Thursday, April 6, 2017

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 ignorance of the "far right" and the "far left" and their respective discussion points about school choice; but isn't it the case that we already have a fair amount of choice when it comes to educating our students?

"Better Schools"

       I think I understand the issue of "better schools" in richer areas.  It goes like this:

  1. Richer people (even upper-middle-class and middle class people) are more likely to have college degrees.
  2. Parents with college degrees are more likely to value education.
  3. People who value education are more likely to instill these values into their children.
  4. Children with parents that value education (especially if their parents--themselves--are college graduates) are more likely to do well in school.
  5. Hence, schools in richer areas have students who do well in school.  (I'm defining "do well in school" to mean students get good grades and (hopefully) actually learn and understand the content of the courses that they take.) 

Since teachers (generally) make the same amount of money in these "better" schools as they do in schools with lower student achievement, teachers (generally) prefer to teach in these schools.  Teachers get to spend more time on teaching and less time on disciplining.  Additionally, these schools seek to hire good, highly-able teachers to meet the demands of their students.

"Low-achieving schools"

       I think I understand some of the issues of "low-achieving schools".

  1. Some kids are motivated to do well in school and some are not.  Low-achieving schools have a majority of low-motivated students.
  2. Low motivations comes from a variety of factors including: 
    1. Lack of parental encouragement and/or parental example.
    2. Lack of engaging teachers and interesting lessons.
    3. Lack of a sense of belonging to your school.
    4. Lots of other reasons.
  3. Low-achieving schools tend to have more discipline issues that come up.
  4. This leads to stricter school rules and (sometimes) stricter consequences.
Many teachers find it difficult to have an effect on a student's education in these type of schools.  Many teachers were never trained to handle multiple discipline issues and they themselves were never part of a high school class that didn't care about learning.  Hence, teachers who begin in these schools seek to move to "better" schools.  Hence, low-achieving schools have the additional issue of (on average) having a less experienced staff year after year.


       Usually when hear conversations about school choice. the issue is, "I don't like my child's public school and I want him/her to go somewhere else."  It may be more typical for parents with kids in the low-achieving school to want other choices, but I'm sure there are parents with kids in the better schools who also want this.  So here is my (perhaps limited) knowledge of the choices that people have:

  • Move.  Parents who are sufficiently unhappy with their child's public school and are quite happy with a nearby (or not so nearby) other public school can move into the district with other school.  I know that moving is a great inconvenience and it would take some mighty strong feelings for family to make this decision--but it is an option.  However, if the better school is in an area that you can't afford to live, then this isn't an option.
  • Charter schools.  This option is gaining in popularity.   Twenty years ago, less than one percent of American schools were charter schools.  Today that number is over 5%.  In 2009, 40 of the 50 states in the U.S. had charter schools.  Charter schools are public schools, so they are free just like public schools.
  • Homeschooling.  This option is also on the rise.  In 1999, 850,000 America students were home-schooled.  By 2011, that number rose to 1,770,000 of our nation's approximately 50 million students.  (source)  Homeschooling can occur at any level from kindergarten to grade 12.
  • Online learning.  I have to say that this an area that I am less familiar with.  I know middle and high school students can take online classes, but I don't know the rules about how they count toward graduation and whether you can completely skip public school and get all of your secondary education online.  Personally, this sounds like a very lonely learning experience.  But perhaps as a supplement it is a good choice for some.
       My feeling on this issue is the same as it is on most issues: Do what you think is best for your child.  If you want to leave public schools because you're angry about one thing in one course, I would suggest looking for options for that one course--but don't leave the whole school because of it.  If you have a broader complaint about your child's public school and want to consider other options, do your research.  But be careful because something else isn't always something better.

Monday, April 3, 2017

We Protect Our Students - but we can do better

       I just finished watching the Netflix show titled 13 Reasons Why.  It is about a high school girl that commits suicide and her life in high school during the two years prior to killing herself.  It made me think of all of the efforts and policies and hours spent on keeping students safe in our schools.  We practice fire drills and code-red drills; we encourage students to talk with an adult when they see something or hear something dangerous; and we all make an effort to have good, healthy relationships with as many students as we can.

       Still, despite these efforts we are constantly faced with the reality of high school students riding into their first attempts of adult life without training wheels.  Adults can be warm and friendly and approachable, but they are still adults.  It is too easy for teenagers to view the adults in their life as completely unable to understand the issues that they face.  We can do better.

       In 2014, 1668 teenagers (13 to 18 years old) killed themselves--about 7 out of every 100,000.  We can do better.  Recognizing the warning signs for committing suicide can help to prevent a person from going through with it.  Friends matters; words matters.  One person's suicide effects many people around them.  And it can always be prevented when we work together to identify potential victims and take action.

       School is a great place for most of our students.  Friends, sports, clubs, etc.  It can be a place of solace for students who come from a difficult home life.  But it can also be a terrible place of name-calling, and social-media-humiliation, and bullying.  We want everyone to feel welcome and safe in our schools.  Most students and parents would agree that our schools are safe places.  But we can do better.

       We have to work together; we have to be a society that looks out for each other.  See something, say something.  In the same way that police need the assistance of the public to solve crimes, schools need the eyes and ears of every student.  We want to help; we want you to feel welcome and wanted and special.  We want everyone to feel that their school is a place where they belong.

       Help us.  Do your part.  We can do better.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Achievement of Poor Students is the Educational Challenge of Our Time

       The data is overwhelming:

  • 10.7 million school-aged children living in poverty (source)
  • Over 50% of school-aged children are eligible for Free and Reduce Price Meals (source)
and the results are terrible:
  • Children living in poverty miss more days of schools than children who do not live in poverty.
  • Dropout rates are higher among student from low-income families.
  • 40% of children living in poverty are not prepared for primary schooling.
  • Less than 30% of students from the bottom quarter of income go to college; and less than half of them finish college. (source)
       The academic achievement of poor students has been a challenge that our nation has seen for decades.  Back in the time when earning a high school diploma was less necessary for acquiring a good job, our failure to adequately help poor students was less of an issue.  The penalty for not succeeding in school, while present, was not so severe.  Low-skilled jobs, manufacturing jobs, and service jobs were relatively plentiful and attaining a middle class life-style, while still somewhat difficult, was more possible.  

       Today, high school graduation (and the hard and soft skills that we want our students to gain in high school) is much more of a necessity than ever before.  Technology has lowered the number of low-skilled jobs and "Career and College Readiness" has become so much more than a slogan.

       The statistics are well known.  Student from families in which the parents have college degrees usually do well in school.  Students from families in which the parents didn't finish high school usually do poorly in school.  We are faced with the daunting challenge of overcoming this generational force that seems to keep pulling our most vulnerable students down.  Since "learning" is not something that can be forced on a person, our schools need to find a way to convince poor students (and their families) that schooling and education are important.  Knowledge is power.  Academics leads to more opportunities.  

       This is especially true as students move to middle and high school.  The subject content is more difficult; the reading level is higher; and the consequences of better achievement that are recorded and stored in student records are asked for from colleges and universities later on.  It's hard to do hard things--even for bright students.  The issue isn't the level of intelligence.  The issue is the level of motivation that encourages students to carry on even when the work gets harder.

       No one wants to fail.  Poor students are burdened with many hardships that come with a lack of money: less books at home; less technology at home; poor or no healthcare that leads to sick students getting sicker rather than getting better; less food and/or less healthy food.  We need to understand these challenges that are part of the daily experience of our poor students.

       This has been a problem in education for a long time.  There are pockets of success around the country, but we are far from declaring victory over this problem.  Of all the issues facing education, the issue of educating our poor students looms high above the rest in my opinion.  When this issue is properly addressed and we begin to see improved results, we can truly say that we have given our best to our students and to our society.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Education Without Grades

       Imagine P - 12 schooling without grades.

       Learning?  Yes.
       Art?  Yes.
       Clubs?  Yes.
       Teachers, friends, computers, classes, classrooms?  Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
       Grades?  No.

       The idea of an educational landscape without grades is not so new and (in fact) there are a significant number of schools that are experimenting this idea right now.  New York High School English teacher, Starr Sackstein, has been talking about this for years.  We still teach and we still assess.  We just don't use the traditional grading system of attaching a number or a letter to that assessment.

       The problem with "grading" is that it has grown to be a monster that we can't control.  Parents and students alike will tell you that they care more about "getting-a-good-grade" than they do about "learning".  As with so many other aspects of American life, grading has become a competition to be won, rather than a method for measuring learning and understanding of academic content.  Add to this that grading systems vary widely from school to school and even from teacher to teacher (sometimes) in the same school to the point that it is hard to say what a particular grade actually means; or if the same "grade" means the same thing from one class to another.

       Still, it can be hard to convince a generation that (whether they like it or don't like it) has grown up with the letter grade system, that a no grades system is a better way to conduct our middle and high schools.  Here is a great article that contains students' thoughts about living through a "no-grades" experiment.  (Spoiler alert: One-third liked the idea, one-third didn't like it, and one-third didn't care.)

       I often say that the goal of education is learning.  If something hampers our efforts to help students to learn, I think we should do something about that.  Grades and grading have (in many cases) become the new goal or the more prominent goal of education in the minds of many students and parents.  That's a problem.  If we are preparing students for the world of work, what will be their motivation if without grades in the workplace?

       Colleges regularly get rid of students that can't keep up academically.  It doesn't matter what their grades were in high school.  What matters is what they know and are able to do.  Same thing with employers.  Good grades might get you the job, but only true ability will enable you to keep the job.  We need to teach students the value of learning exceeds the value of earning good grades.  Maybe the way to do this is to get rid of the grades.

       What do you think?

Monday, March 20, 2017

New Teachers Don't Have to Know Everything

       Starting a new job is exciting...and scary.  And when that new job involves a classroom full of students who are depending on you; and they all have parents who are depending on you; and you're expected to use technology that you've never used before; and some student don't try to do their best every day; and ... and ... and ....  Well, you get the idea.  New teachers and veteran teachers have pretty much the same job and the same responsibilities.  But I've got good news for new teachers:  You don't have to know everything.

       Today's teachers are better trained and better prepared for that first day on the job than ever before.  Policies and laws and general "good practice" have prepared our college graduates well.  Student teaching requirements and excellent mentors during teacher training programs help our future teachers to understand curriculum, experiment with teaching strategies, and learn to interact with students.  But teaching is not the sort of job that can be fully learned in a college classroom.  Teaching requires practice and a fair amount of trial and error.  Every student is different and every group of students are different.  You can't be fully prepared for every situation when you begin teaching.

       For this reason, I tell new teachers that they are not expected to know everything when they begin their career.  I encourage them to ask a lot of questions and to seek advice from fellow teachers and from their principal and assistant principal.  It isn't that new teachers aren't prepared to accept the responsibilities of the job--they certainly are.  But teaching is much more of an art than some sort of mechanical process.  Anyone can explain some idea or concept to a bunch of students.  But a teacher wants every student to understand the idea so well that they can discuss it with other students, ask questions about it, and even build on this new knowledge and find connections to other ideas and knowledge that they already have.

       New teachers who strive to improve and to learn from others are usually viewed in a good light, even if they make a few mistakes along the way.  Furthermore, I feel that it is the responsibility of the school and the school district to continually provide supports that will help new teachers to become better teachers.  We know that our best teachers are the ones who continually look for new and better ways to reach their students.  The world changes and we need teachers who are willing to change as well.  This is true for experienced teachers as well as for new teachers.

       We understand that it is stressful to accept a new job with new surroundings, new people, and new responsibilities.  We want new teachers to be comfortable and confident.  With adequate supports, new teachers can approach everyday knowing that nobody is perfect and mistakes are part of the learning process.  This is what we tell our students and it applies to the teachers too.  Teaching is an awesome responsibility, and understanding that teaching is a learning process helps new teachers to get through that first year eager to begin their second year.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

If School was Equal for Everyone

       If school was equal for everyone...

  • The most struggling students would have the best teachers.  We know that good teachers make a difference in student outcomes.  Our best teachers are also our best motivators; they help students to see the value of effort and their students try hard and do their best every day.  Students who struggle academically need good teachers who believe that all students can learn and show this by their actions as well as by their words.  I hate to say it, but students who have a lot of support at home--students with parents that value education--typically do fine in school regardless of the quality of their teacher.  If there are only a relatively small portion of the teaching force that is in the "best" category, they should be teaching the most struggling students.
  • Students would be allowed to learn at their own pace.  They wouldn't have to "move on" because the rest of the class is learning faster than they are.  And they wouldn't have to sit in class being bored with nothing to do because they "get it" faster than everyone else.  Student engagement is increased when students have some control as to the pace of their learning.
  • Opportunities for all sorts of classes would be available to all students.  Music, art, physical education, higher-level (college-prep) classes would be available to everyone.  If a student struggles in math but wants to take Calculus at some point, there would be a path of courses (and professional educator assistance) to help her to get to Calculus.  If a student wanted to take two or three foreign languages prior to high school graduation, he could do that and still complete all of the other requirements.
  • There would be a lot less competition for grades and a lot more desire for learning.  "A" students would receive no more praise than "C" students because effort would be valued over performance.  Students who didn't "get it" the first time or the second time would be given multiple opportunities to reach proficiency.  Some will exceed expectations and some will barely meet the expectations.  But all will be rewarded for learning.
  • Students with career goals after high school will receive the same amount of help and guidance as students with college goals.  Preparation for civil participation will be part of every students' P-12 experience.  And students who don't know what they want to do after high school, will receive opportunities to understand their skills and to consider different options.
     We live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people, imperfect teachers, imperfect students, and imperfect schools.  We can wish for perfection, but we can't realistically reach perfection.  The best we can do is recognize our needs, understand our problems, and work together to find the best solutions for our students.  Amazing things happen when we work together.  While (usually) quite un-amazing things happen when we refuse to change in the name of we've-always-done-it-this-way.

       Our schools work hard to produce the best outcomes for our students given the staff and money and facilities and materials and students and parents that we have.  When things don't work, the answer to fix it and make it work.  Everything can be better; it may take a lot of hard work, but it can be better.

       Our schools may not be equal for everyone, but they can be the most positive places for our students and teachers if we want them to be.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What is Blended Learning?

              Blended learning is an education program (formal or informal) that combines online digital media with traditional classroom methods. It requires the physical presence of both teacher and student, with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.

       My school district has begun the journey into Blended Learning over the past couple of years.  As an educator approaching his 30th year in the business, I view Blended Learning as an effort to bridge all of the positive and effective teaching and learning strategies that the educational and research communities have learned over the past few decades.

       Like any new initiative, Blended Learning will take some time for teachers and students and parents to learn and understand.  We will have to discover new and better ways to implement it in a way that is most beneficial to our students.  This effort will be well worth it.  Blended Learning--as I see it--addresses the following educational beliefs:

  1. Learning at your own pace.  In a traditional classroom, 30 students learn the same thing at the same time.  If you pick up on the topic quickly, you have to wait for your classmates to catch up.  If you struggle to understand the topic, you have to move to something else before you fully understand.  Blended Learning allows students to move at their pace.  Everyone is learning the same topic, but fast learners are given more challenging work and struggling learners are given more assistance.
  2. Multiple ways to show what you know.  In the traditional class, students can only demonstrate their understanding through classwork and homework and tests.  While this isn't a terrible method for measuring student knowledge, we certainly know that this method can lead to the appearance of learning when (in reality) little learning occurred.  Classwork can be graded on completion instead of quality.  Homework completion can come from lots of parental help for some and no parental help for others.  And tests can earn high grades due to cramming and memorizing rather than due to actual learning.  In the Blended classroom, students work with each other and help each other; teachers can spend more time one-on-one with their students (or in small groups).  Students can demonstrate their understanding through informal assessments and assignments in addition to more formal and traditional testing.
  3. Multiple attempts to learn.  We know that learning is a process.  Few students can sit in six or seven classes a day and learn six or seven different things strictly from listening and taking notes.  Learning requires listening and thinking and doing and sometimes failing the first couple of attempts.  Blended Learning recognizes the learning process and students understand that it is OK if they don't get it right away.  Blended Learning also provides different modalities for student learning.  These include: small group work, individual work, using online resources, using paper and pencil resources, and allowing students to verbalize their understanding.
       Blended Learning recognizes that students learn in different ways and at different rates--and this is not only OK, it is expected that all students learn in different ways.  The goal is learning.  Blended Learning permits students to be students and to learn in a way that works for them.  Learning isn't a competition.  Learning faster isn't better than learning slower.  Everyone that reaches the finish line is a winner.  Blended Learning helps students to see the value of learning.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How much Parental Involvement is 'Just Right'?

       Parents are an important part of the educational process.  But some parental involvement is too little and some is too much.  What is the "sweet spot" of parental involvement; What would you consider to be (as Goldilocks would say) "just right" when it comes to parental involvement?

       No one would dispute the value of a strong connection between the home and the school when it comes to better outcomes for education.  We (educators) want parents to be involved.  We want parents to celebrate with us the academic successes of their children, and we want parents to support and to assist us when struggles and obstacles occur along the way.  As teachers, what do you consider to the right amount of parental support?  Is it possible to have too much involvement from the home? What do you consider to be too little support?  As a parent, how do you approach your involvement in your child's education?  Do you leave it all to the schools and the teachers?  Do you check on homework and that's it?  Are you comfortable talking to your child's teacher?

       How much parental involvement falls into the "Just Right" category?  This question may have a different answer for elementary teachers than for high school teachers.  Parents with more education may feel different than parents with less education.  Parents of younger children may answer this question differently than parents of older children.

       As a high school teacher, whenever we had parent-teacher conferences, the parents of students with high grades often came and the parents of students with low grades usually didn't come.  I also saw many parents who (themselves) had a college education and few parents who never went to college.  As a school we would often discuss the issue of finding ways to involve parents and finding ways to invite parents to different school events.  Whenever I reached out to a parent (due to both positive and negative events that occurred with their child in my classroom), I always found a parent who was willing to help and who was appreciative of the contact.

       On the other hand, I've also experienced parents who wanted weekly updates (phone calls or emails); parents who would constantly contact me and other teachers about the smallest issues that occurred in the school relative to their child.  Sometimes these folks were very anti-public-school and they were anxious to share their alternate opinion about what was happening and what (instead) should be the job of the schools.  But most of the time these parents were supportive of the school and certainly supportive of their child--but I worried that the child (in high school) was not given the opportunity to make even the smallest decision on his own about his education.  Still, I felt that more parental involvement was better than no parental involvement and it wasn't my place as a teacher to tell a parent how to help their child.

       What does your school do to encourage more parental involvement?  What can a school do to encourage overly involved parents to allow their children to take more ownership of their education? How much parental involvement is 'just right'?  Is too much involvement a nice problem to have?  

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Three Simple Steps to School Success

       Every parent wants their child to do well in school.  When kids are in elementary school, parental influence and assistance is usually plentiful.  Parents generally understand the content well enough to help their children during homework time.  And elementary children are more likely to do as they're told to do, and to respect the authority of adults in the school.  They generally want to please their parents and their teachers.  When elementary students struggle academically, public schools provide lots of help and assistance in a caring and nurturing way.

       As children move on to middle school and then to high school some of those attributes that helped students to be successful in elementary school tend to lessen.  The school work is more rigorous, children are more concerned with pleasing their friends, and parents who may feel that their children should be more responsible for their school work may take a step back when it comes to reminding them of due dates.  Also, parents may find that they can no longer help their children with homework due to the level of the content.

       Still, all students can do well in school and here are five simple steps that can help:

1.  Do your best

       I know this sounds trite and cliche, but I'm going to define "doing your best" in a way that may sound different from what most would think.  It doesn't mean getting an "A" or even necessarily striving for an "A" all of the time.  In fact, "doing your best" has little to do with the way your child's school assesses students.  Instead, it has everything to do with your child looking into the mirror at the end of the unit or a marking period or the school year and being able to say that he/she did everything they could to be successful.  Sometimes students really, honestly don't have time to everything that are asked to do.  Sometimes they ask for help and stay up late to study and take on the responsibility for their learning and end up with a "C".  That's OK.  But if the child feels that he/she didn't do their best, then this is the time for self-reflection about what can be done differently the next time.  Everyone (including adults) fall short of doing their best sometimes.  Striving to do better is part of what we want students to learn in school.

2.   Adult support outside of school

       Middle and high school students are not too old to need support from a caring adult outside of the school building.  Students today have lots of distractions and when given the choice between school work and social media it can be hard to plan time for both unless someone is there to help.  In 2006 there was a study of high school dropouts.  Many high school dropouts in this study said that they would have tried harder if someone insisted that they try harder.

"Nearly 7 in 10 respondents (69 percent) said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard, 80 percent did one hour or less of homework each day in high school, two-thirds would have worked harder if more was demanded of them (higher academic standards and more studying and homework), ..."

3.  Get involved

       Students that are involved clubs and sports and other school activities discover that "school" is more than a place with teachers and homework.  Involvement in activities helps students to connect with other students who have similar interests and these connections can be positive in and out of the classroom.

       School success should not be all about grades.  We want students to graduate with lots of skills that can be hard to measure with the standard "grade".  These include:  communication skills, computer and technological literary, adaptability, research skills, problem solving skills, strong work ethic, and conflict resolution skills--to name a few.

       Our public schools along with home support help our students to succeed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Great Teachers are Constantly Improving

       The best teachers are constantly improving.  "Good enough" isn't good enough for them.  The world is changing and teachers need to change as well.  The traditional classroom that your parents had when they were in school should not be the classroom of today.

       Here is a short list of characteristics of teachers that work to be their best for their students:

  • The student is the center of the learning experience; not the teacher.
  • We want students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.  It's not enough for students to merely sit and listen and take notes.
  • Learning new tech resources for use as instructional tools in the classroom and as learning tools for students.
  • Less paper and more use of digital resources
  • Using Twitter to connect with other educators and to learn with other educators.
  • Learning about and implementing student engagement strategies in the classroom.
       The need to improve is necessary because students learn differently.  Teaching in a single style may be OK for some students, but it is not sufficient to reach all of our students.  When students struggle to learn, teachers need to use different strategies to help them.  We often joke that repeating the same information SLOWER and LOUDER is not an effective strategy for students who didn't "get it" the first time.  Part of the journey toward being an effective teacher is learning about your students and discovering better ways to help them to learn.

       Teachers learn from a variety of sources.  Over 50% of teachers earn a Master's degree at some point in their teaching career.  Teachers take online courses, teachers read journals.  But most of all, teachers talk with other teachers--online and in person--to learn from their experiences and improve their skills.  Teachers who strive to improve are better teachers for their students.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

When Students are Engaged, Grades Don't Matter

       My daughter's girl scout group had their annual Thinking Day recently.  Thinking Day is a special annual day when Girl Scouts around the world think of each other and express their thanks and appreciation for the International Girl Scouts organization.  Since my daughter is in high school, her group was tasked with creating a game or activity for the younger girl scouts to do.  They decided to do a Lifesize Hungry Hungry Hippo game.

       The game has four competitors who begin the game in one corner of a square floor space with lots of small balloon in the middle of the square.  Each competitor is on a scooter facing the middle of the square and holds a laundry basket.  An older girl pushes the competitors towards the middle of the square and their job is to capture as many balloons as possible with their laundry baskets.  A jump rope is tied to each scooter and the older girls pull the competitors back to their original corner and collect the balloons they have captured.  This continues for one minute.  The person with the most balloons wins.

       My daughter set up a white board to keep track of the number of balloon caught by each competitor.  But after a few rounds it became clear that no cared who "won" the game because it was so much fun just to play the game.  The points didn't matter.  There was a line of girls waiting to play the game.  Girls came back again and again to play Hungry Hungry Hippos.  Parents were taking pictures and videos.  The game is fun and exciting and full of action.  Everyone could participate and everyone had fun.

       In education circles, we refer to this scenario as Student Engagement.  When students are engaged in the activity that takes place in their classroom, the "grade" becomes much less important and the "learning" becomes much more important.  Students want to finish the task or express their viewpoint or add to the discussion.  They become so engrossed in the activity that other matters such as grades and the remaining time in the class and social media and all of the things that distract students when they are bored suddenly become invisible.

       This sort of engagement doesn't have to be a rare occurrence for our students in school.  In fact, teachers who understand the value of student engagement strive to find and to create activities that engage their students intellectually and emotionally and even physically everyday.  Students who are engaged are more likely to do their best everyday.  They are less likely to zone out and doze off in class.   Some strategies for engaging students are simple and basic such as:

  • calling on every students every day
  • allowing a time in every class for students to get out of their seat
  • getting to know every students and establishing a good relationship with each student
  • dividing each class period into several 5 to 15 minute sections with different activities in each class section (such as: whole group discussion, individual work, small group work)
Other strategies involve more preparation such playing a game to review material, using manipulatives in a math lesson, students using technology for part of a lesson.  The 20th century classroom with a teacher doing all of the talking is not the best way to conduct a classroom if you want all students to achieve.  When students are engaged, students are learning.  While teachers are not responsible for creating an entertaining environment in their classroom, they are responsible for motivating their students to do their best.

       Every student should be Hungry Hungry for learning.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Let's Hear It for G.L.A.M. - Girls Love Advanced Mathematics

      One of the elementary schools in my district organized a lunchtime group for their Math League.  After a few meetings, the adviser for this group received an email from the parent to say that her daughter didn't want to participate anymore.  This was the fourth girl to drop out.  Yikes!  This was a problem and while the teacher didn't want to require students to miss their recess and lunch to attend this voluntary group, she also had a concern that her girls (and only girls) were leaving.

       The teacher held a special meeting with the girls that left the group and the girls that remained in the group.  She asked them why they thought there were fewer girls than boys in the Math League.  This is what she heard:

  1. Girls might not think they are smart enough or able to do the math work.
  2. Girls were concerned that the boys would say that they aren't smart enough.
  3. Girls start to believe it when they constantly hear that they aren't as good as boys in math.
       The teacher knew this wasn't true, but she observed that the boys were less concerned about getting the wrong answers.  They would try and take risks and the girls weren't (generally) willing to take these risks.  The teachers suggested that they create a girls-only lunch group on the day before the Math League meeting.  The girls liked this idea and came up with the name G.L.A.M - Girls Love Advanced Mathematics.

       After a while, the girls became more and more confident in their math abilities.  This led to them taking more chances in the whole group.  If one teacher in every elementary school could change the thinking about girls and math with a just a few girls, then we can change this thinking among a whole generation of people.  We know that girls begin their lives with the same potential as boys when it comes to learning mathematics (or any subject) and it is only the environment in which they live that seeks to change this potential.

       So let's start a G.L.A.M. group in every elementary school.  What are we waiting for?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

High School Should Not be a GPA Competition

       You may need good grades to get accepted to college.  But what you really need is good learning (and a good ability to learn) to graduate from college.  Lots of people go to college, but not a lot of people graduate from college.  A study completed in 2015 found that only 52.9% of students who began college in 2009 had earned a college degree by 2015.  This means that even if we allow students an additional two years to complete a 4-year degree, we are still have only barely half of the students graduating from college.  (Imagine the outcry if the high school graduation rate was 50%!)

       Another study has found that one reason for this dismal college graduation rate is a lack of preparation in secondary schools.  As a educator with 30 years of secondary school experience, I would suggest that it isn't so much that we don't prepare students well, but instead (perhaps) we struggle in our communication with students (and with their parents) when we talk about their actual academic ability.

       First of all, our grading system probably doesn't tell the whole story.  Grades are often the primary communication tool that a school has with its students (and their parents) about how well they are doing.  High grades imply high ability and low grades imply low ability.  But is this always true?  And what to medium grades imply?  We don't have a uniform method for determining grades from school district to school district, so does a "B" mean the same thing in every high school in America?

       Secondly, we have high school graduation requirements that are developed in each state in the United States.  Different states have different requirements; although there may be similarities.  But the bigger issue (to me) is:  Is "Graduating from high school" the same as "Being prepared for college"?  Should we have one set of criteria that says "This is sufficient for high school graduation." and another set of (higher level) criteria that says "This is sufficient for good preparation for college."  I think a lot of people feel that if they graduate from high school, then they are prepared for college-level work.  But this isn't always true.

       Hence, high school should not be a place where we only care about getting good grades and getting a high Grade Point Average (GPA).  That might be good enough to get you recognized in high school; and good enough to get accepted to college.  But students who only know how to get good grades without an accompanying ability to learn, will struggle in college.

       Everything in life isn't a competition.  Your education is one of these things.  It doesn't matter if you come in first place.  What matters is that you learn well.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Value of Reasoning in an Era of Fake News and Alternative Facts

       What do you believe?  Why do you believe it?  How do you decide what you believe?  Is there a difference between your perception of something and the actual truth?  Have you ever thought something was true for a long time only to discover what you thought was true (for months or years) turned out to be false the whole time?

       The old adage is "Don't believe everything you read."  This is valuable advice today just as much as it was in the past.  The Information Age not only increased the volume of information coming at us on a daily basis, it also increased the sources that create and publish this information.  Ordinary individuals can write blogs (case in point: me [!]) as easily as large institutions.  Information may or may not be vetted and fact-checked before being published.

       Another common source of information is friends and family; people you trust.  But what if your circle of friends and family is composed of lots of people that are just like you?  They look like you; they talk like you; they think like you.  You go through your life talking to these people and hearing the same things all of the time and eventually you believe that all people believe this.  But when you reference "all people", what you really mean is "all of the people that I know"--which is probably a subset of (say) all of the people in your town or all of the people in your country.  This phenomenon is knows as the Echo Chamber.

       Wikipedia defines Echo Chamber as a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system.  Although the free flow of ideas via the internet might have lessened this effect, some have found that the internet has only amplified the Echo Chamber effect.

       Hence, we now live in an age in which the ability to weed out truth and facts may be harder than ever before.  Students, perhaps particularly teenagers, can become easy victims of believing in partial truths, fake news, and so called alternative facts.  This is why we need to teach students to question the things they read; to consider the source of their information; and to seek other points of views or at least other sources to confirm or to deny what they hear, see, or read.  Reasoning (the action of thinking about something in a logical, sensible way) is a skill that is more important today than ever before.  Our openness to consider other views influences our openness to people, places, foods, and experiences.

       We can't move forward and solve problems as a people or as a country, if we aren't able to fully understand the issues that we face.  Reasoning is a valuable skill.  Like any other skill, reasoning requires opportunities for practice to get good at it.  Schools should be able to provide these opportunities.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Learning and Thinking - (getting the right answer isn't good enough anymore)

       Learning and thinking have always been closely linked.  But sometimes, in our schools, we only achieve the appearance of learning--often accompanied by very little thinking.  This problem has been recognized by educators for a long time.  In recent years, however, we have been addressing this issue on various fronts.

       Let me begin by explaining what I mean by the term Appearance of Learning.  This is when students get good grades, but their actual learning is very low.  The grade to the students and to their parents makes it appear as if they have learned a lot, but the attainment of those grades may have been based partly on non-academic measures such as good behavior or mere compliance with rules such as turning in homework on time.  This is a problem because when students move on to more complicated coursework that requires previous knowledge, they struggle due to never actually learning the earlier content in the first place.

     Over the past few years, there has been a stronger attempt to balance the need for teaching skills (such as solving an equation) with the need for teaching conceptual understanding (such as using an equation to solve a problem).  This sort of "teaching" is different from when our students' parents were in school--a time in which just-getting-the-answer might have seemed good enough.  Today we know that this isn't good enough.  Students going to college and students going to work need skills and knowledge beyond merely doing what they are told to do.  Today's world demands more from our citizens.

       Our schools recognize this need and we are trying to make changes to address this challenge.  It's hard to change a system of 100,000 schools, 50,000,000 students, and 3,000,000 teachers.  But (indeed) this change is already happening.  What we used to call a "computer room" is now just about any classroom in the building.  Classrooms with students sitting in nice, neat, straight rows that discouraged collaboration among students have been replaced with classrooms with tables or desks arranged in groups to encourage students to work together and ask questions of each other and learn together.  Grades for non-academic behaviors (mentioned above) are strongly discouraged so that a student's grade can more accurately reflect his/her ability in the content.  Finally, student engagement strategies and growth mindset strategies are constantly being discussed and implemented.  These reflect our knowledge of the best way that students learn.  No longer do we expect everyone to learn strictly by listening to the teacher and taking notes.

       Indeed, the change to an educational system that requires more from our high school graduates is well underway.  The past is in the past and we're not going back.  Those that choose not to change risk creating a generation that is ill prepared for the challenges that they will face.  Learning, thinking, reasoning, and problem solving will be more and more integrated into our schools.

       You're welcome.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Evaluating Teachers

       Learning is highly dependent on the skills and abilities of the teacher.  According to Hattie, the following influences rank very high in their ability to raise student achievement:
  • teacher estimates of achievement
  • collective teacher efficacy
  • teacher credibility
  • classroom discussion
  • teacher clarity
  • improved classroom instruction
       Since we know that teachers influence student outcomes, we want to be sure that our teachers are the best that they can be.  Hence, teachers are evaluated on a regular basis to be sure the they are effective and (hopefully) are improving.

       A common tool that some school use to evaluate teachers is the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching.  This tool, updated in 2013, looks at the job of teachers in four different domains:
  1. Planning and Preparation
  2. The Classroom Environment
  3. Instruction
  4. Professional Responsibilities
Each of these four domains are further divided into five or six components that zero in on specific factors that influence effective teaching.  When this Framework is used to evaluate teachers, each component of each domain is considered and teachers are provided with a plethora of useful feedback.  It is this feedback, along with conversations between the teacher and the evaluator, that lead to continuous improvement among our teachers.

       Different school systems use different processes for evaluating teachers.  However, all school systems recognize the value of teacher evaluations.  Schools change.  New materials, new technology, new information about how students learn; all combine together and require teachers to change what they do from time to time.  No one wants a teacher who has used the same materials for 20 years; or who hasn't changed their teaching strategies (or improved their teaching strategies) for 20 years.  We want teachers that recognize the needs of their students and adjust their teaching accordingly.

       Teacher evaluations are an important part of the teaching profession.  The improvement that we seek in our students, we also seek in our teachers.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Flaws in the Letter Grade System

       What does it mean when you get an A in a class?  I'm not asking, "What is it supposed to mean?"  I'm asking, "What does it actually mean?"  Does the "A" in Chemistry mean the same as the "A" in History?  Does the "A" in Physical Education mean the same as the "A" in English?  What does a "B" mean; what does a "D" mean?  Did you ever get an "A" in a class--middle school, high school, or college--and then brag to your friends that you didn't learn a thing?  Did you ever get an "A" or a "B" in a class and fail the final exam?  Did you know someone who consistently earned "A's" and "B's" in math classes and couldn't score over 500 on the math portion of the SATs?

       Howard Pitler list four major problems with our current system of using letter grades:
  1. There is no consistency from teacher to teacher or from school to school.  Schools and school districts may have different policies about grading; and these policies aren't necessarily the same from school to school or from school district to school district.
  2. Teachers decide the factors that go into a course grade and they decide the weighting for each of these factors.  So called "hard teachers" and "easy teachers" is actually a real thing when it comes to grading in the letter grading system.  Some teachers are more demanding than others; some teachers award "points" for non-academic behaviors such as showing up to class on time or not using all of your allotted bathroom passes. Merely completing homework can be part of the grade regardless of the quality or the "learning" that may have occurred while completing the homework.
  3. Grades discourage students from learning.  Pitler quotes Alfie Kohn who says, 

 “Kids who are graded—and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades—tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded.” The target becomes the grade rather than the learning. Students take less challenging classes because they want to “protect” their GPAs.

 4.  Lastly, true learning often requires multiple attempts in which ultimate success doesn't happen until the end of the process.  When students are more concerned about "getting grades", they tend to try less, they are less willing to go through the necessary struggle needed to achieve the ultimate level of true learning.

       There is another way to measure student learning and that is to compare their learning against standards (or proficiencies or competencies) that everyone can agree on.  Proficiency-based Learning is not new.  In fact it is growing in popularity among educators who want students and parents to have a better understanding of the actual learning that is taking place in our schools.  One of the hallmarks of proficiency-based learning is the idea that students need time to re-visit topics and ideas in their journey toward true learning and true understanding.  Hence, assessments are used to help students and parents to "see" the learning that occurred and to recognize the learning that still needs to happen.  When students are re-assessed, grades aren't averaged.  Instead, higher grades at a later time in the learning process are recognized as the actual level of learning that occurred.  Therefore, students are encouraged to try harder.

       Proficiency-based Learning should also allow students to work at their own pace.  Ideally, they should not move on to something new until they have a good understanding of the current lesson or idea or standard.  Also, students may have opportunities to demonstrate their understanding in multiple ways; not always via a summative test--however these tests can be still be used.

       Schools are for learning, not for "getting grades".  And we need to have a better system for identifying the learning that takes place.  Too many students are graduating from high school without the skills to hold a job or complete college or make good decisions for themselves.  We need to do better for our students so that they will have better options for their futures.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Why Is Teaching Mathematics So Different Than Teaching Other Subjects?

       My entire professional career has been in Secondary Mathematics.  As a middle school teacher, high school teachers, department chair, and supervisor; I have been immersed in the field of teaching and learning mathematics.  Whenever conversations arise about the instruction for very weak students or for very advanced students, there seems to always be special considerations for students when it comes to mathematics.  Principals, school counselors, and special educator alike all agree that the teaching and learning of mathematics seem to require very different skills compared to the teaching and learning of reading and history and (perhaps) other subjects.

       Keith Devlin has a relatively simple answer to this question which he explains in his paper written for the Mathematical Association of America titled, In Math You Have to Remember, In Other Subjects You Can Think About It.  Devlin explains that mathematics is often taught as a series of rules that you just have to memorize.  Whereas other subjects such as history and science are taught within a context that help the learner to make sense of the content.  Mathematics could be taught within a context (and, I would say SHOULD be taught within a context), but it usually isn't.  This makes mathematics seem like a secret language with tricks and complicated rules that sometimes work in some situations and don't work in other situations.  When mathematics is taught as merely a bunch of skills without any understanding of how and when to use these skills, many students struggle to be successful.

       In her book Mathematical Mindsets, Stanford professor Jo Boaler explains that all students can learn mathematics if teachers are equipped to help students to build understanding.  While it is relatively easy for trained secondary mathematics teachers to learn these techniques, most teachers have not received this training when they were in college.  Furthermore, most adults today (parents, school principals, school counselors, etc) grew up learning mathematics through a strictly procedural approach.  Because of this experience, most adults believe that mathematics should be taught as a bunch of skills.

       Fortunately, more and more teachers are mixing more and more conceptual understanding in their mathematics classrooms along with learning the skills.  There are places in which math is taught somewhat differently than it was taught in past generations, and this is a good thing in my opinion even if it makes some parents feel uncomfortable.  Math should not be taught as 100% skills without any connection to the real world.  For most students, this sort of instruction is just too abstract for them to understand.

       Mathematics is also a subject that builds on itself from school year to school year.  Students need to have a good understanding of the concepts so that they can build on previously learned content to understand the new content.  This idea of building from year to year is more prevalent in mathematics than it is in other subject areas.

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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