use the best thinking we have to encourage thinking and learning among our students.  We don't want students to merely "complete" courses, we want them to learn, to understand, to retain knowledge, and to build upon their learned knowledge.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Learning, Smoking, and The Long Arc of Change

       When I think about the huge job of improving education outcomes among our students (especially our poor students) in America, I think about the amazing turn-around in behavior about smoking over my lifetime.

       It is nothing short of a modern-day miracle that smoking has declined so dramatically in the United States over the past 50 years.  In 1965, 42.4% of U.S. adults were smokers.  By 2003, that number was cut in half and in 2013 we were down to 17.8%.  And, of course, our population has risen quite a bit over this timeframe from 194 million people in 1965 to over 320 million people today.

       No one in the United States in 1965 would have ever believed that Americans would give up their love for smoking so dramatically.  Even with today's relatively low rates of smoking, nearly 70% of current smokers want to stop smoking.  It is nothing short of amazing the way this addictive behavior has changed in the United States in just a couple of generations.

       I believe that our public schools can look at this incredible event, this long arc of changed behavior, and that we can use it as a lesson for tackling the equally difficult task of improving the educational outcomes of our students.  We can examine the efforts that took place (and continue to take place) that convinced people that smoking is bad for you; and (perhaps) we can undertake similar efforts in our public schools.

       First of all, there was a national effort to inform the public of the dangers of smoking.  This began with the first surgeon general's report that provided proof that smoking was bad for your health.  Of course, there were lots of people of that didn't believe the contents of this report.  I'm sure there were people who pointed to relatives and friends who lived well into old age and smoked their whole life--and, therefore, refused to believe that smoking was bad for your health.  But more and more information came out from public and private sources about the dangerous health risks of smoking and eventually it became very hard for people to believe that smoking wouldn't harm their health.  As smokers died from lung cancer and other diseases, people began to link these deaths to their habit of smoking.  This gave people a personal connection to the ill effects of smoking and it convinced them to never smoke or to quit smoking.  As they grew up and had children of their own, this knowledge of the evils of smoking was passed on to the next generation.  And so, what started as a national effort from government sources, slowly became a combined effort of government and private resources that worked together to bring down the rates of smoking in America.

       I believe that a similar combined effort is underway in our public schools today.  We have a government that believes in the value of education and is dedicated in improving the education of our citizens.  We also have many private efforts underway that are striving to do the same.  We also have segments of our population that don't believe that education is important.  As with the smoking example, they point to friends and relatives that quit school in eighth grade and grew up perfectly fine.  But (as with the smoking example), we also have generations of parents that have regrets of not doing better and trying harder when they were in high school.  They look at their peers who went on to college or some sort of vocational training and now have higher-paying jobs.

       I believe that we can change the behavior of Americans toward the value of education--and all of the hard work that this entails--over the next generation.  I believe that we can see a country with higher high school graduation rates and higher college graduation rates.  And when this happens, we will reap the benefits of a more educated society.  We will see less crime, less people on welfareless obesity, and a strong economy.  And I believe that this will happen within the lifetimes of our current high school students.

       We can do it.  We have done it in other areas of our society and we can do in education too.  We must do better and we will.

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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