Saturday, June 18, 2016

Preparing Our Students for College and/or Careers

       "College and Career" has become the new buzzword in American high schools.  We want to prepare students to be ready for the social and academic demands of college; and--for students who go to college and don't go to college--we want to prepare our students for the demands of being in a working environment.  This has become a rallying cry for our P-12 school system because of so many surveysstudies (also see this study) and articles that have touted how unsuccessful our schools have been at accomplishing this goal.

       Certainly many recent high school graduates (and their parents) can speak from personal experience.  They completed high school and received their diploma, but they couldn't do the same in college.  Among students that began college in 2007, less than 40% completed their Bachelor's degree by 2011.  Even if you give them another two years the college graduation rate is still very low--59.4% (source).  Employment rates for high school graduates may (certainly) be affected by general conditions of employment in society, however employers often have serious concerns about the readiness that recent high school (and college) graduates have for the workplace.  So what should be done to better prepare students for college and careers?

       First let's define the problem that is faced by our public schools.  In a (very) broad sense, we need to be everything for everyone.  We need to prepare the rich kids and the poor kids, the learning disabled and the academic superstars, the sports kids and the theatre kids and the band kids.  And we need to prepare them for community college, for 4-year colleges, for selective and ivy-league colleges, as well as for certification in cosmetology and welding and mechanics.  Additionally, we want them to be able to express themselves in writing, verbally, and online.  We want them to know that it is important to be on-time, to be polite, to be a learner (for jobs and for college), to be wise with money and credit, to make good decisions.

       Hence, our public schools are tasks to develop rules and policies and requirements for everyone even though everyone isn't following the same path after high school.  So we have to find a balance between what's necessary for most or all students with what's probably really, really helpful for some of the students.  For instance, mathematics is important, but should we require all students to take and pass (and know) Algebra 2?  Financial Literacy is important, but do middle school students need to learn about home mortgages?  Finding the right balance can be tough.

       The other issue is that too many students (and parents) view high school as just a list of requirements to complete.  The idea of "learning" is too far removed from the idea of "getting-a-grade".  How do we help students to see the value of what they are learning in the midst of a system that constantly "rates" students with grades?  Too many people feel that school is merely another one of life's competitions in which there are few winners.  How does this prepare students for their life after high school.  Therefore, our P-12 schools are also tasked with helping students to appreciate the learning and to increase their understanding of their abilities to learn.

       Some of this can be done with requirements from school districts and from state education agencies.  But, it seems to me, that some of this requires a societal view of school as preparing students for after school.  We need parents to support this view; we need television to support this view; we need law-makers to support this view.  College and career readiness is a big job and it requires a big response from all of us.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Is Your Child Advanced in Mathematics?

       It seems that, more than in other subjects, the placement of students in advanced mathematics is often a contentious issue. Elementary schools have different policies about placing students in classes that teach math at grade levels that are above the student's current grade.  Middle schools often offer high school mathematics classes, but some stop at Algebra 1 and some go beyond Algebra 1.

       The ability of a school or school system to determine a student's math ability (or "advanced" math ability) can be hard to do with great accuracy--especially when we are trying to make this determination with eight and nine year old children.  It's not enough that they are getting good grades in their math work; math is more than mere calculation.  And higher-level math is all about reasoning and thinking and understanding.  The kid that is good at memorizing, isn't always good at (say) the abstraction that comes with manipulating variables and graphing a line.

      Yet, I think that (too often) we get a false impression of a student's math abilities from merely looking at their elementary grades on the report card.  Sometime students are placed in advanced classes and at some point in middle school they start to struggle because they were pushed to learn higher and higher levels of math too fast.  On the other hand, there are certainly students who are highly able in mathematics and they should be encouraged to take more challenging classes that are commensurate with their abilities. So goes the dilemma of trying to identify the truly highly-able students from those that only appear to be highly-able.

       One method that helps is using multiple data points.  When students breeze through their multiplication tables and get "A's" on their report cards, but do poorly on standardize tests or on unit tests, this should be a cause for concern.  Maybe this student is good at memorizing facts and procedures and not good at understanding concepts.  This student is successful at procedural assignments (such as long division with whole numbers), but may struggle with more abstract assignments (such as a math task with multiple answers).

       Of course, we know that it is OK for students to struggle as they learn new concepts (see previous blog post), but many students view this struggle as a sign that they aren't good at math; or a sign that the teacher is doing something wrong.  We don't want students to struggle because they have been inappropriately placed.  Truly able students (and Growth Mindset students) don't mind the struggle because they enjoy the journey toward learning.  Also they understand that it is OK if they don't get it the first time.  Continual effort will eventually pay off.  Students who never tried hard to do well in math and then are placed in an advanced math class and then are upset when they don't get it the first time...these may be the students that we are pushing too quickly.

       Is your child advanced in mathematics?  How do you know?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Reflecting on the School Year

       Did I do all I could to help my students to learn?
       Did I improve as an educator this year?
       Did I encourage my quietest students to participate?
       Did I emphasize "learning" over "getting-a-good-grade"?
       Did I communicate my expectations clearly?
       Did I establish good relationships with my students?
       Did I call on every students everyday?
       Did I help my reluctant learners to do their best?
       Did I work with parents to help my struggling learners?
       Did I push my highly-able students to do better?
       Did I model a growth mindset for my students?
       Did I provide appropriate and timely feedback?
       Did I demand the best from all of my students?
       Did I engage my students in their learning?
       Did I collaborate with my colleagues?
       Did I try something new in the classroom this year?
       Did I share my knowledge with other teachers?

       Teaching is an imperfect profession.  We get better every year; but we always have room to improve.  We connect with our students, but there are always some students that we can't reach.  We learn new strategies to address different learners, but we struggle to succeed with everyone.  Since we work with people (students) and not robots, every year is different--every day is different.  What worked last year doesn't work this year.  The lesson we spent two hours preparing usually leads to good student understanding, but not always and not with every student.

       The need to reflect on our practice and to improve every year is necessary.  Students change, principals change, resources change, the world changes.  We can't do the same thing for ten or twenty years.  We have to change too.  And when our results are less than we desire, we can't expect better results unless we change.  I often hear people say that there is no manual for being a good parent; the same is true for teachers.  But there are lots of books and courses and journals and EdCamps and conferences and colleagues for teachers to turn to get ideas and suggestions.  Experience helps; and our best teachers are those people who consistently seek to improve--those that reflect on their successes and failures of the past and yearn to improve.

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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