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.

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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