Monday, July 12, 2010

The Better Example

Three cheers for Larry Ferlazzo for precisely the sort of more careful and nuanced analysis of this very same report that even offers an informative counter-example.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Research Proven!

Mr. Stross’ article in the NYT encapsulates all that goes wrong with educational reform, research, and reporting.

Step 1 : Reform – Well-meaning reformers throw a desperately needed resource, such as class-size reduction, a new technology, or pre-school, at low SES students, families or schools. None of teachers, parents or students is trained on how to make use of said resource. Little oversight is involved to ensure the resource is distributed properly. No on-going support is offered to maximize the benefits of said resource. Often it goes totally un- or under-utilized, except by a tiny number of teachers, parents or students for whom the resource changes their practice and lives.

Step 2 : Research – Well-meaning researchers wait two, five or seven years and then do a study showing that, despite access to this tremendous resource, those poor kids still underperformed, dropped out, or went to college in numbers more or less than the control group, their peers, or the state average, generally by the barest of statistically significant margins. Generally, the studies are very poorly controlled, with tiny sample sizes and obvious selection biases.

Step 3 : Reporting – Dubiously intentioned reporters (or business professors?) seize upon these research reports and, rather than critically appraising them or the reform efforts themselves, regurgitate the findings into the gaping mouths of conservative politicians, who use them as fodder to build arguments that the provision of said resource is just wasting precious state funds. The resource is then withdrawn and the reformers move on.

Step 4 : Complete Hypocrisy – Despite being publicly convinced by the research, all parties, as members of the well-educated classes, will, personally, pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket for their own children to have continuing access to the same smaller classes, technology and pre-school that they are saying clearly make no difference to the education of the poor.

Mr. Stross, and all others who wish to research or write about education, please consider the following: Those of us in the trenches already know that any poorly executed initiative will not close the achievement gap. We’ve seen studies prove that even reading does not always improve reading. If closing the achievement gap was simply a matter of throwing books, hours, teachers, money, food, technology, art, music or pre-school at the children, please believe that we would have figured that out ourselves. Spend your time researching and reporting on what actually does work. Find and highlight reform initiatives done well, resources delivered properly. Failing that, at least take the time to develop the failure into a complete story. It may require you to visit a school, or talk to a child or parent, and perhaps look a little more deeply at the varied ways these resources can be used. Admittedly, it’s much harder for you and much less satisfying for the conservatives, but it's infinitely more helpful to us and the kids.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Three Questions to Test The Test

CA Standard – Grade 1 – Writing 1.1.7
Capitalize the first word of a sentence, names of people, and the pronoun I.

A proper English sentence begins with what form of letter?

A – lowercase
B – consonant
C – capital
D – vowel


Which sentence is correct?

A – my father works very Hard.
B – My Father Works Very Hard.
C – My father works very hard.
D – my father works very hard.


Read to students: Please write one sentence about the friends you play with at recess and what you do.

It’s test time here and the perennial debate ensues. Can we link teacher evaluation to student data? These three questions, and their analysis, are my answer. I’m not at all afraid of being evaluated (in part) through my students’ test results, or even compensated (in part) on the basis of scores, provided we have clearly understood objectives and tests that reliably assess them. Too often, we have neither. Case in point…

The first question represents a failure of validity, it does not assess what it is supposed to assess. First, the item is confusing the use of a skill with its explicit understanding. An adult analogy might be the difference between eating properly and understanding our metabolic and digestive processes. While perhaps this knowledge is valuable, it is not required. Conversely, knowing that sentences begin with a capital letter is not the same as actually doing it. Plenty of people know how the body works, but still don’t eat well.

Further, the first item is predicated on a confidence that the teacher will have taught the term “capital,” rather than “uppercase” or “big” or “majuscule.” Again, perhaps reasonable, but it does not make for a valid test of the given standard. This question would be ideal for a standard, “Students will identify that a proper sentence begins with a capital letter.” But that’s not the standard.

The second question is an improvement. It is focused on the skill of capitalization. It is not reliant on explicit understanding or a single piece of terminology. However, it still does not accurately assess the standard. Recognizing proper writing and generating it are two entirely different skills. We can hear when a violinist misses a note even if we can’t play the violin. Certainly, one skill is preliminary to the other, but the concern remains, are we testing what we say we are going to test? Further, it only tests one piece of the standard. We would need another question for testing the pronoun “I” and another for names. How long of an exam can we have for a first grader, before it becomes a test of stamina rather than language? This leads to questions of reliability, that students will get the same questions right and wrong if they took the test again, in a different order or on another day.

The third question finally assesses the given standard. Students will almost necessarily use all of names, the pronoun I, and an initial capital letter to answer the question. However, this fidelity to the objective unlocks a Pandora’s Box of other possibilities. What if the student has no friends? What if recess has been eliminated for test prep, or has been renamed “PE” or “Outdoor Time?” What if the student writes: Play BKTball I M and R. Are we to assume that “M” and “R” are names? What if they are nicknames? What if they are celebrity children, who only have letters for names? Does the capitalization of “BKTball” indicate that the student doesn’t understand the objective or that there is a really popular new game right now made up by Belen, Karl and Tomo? The examiners should disregard word order, as this is a question of capitalization, but will they? Further, will any teacher or test company really be willing to stand up to the press and public and say that the student really should have gotten that question right?

So, dear public, press and reformers: On which of these questions, answered by a child taking a big test for the first time and graded anonymously by a company with a large interest in your failure, would you stake your professional reputation and financial success?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Simple Signs of Employer Excellence

The charter school/network we’re joining is demonstrating all the right moves. Among these are many things the public schools can’t emulate, like a “longer” day and year (time good teachers work anyway) for more pay (that good teachers don’t get and grouse about.) But there are also several actions they’re taking that are much more attainable.

1 – Recruitment – In October 2008, two months into our work in China, we received an email from one of our future principals checking in and asking us about our return. We advised that we were on a two-year contract. A year later, we received another email. Teachers have one of the most status-deprived, socially isolated, and thus praise-hungry professions in the world; my wife and I are no exceptions. Someone cares enough to email us twice? That’s just about all it took.

2 – Hiring – Somebody saw us teach before they hired us. It was via YouTube, admittedly, but the important thing was that they sat down and watched us practice our art before they brought us into their school. There are lots of ways to teach, lots of ways to teach well. It's important to make sure there's philosophical harmony. By contrast, our current school brought us all the way to China before ever seeing us teach. At my first school, my principal never even had the chance to see my resume before I showed up for a key. Not his fault, for sure, but not an inspiring sign for the system.

3 – Response Time – When I send my future principal an email, I usually have a reply within a half-day, often within a few hours. If it takes longer, generally there’s a prefatory apology. Admittedly, we have the benefit of time zones. But I’m not even working at her school yet.

4 – Answers – Both my wife and I have been peppering our principals with questions for months. Almost every single query has been answered with a solid, specific, and “owned” response. There's no doubt: These people are in charge of their schools and they know what’s happening inside them. It's deeply confidence inspiring. The only time we’ve been passed on has been for questions about health insurance, and we wanted word from the top anyway.

5 – Details – For elementary school teachers, quality of work and of life is determined by the management of details. My wife had a bell schedule by the end of April. Her school isn’t built yet, but she’s been sent the blueprints to help in her planning. She’s been invited to make suggestions on ordering supplies, books and furniture. She got the warning already that her kinder class will be at thirty-to-one. It’s bad news, but she has time to adjust her plans and materials. I have a combo class among my rotation. Also bad news. But I know how many kids, I know where they’re at, and my principal and I are already formulating a plan to help better meet their academic and social needs. I have a calendar for my professional development schedule in hand, until Thanksgiving. All this is happening in May, so when August rolls around, the only surprises are truly surprises.

Does all this imply our principals are overworked? Yes. Does any of this guarantee children are learning? No. But it imparts, to me, a sense of day one urgency, dedication and professionalism that cannot help but benefit student achievement.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

EduTech Rapture

(or: The iPad Cometh)

I was an unbeliever, a “gimmick”-sayer and laptop-steadfast, but then I met the iPad in person. Now, I am a total convert and I only saw it for half an hour. The interface was shockingly efficient. The on-screen typing was vastly easier than anything else I’ve worked with. The display of e-books was mesmerizing, clear and bright. As I played with it, ---exploring a digital, illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland, a two-player version of air hockey, and a program that controlled my laptop from afar--- I saw the future of educational technology flashing before my eyes. I saw paperless classrooms, digital textbooks, math e-manipulatives, science simulations, and authentic assessment, all wrapped up in one device.

Here's why the iPad is The Way for elementary edutech:

1 - It's simple. 90% of the time, elementary classrooms don't need 80 different applications. We need 5. We don’t need start menus, home folders, or logins. We need to turn the computer on in five seconds and be ready to run with it. Let’s have a computer lab for complicated specialty apps, like video editing or desktop publishing, but iPads for day-to-day use.

2 – It’s limited. Teachers are afraid to use tech because so much goes wrong. Pages don’t load, files are missing, shortcuts disappear, Flash is out of date. Further, everyone seems to go wrong in a different way. Kids get distracted or disoriented, can find minesweeper but can’t find the Quit key. The iPad’s menu interface is specific, focused and easy. One button to rule them all.

3 – It’s all in one. Mouse, screen, keyboard, computer. Everything inside a single, pound-and-a-half rectangle. No cables, bar the recharging cabinet. Combine with Google Docs and imagine all the tech support we won’t need.

4 – It’s e-books, really. Many have tried, no one has succeeded. The iPad has the brightness, the color, and the software look-and-feel to replicate book reading. Imagine the beautiful efficiency of a combined e-book library and Accelerated Reader iPad app. Imagine pressing a button and every student is back to the same page. Imagine never having to wait while a class brought this or that out of their desk. Be still my heart.

5 – It’s beyond paperless. The greatest draw, for me, of being paperless is actually that I could also be penciless, markerless, crayonless, highlighterless, and eraserless too. If I want my kids to take four-color notes, do arithmetic on whiteboards, to draw the water cycle, and to highlight different types of sentence, I need a dozen different “markers” per child. Or one iPad.

6 – It’s mobile. The first adopters of this tech should be teachers and principals. I’d wait until it’s totally ruggedized, inside and out, to put it in the hands of kids. But for us… I’ll buy one as soon as my wife will let me. Monitoring logs, record sheets and lesson plans, classroom observation tools and task lists, all accessible from one, easily held, simply used, mobile device. To have a similar degree of efficiency, I had to wheel my laptop around on a cart or be chained to my desk. Instead, with an iPad, I can carry my computer in my hand.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Video Games - No More!

This is cross-posted from an article I wrote for our parent newsletter. Now with links!

Summer is almost here. For too many kids, this time of year includes long hours spent with their Xbox, Nintendo, or laptop, playing video games. I suggest: “No More!” But not to computers, just to the games. Here’re some options for what else your child can do on the computer that will still make them happy:

Design a building, Explore the World – Google SketchUp, Earth – This is a free program for easily drawing in 3D. Kids can create new buildings and towns, or even render their own home. Other creators around the world are uploading their work into Google Earth, another free program. Here, kids can “fly” from place to place, and see sites all over the world in 3D. Different sorts of information can be turned on and off in the world’s greatest atlas. Kids can dive into the oceans and soar into space as well!

Learn an instrument, Compose a symphony – Garage Band, Jam Packs, Lessons – GarageBand can now run a lengthy series of piano and guitar lessons, providing kids with a patient tutor available 24/7. Jam Packs supplement GarageBand’s included loops, providing them with hours and hours of material to remix into their own musical masterpieces.

Produce digital art – ArtRage – This is a wonderfully complex but intuitive painting program. Kids can experiment with all sorts of media ---watercolors, oils, charcoal--- without the waste and frustration of real materials. When they find out that they really do love acrylics, and have learned a lot of how to use them, then buy them the real thing!

Write a program – Alice, Scratch – These free, well-designed programs, from Carnegie-Mellon and M.I.T., make programming fun and easy. Tell your kids they can play any video game they want – as long as they write it themselves! The world of programming is chock-full of great math enrichment and logical thinking practice.

Film a movie – Imovie, WindowsMovieMaker, IStopMotion – Making movies has never been easier. With inexpensive equipment and free software, kids can run around the city (or world!) filming wonderful shorts. With IStopMotion, they can make claymation, animation or time-lapse movies with ease.

Parents! Say “No More!” to wasted hours killing zombies, aliens, Nazis, terrorists, etc. Channel those electronic energies into something enriching and ---shhhhh--- educational.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kickball as Metaphor

As we speak, two classes of 5th grade students are engaged in a
"vigorous" game of kickball. There's thirty-six kids, total, playing.
I watched the game a bit, as I'm sure we all have. One kid pitches,
one kid kicks. Two to four kids throw or run. Thirty-two kids stand
and watch. I was horrified and thought abut all the ways I don't do
that with my instruction. Then, much to my dismay, I thought about
all the ways that I do.

But aren't we all guilty of a little kickball across the curriculum,
---or a lot?

Yesterday afternoon, brain numb from an ugly day, I found myself only
a head of hair away from being Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"
calling "Anyone… Anyone…" to a silent and disinterested class. I
pitched and a kid kicked, another caught, but most students were just
sitting there.

I always require quiet and focus from my students, but I often delude
myself into thinking that kids who are attentive are engaged. Real
kickball just makes who is active and who is counting flowers a bit
more obvious. In the classroom, we have to remember to ask and
analyze: Even if everyone is watching the game, how many kids are
really playing?

It's not just a direct instruction issue either. Group work is
equally subject to becoming kickball if tasks and roles are not
effectively distributed and evaluated. One or two kids do the work
for their own sake, while the rest coast. The ratio might improve as
the groups get smaller, but the problem remains. Even at half or
two-thirds, is that the best we can do?

Getting out of kickball is simple but exhausting. It is a dozen or
more different routines that must be learned, remembered, taught, and
appropriately brought to bear in different contexts. It is also not
natural to us. Many of us went through school playing kickball,
literally and metaphorically. We have to break the habits that seem
most familiar: popcorn reading to choral reading; QnA to
Think-Pair-Share, call and response, whole class physical response;
teacher demonstrations to student experiments, investigations and
discussions; problems on the front board to each kid with a board;
demanding quiet to demanding tracking, nodding and questions; asking
for hands to randomly calling; test on Friday to a check at the end of
each day. The list can go on.

The problem is also that kickball is easy to play. It's familiar and
even fun. Everyone knows the rules, so the kids aren't complaining or
misbehaving. But, out in the field and on the sideline, they're not
learning either.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Build a Better Mathatude

The longer I live in the adult world of stuff and money, the more I appreciate math and the more opportunities I have to happily wrestle with it. I usually win, but only when I cheat and tag-team with Excel.

Here’s my math homework for the week:

Start with a simple arithmetic problem: You and your partner are deciding what to ship home to the US from China. Nice furniture is inexpensive here and very expensive in the States. Shipping is not cheap though. How much furniture do you have to own to make it worth it?

Add some economics: Decide what is the best way to evaluate the value of the goods. Is it the cost at a Chinese store, its worth in your hearts, the replacement cost in the US, or the substitution cost with the cheapest IKEA/Craigslist goods you can find?

Add some geometry: Shanghai shippers only want to know how many cubic meters you have. You, an American, still think in feet and inches. You have to estimate your furniture and goods interlocked, in boxes and crates, and convert.

Challenge Problem: The cost of shipping space goes up, but not linearly. Determine how to fit the highest value into the best volume for money.

Pop quiz: The Chinese yuan is going to rise soon. You live in China, so you’re paid in yuan, but your salary is fixed in dollars. You can pay for goods in yuan cash or on a dollar-based credit card. You have savings in both currencies. What do you do to avoid losing money?

Enrichment Problem: Interest rates are rising. Do you buy a house sooner, before they get any higher, or later, when they’re high enough to drive down prices? Does it make a difference if you have a 15 or 30-year mortgage, or plan to sell the house within 10 years?

I’m not advocating that we give every child a classroom and focus on the financial problems in Grade 3. Rather, let’s recognize the dual demands of good math education. Kids need to learn enough, well enough, to grapple with complex problems, but they also need to enjoy math enough to try and solve these problems when they actually encounter them.

I like solving these problems. It pays me back very well for my time, and stretches the brain better than a Sudoku. But I think I would be lonely in that opinion.

Far too many adults, including teachers, will happily admit to me that they have “poor math skills.” I don’t believe them. Rather, I think they have a poor math attitude. They’re not unable to determine the best answers for their math dilemmas, they’re unwilling to even try.

My suggestions?

Structurally, we desperately need to find a way to include more finance, statistics and quantitative home economics in the high school curriculum. Then we could teach these topics explicitly. Maybe we need to save calculus for college. Maybe the universities should require these more relevant topics, instead of the futile extra year or two of high-school quality French. But we all know this and the people who make such policy don’t read this blog.

For the individual teacher, here’s my advice:

Don’t reduce the curriculum covered in pursuit of authentic problems. Then people have a great attitude and no skills. Don’t ignore calculators, but don’t let the kids leave thinking that six times eight makes forty-eight because they say so. Don’t pretend you’ll do the pithy word problems at the end of each lesson or the silly “Math in Life” lesson at the end of the unit. They must be skipped in favor of review, remediation, or to accommodate interruptions. But also, don’t do nothing and hope they’ll pick it up elsewhere.

Do use the time after The Tests to go back and apply new skills more deeply. Do reduce the battery of homework to include time for extension problems, and incentivize your kids to actually solve them. Do use “lost days” (sub days, half days, days preceding vacations, etc.) to recapture kids attention with learning-potent breaks in the instructional routine. Do use games, store-bought or home-made, that can force kids to practice this math for you. Do consider family math nights, to engage adults in the learning and perhaps improve the older generations numeracy on the way.

Finally, do let me know how it goes. Next year, I’m back to full-time math teaching. We’ll see if I can practice what I preach.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Goods and Games

A brief history lesson…

In the 19th century, the British were desperate to even their trade imbalance with China. China had silk, spices, porcelain and tea, while the Europeans had only rough wool and silver. Silver was flowing out of Europe and damaging the British pound. This seemed destined to give China a massive economic advantage, until the British began exporting opium into China. As opium addiction ravaged the populace, the silver flow reversed and soon China was desperately trying to ban the drug. Britain wouldn’t allow its lucrative trade to disappear and the Opium Wars ensued. This led to massive indemnities against China, the opening of its ports, the surrender of its lands, and the start of modern Chinese history.

But the real question: How do you make this history meaningful to a ten year-old? Trade imbalance? Currency valuations? Drug addiction? How do you make these concepts resonate with the Pokemon, Harry Potter crew?

My answer: A game. A card game, to be precise, customized to our learning objectives.

I’ve always made games for facts practice and a few for reading. I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on me, having grown up with Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, to make one for social studies. Until now. InDesign plus Google Images plus Wikipedia, multiplied by a two-sided color copier, all over a paper cutter equals “Trade!” the new game by Mr. AB.

Students trade and draw cards, in a Yahtzee-like pursuit of a full complement of goods. I make the learning explicit; they are trading for the very same resources we’re studying. Porcelain is worth 30 while wool is worth 10. Pictures and descriptions on each card. Round 1, learn the game in an even-handed round, then switch to uneven hands that replicate the experience of the game. Round 2, China has all the luxury goods, Britain and America have only silver, wool, and guns. Draw enough to forestall total stalemate, but not so much to prevent the salutary suffering. How much is China willing to trade? Not much. How does that make you feel? Frustrated, like we’re always going to lose. Check. Round 3, introduce the opium to the Western hands. The rules recapitulate the history. Opium must be exchanged for silver, the "trade" cannot be denied. China sees their advantage disappear instantly. They’re angry as Britain and America laughingly force them to trade away their precious goods. What would you do to get rid of the opium? Anything. War? Sure. Check.

Debriefing afterwards is a walk in the park. The learning is already there, we’re just putting labels on it. The labels stick because the experience, the game, makes the ideas so vivid. It’s not abstract and distant. It didn’t just happen to the Qing Dynasty, it happened to them. They were there. They were China, they were Britain.

It’s uncannily effective. It feels a little wrong. Like teaching by trickery. Teaching should not be this easy, learning should not be this fun.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What We Have Here...

What we have here is a failure to appreciate. Are there some things we cannot teach?

Two of my lessons struggled a bit lately, and while they were very dissimilar in terms of relative gravity, they failed for the same reason: a failure to appreciate.

The first lesson was on slavery in the United States. Our project is to create dual-perspective slideshows, where each historical picture is narrated from the perspective of slave and slaveowner. I hunted around for an array of images, some gripping and some mundane, to give them a chance to reflect on many different aspects of slavery. The classroom teacher has done several lessons about the details and stories of slavery. We thought that we had conveyed the degree of sensitivity and sincerity required in this area, but yet found our kids goofing off and producing slideshows that seemed to be striving for comedic.

The latter lesson was on a brilliantly simple computer program, BallDropping. In this class, the kids are learning to use Scratch and create their own games. I was very excited to find this program as a demonstration to the kids of how simple and yet entertaining a game can be, even verging on the point of being performance art. The program uses only circles and lines, two colors, and yet incorporates a tremendous array of ideas in music, art and physics. Yet many of the kids were obnoxiously vocal in finding it boring and too simple.

Is the failure to appreciate mine or theirs? Did I forget my students' development, and expect too much? Or did they not bring their best attitudes and efforts, and produce too little?

On one hand, I am almost always willing to accept the blame. I am the leader in the classroom; I'm steering the ship, it's my fault if we don't wind up where I want to be. On the other hand, these lessons were well planned, carefully prepared and presented with enthusiasm. I very rarely find that I miss on the lessons I'm very ready and excited to share.

If the kids simply didn't give it their best, then that's that, but I'm stuck with another question: How, exactly, do we teach "appreciation?" If we make it explicit, if we say, "This is sad, be serious. This is beautiful, enjoy it." are we really teaching anything, or are we just asking them to regurgitate the reactions we've made it clear we expect? Or, is that just part of our job, showing the youngsters all things terrible and terrific, and teaching them how to respond appropriately?

Further, we cannot control what will resonate with a child and when. Are we, as adults, always in the mood to watch a stirring Holocaust documentary, or go to an art exhibit? Hardly. Why expect that the kids will be ready to feel sad or enjoy art because that's what's on our calendar? Yet, I am not asking for emotional reaction, I am asking for appropriate response. We do not laugh at slavery, and we do not discount art because it is simple. Surely, those are reasonable lines to draw in the sand. Aren't they?