Tuesday, December 27, 2016

College Not For All

       I'm going to start by saying that I went to college, my wife went to college, my siblings went to college, I want my children to go to college, and everyone I work with went to college.  I'm a big fan of "going to college".  College provides specialized knowledge in a specific field of study; often by people who are experts in that field.  There is a benefit to going to college, but since this post is about "not going to college", I'll just say that the benefits of college are well documented.

       So why am I (a lifelong educator) writing about not going to college?  Because public school desire to teach ALL students.  All students are welcome in our public schools.  We take all students.  We don't have some sort of litmus test that permits some students to enter our public schools and denies others t enter; we take everyone.  And in doing so, we have an obligation to teach all students.  This means that we teach the students who are college-bound as well as those that are not.  This leads to the dilemma of all public schools: Are we preparing students for college?  Are we preparing them for the world of work?  Or, Are we doing both?  (And if the answer is the latter, then How do we do that?)

       We know that all students won't go to college.  (source)  We also know that some will go to college and won't finish college. (sourceHere is a slideshow of 25 jobs that don't require a college degree--although nearly all (or actually all) of these jobs require some sort of education and/or training beyond high school.  So the question remains, How do prepare the college-bound students and the non-college-bound students at the same time?

       The simple answer is that this is a complex problem.  It is a problem that (in my opinion) requires multiple options and pathways for high school students.  It is a problem that does not lend itself to one-size-fits-all solutions.

       It is fair to say that all public schools recognize this need to prepare students for their lives beyond high school--whatever they may be.  But it is also fair to say that some requirements are aimed (more) at the college-bound students than at the non-college-bound students.

       My solution views these two subgroups of students as much more alike then different in terms of the skills and knowledge that they need for both college and work.  Clearly, reading and basic mathematics understanding is needed.  By "reading", I include understanding the context of what is being read; and I include reading and understanding non-fiction and technical manuals.  Our civilized world requires reading.  Medical reports, insurance papers, legal documents such as wills and mortgages all require a level of reading in which people can read and understand.  By "basic mathematics", I include understanding and calculating things such as sales tax and interest income.  People should be able to gain information from a chart, graph, or table of numbers.  People need to know what a percent means and what fractions mean.  Calculators can do the calculations, but people need to do the "understanding".  Beyond reading and mathematics, I believe that a good understanding of other typical high school subjects is needed to help people gain an understanding of the world and the people around them.  These include science, history, art, some computer skills, health, and knowing a foreign language--which is extremely common outside of the United States.

       Beyond these academics, I believe that the rules and regulations that take place in a high school and in the classroom should instill in our students a sense of right and wrong as well as a sense of how to exist as an adult in society.  When my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher told us that everything they do has a purpose.  What may look like "fun" or "downtime" to the non-kindergarten-teacher observer, has a purpose.  Similarly, everything in high school should have a purpose.  Whether you are going to college or work, you need to be on time, you need to be polite, you need to listen.  You need to learn from others and you need to be able to work with others.  You need to know that sometimes you'll get some help to do things and sometimes you have to do things on your own.  You need to be responsible and you need to take on responsibilities.

       It seems to me that when employers complain about young people in the workplace, it isn't so much that they lack reading and mathematics skills--although I hear this as well.  It is more that they lack the ability to accept responsibilities, to understand written and verbal directions, and to follow through on important tasks.  These skills are needed for the college students also.

       College isn't for everyone.  But public schools and their graduation requirements and daily rules and regulations are for everyone.  Learning is a lifelong skill.  It doesn't stop on graduation day.  We want all students to succeed regardless of the path they take after college.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Do Our Brightest Students Get What They Need?

       Public schools are good at educating the average student.  We are good in the education of above average students.  We spend a lot of time, money, and energy on the education of below average students; and while this is a difficult population in terms of bringing them up to grade-level standards, we've made numerous improvements over the years to help these students.

       This leaves the most limited students and the very brightest students.  For the purposes of this post, I'm defining the very limited as the academically weakest two to three percent of our student population and the very brightest as our top 1% in terms of academic ability.  We have laws and programs and policies to help the most limited of our students.  They may not receive a high school diploma, but we help them to learn as much as possible during their school years so that they can have a full, happy, and satisfying life.  We help them to go as far as they can in terms of skills and abilities.  But when it comes to our very brightest students, I'm not sure that we can say the same.

        Once again, I'm not talking about the typical advanced students in our public schools.  We have programs and/or courses for them that are different from the typical "on-grade-level" programs.  And we do a good job with these typical above-average students.  I'm talking about our most advanced students.  These are the students who don't just stand out in their class, they stand out in their school.  They represent the 1 out of 100 (or more) that excel far beyond the typical advanced students.

       I am a mathematics supervisor.  Mathematics is the one subject that often gets the most attention when the topic of our very brightest students arises.  Parents and policy-makers alike strive to identify these students and endeavor to find a way that best meets their needs.  However all too often our attempts to do this lead to an inadequate solution known as "Acceleration".  Acceleration (in this arena) usually means that these very bright students get the same mathematics content and the same mathematics instruction as everyone else; they just get it at an earlier age and/or they just go through this same content at a faster pace than other students.

       The problem with this solution is that it does not recognize the true abilities of these students, and it does not encourage these students to think harder or reason more.  It doesn't challenge these students to grow and to further develop their strong academic skills.  Instead, this solution only pushes these students to go faster.  Sadly, this solution is often praised by parents and policymakers because our society views "faster" as "better".  We see everything as a competition and those that go faster and jump higher and earn more credits and produce higher grade-point-averages are viewed as the "winners".

       The real danger of inappropriate acceleration for our brightest students is that we place this "speed" over our prime objective of education; which is to actually learn.  Students lose the chance to develop a deep understanding of the content that they master.  They lose the chance to do what they are most able to do which is to question conclusions, discover new solutions, and to create and develop new ideas.  Strategic acceleration could accomplish these goals if the instruction is appropriately geared toward the needs of our brightest students.

       In practice, our public schools struggle with the top 1% because there are so few of them.   We don't have enough of them to make a "class"; sometimes there may not even be one in every grade.  They are spread out throughout a school district.  So we have to figure out a way to provide instruction that meets their needs while still attending to all of our other students.  This is a challenge--and (perhaps) is part of the reason that mere acceleration is so often employed as the "solution".  We also struggle to understand the best way to help teachers to provide this ideal instruction for these students.  So much of public education is geared toward helping our average and weak students; and less attention is geared toward our brightest students.

       The National Association of Gifted Children is a respected organization that addresses the needs of our brightest students and provides resources to help school districts to tackle this problem of providing for these students.  We need to do more and we need to do it in a smarter and more responsible way.


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is It Possible to Help Students Too Much?

       How much is too much?

       Can you care too much?  Can you love too much?  Can you help too much?  When it comes to students and learning, sometimes teachers and parents help too much.

       Their hearts in the right place, but goals are short sighted.  Teachers and parents help too much when they tell students the answers in an effort for them to complete the classwork or the homework.  They seek the short-term goal of compliance with an assignment.  But they don't see the longer-term goal of helping students to learn how to learn.

       Educators have an expression for the results of too much help.  We call it, "Learned Helplessness".  It's when students learn to purposefully not try too hard because they know that a parent or a teacher or someone will eventually give them the answer or do the work for them.

       Since most students (and some adults) don't see or understand the benefits of learning, they believe that school is only a series of assignments that they have to complete because they are told to do so; or because they get a grade for completing it.  Therefore, they don't see the need to try hard and fail sometimes and learn from these failings and try again.  "Learning" isn't their goal; compliance is their goal.  Therefore they only seek to complete the worksheet, or answer the questions, or write the paper; because they only seek to get the grade.  And if the student can find someone else to do this--and the students basically gets the same reward (the same grade) either way--then the easy route is to let someone else do it.

       Of course teachers and parents want their students (and children) to succeed, so sometimes they provide this help in an effort to help them to get success.  But there is a terrible downside to too much help.  When the parent isn't there and the too-much-helping teacher isn't there, the child (maybe now a young adult) isn't able to solve problems on their own.  Since there was always someone there to do the hard stuff, the young adult is now either helpless or forced to learn how to learn new things at point in life when mistakes are more costly.  One area where this is often seen is the first year of college.  Students who haven't learned how to struggle to learn something new and expect someone else to do all of the hard stuff for them, fail and drop out of college.

       School is about learning; and it's about learning how to learn.  We aren't helping our kids by doing the work for them.  As teachers and as parents, we have to try to worry less about "the grade" and much, much more about the learning.  There is no benefit to children who graduate from high school but aren't able to think for themselves and make decisions by themselves and solve their own problems.

       Yes, you can help too much.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Teaching to the Test Is Not a Bad Practice Anymore

       Education has this phrase:

Teaching to the Test

In the past, this phrase was a derogatory phrase that meant (at the extreme) the only thing we do during class time is to prepare students to take a test.  This implied that we never taught additional topics that weren't on the test, and that we never taught at a higher rigor level than what was required on the test.  The other (more broad) implication was even worse; We didn't concern ourselves with whether or not students actually learned anything, our only concern was that they got a high score on a test.

       This sort of Teaching to the Test probably did occur at many public schools, but I would hope that teachers (and schools) never lost their desire to encourage learning over mere test grades.  Indeed, teaching at a higher rigor level than was required on a test would serve the dual purpose of (1) helping students gain a higher level of conceptual understanding, as well as (2) helping students to score well on a test.  So we had incentives to go beyond the content that appeared on a test.  

       Today we see teaching to the test much differently.  First of all, we are now seeing standardized tests that require much more than merely a single-word, or single-number answer.  Today's test require students to demonstrate a high level of understanding.  This means that the days of memorizing formulas or (even worse) memorizing shortcuts and tricks are over.  Student who are only able to follow procedures and answer low-level questions will not earn high marks on today's tests.  Secondly, I feel that there is a renewed interest in teaching students how to engage and reason and think and argue and prove.  These are the skills that lead to a better conceptual understand over and above the old get-the-right-answer sort of teaching that took place in the past.  In this world, Teaching to the Test is the same thing as simple "Good Teaching".

       I know that the issue of standardized testing has become as controversial and divisive as the abortion issue to some people.  I found a great article on the Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing that may provide additional information to those folks that only see one side of this issue.  Regardless of your views, all people want their children to do well in school and (I hope) "doing well" means learning and not getting-good-grades for most people.  The primary objective for our public schools is certainly learning.  If students aren't learning, than there's no point in coming to school.  

       Today I am seeing a resurgence in helping teachers to explore classroom strategies that help students to learn concepts so well that they can teach them to other students.  Gone are the days of rote memorization. That sort of teaching isn't good enough if we want to prepare our students for the world of work and further learning in their futures.  Teaching to the Test is good if it helps our students to be better problem solvers.  

       Teaching to the Test is just good teaching.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Changing Math Attitudes

       I'm borrowing the title of a Facebook group to use as the title for this post.  The group called Changing Math Attitudes is composed of math teachers and other educators and (I suppose) other folks that seek to share experiences and expertise in the effort of helping students (and adults) to see mathematics as something beautiful, sensible, and doable by everyone.

       The first step in improving abilities in anything is to believe that you can do it.  We want students to understand that mathematics is not a secret code to which only a privileged few have access.  There is no "math brain".  Everyone can understand mathematics and it will take a group effort by many people in many circumstances to effectively change the view of mathematics that so many people hold.  This is the view that says "I'm not good at math."  (And so many people freely say this out loud when they would never say that they can't read or that they are bad at Science or History.

       I especially enjoy reading the posts from this group because they are generally politically agnostic.  It isn't a group that is pushing a political agenda one way or the other.  And this makes sense too because the "I'm bad at math." attitude is not coming from one group of people who members of any single political persuasion.  All sorts of people hold this view and so we are talking to all people when we say that we want to change attitudes about mathematics.

       Any math teacher will tell you that most of the students in their classes that struggle to understand the math would do so much better if they held the view that effort would lead to success; if they believed that getting the wrong answer doesn't mean that you are "dumb" but instead means that you've had a learning experience that can lead to better understanding.  If students can escape the Fixed Mindset that says "No amount of effort will lead to success.", then we know that we can help them to get to a point of better understanding.

       Attitude is everything.  Attitude determines the effort that students will put forth.  Attitude allows for a second try and a third try and a fourth try; or attitude gives permission to not try at all.  Attitude is the force that is stronger than caring adults.  Attitude shapes our views and ultimately shapes our destiny.  When our attitude tells us to give it a try, we are on our way to a world of opportunities.

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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