Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hechinger Report | Educated nation?

Worth Reading:

Hechinger Report | Educated nation?

Daily Wonderings on Teacher Evaluations and Data

Yesterday I attended an event to discuss current ideas about effective teaching and the recommendations for NM's future teacher evaluation system.  Here are the recommendations.  For the record, I'm OK with student SBA performance making up 50% of my teacher evaluation.  I do think, to a great extent, that although test scores aren't perfect, kids who score well on the test also tend to possess even the skills that aren't tested and that will help a student be successful later in life.

What we didn't have a chance to talk about in our discussion, and what I wonder about day-in and day-out, is the "so what?"  What if a teacher gets a bad evaluation?  The evaluations may play the useful role of identifying teachers who are more and less effective, but most schools kind of already know who's who.  Will the evaluations be the documentation that convinces the teacher herself that she needs to be developed?  That gets the ball rolling?  And then WHAT WILL THE DEVELOPMENT LOOK LIKE?  Is there any consensus out there about what types of development will actually make teachers more effective on a day-to-day basis?  Who is going to hold the teacher accountable?  Colleagues?  Principals?  How can teachers help one another become more effective?

It's not going to happen that once I realize that my value-added test scores aren't equivalent to 1 year's growth, I think "oh, I'd better start doing my best now."  I think MOST teachers are already doing what they think is best for their students.  And it's really going to take some work to make a difference in the practice of those teachers who are doing their best and still aren't making 1 year's growth.

I also wanted to remark on something that happened today at my school: one of the college engagement directors ran a report that highlighted all of the students who were failing 1 and then 2 or more classes.  And I was astounded.  Never before, despite having had electronic grade books for years now, has someone in one of my schools run an analysis of students' grades.  How simple and how silly that this is the first time something like that has come across my desk.  And I bet there are many other schools out there that have never run a similar report, or really any report that helps teachers meaningfully look at student data.

Although SBA data has been used as a reason to blame the teaching profession for the ills of the world, data in and of itself is not something to be feared.  As long as we keep in mind that students are people and not just numbers, we shouldn't be afraid of data.  It can help us see the forest from the trees in a way that day-to-day teaching just can't.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Study: Effectiveness Drops in Departing Teachers' Final Year

Study: Effectiveness Drops in Departing Teachers' Final Year

The article is about how teachers who leave in their 3rd or 4th year of teaching have an overall less-effective final year than the 3rd or 4th year for someone who stays at least 5 years.

Even more interesting to me is that the study the article was written about found that teacher effectiveness tends to level off after 3 years of teaching. I'm trying to think back about whether or not that was true for me. I definitely think I made the most growth in years 1-3, but I'd hate to think I haven't really improved at all since the end of my 3rd year. I'd say it's more likely that my effectiveness started to level off when my masters program ended and I was no longer regularly asked to examine my teaching practices and improve upon them.

At the end of the article, the author poses the question about whether we should put our resources toward making sure teachers are as good as possible before the end of their third year of teaching. An interesting idea... kind of worrisome though considering that most teachers are past their third year and public education as a whole needs drastic improvements.

Education Nation

I've been trying to catch what I can of Education Nation's Summit.

Albuquerque Public Schools' Superintendent Winston Brooks will be participating today... and right now I'm watching a panel called What's in a ZIP Code: A Look at Inequity Across our Public Schools.  I am always glad to hear national conversation about education that isn't centered around blame, and I wish I could be there in person. 

One of the things that I think may come out of this summit is more hype around the necessity for early childhood education.  If we (I'm not exactly sure who I mean by "we"... maybe the nation...) are planning to work hard to make public education an equalizer for minority and low-income students, we may as well start when we still have the best chance of impacting development and habits. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Re-Emergence of Open Enrollment

The Re-Emergence of Open Enrollment

Ahh... Michigan. Even though I grew up there, I don't know much about its current issues in public education. I hope I'm not wildly off the mark here, but it seems like all there is to open enrollment is being able to choose what school you attend rather than having to attend school based on where you live. However, in a city like Detroit, where just about every public school is failing, how does open enrollment make a difference? I guess if you live on the border to Grosse Pointe?

High Achievers Deserve Better

I got into teaching to do my part in making sure that all students have a great educational experience that can lead them to successful outcomes in life.  I've found, though, that I spend far more time figuring out how to make a difference for the huge numbers of students who are behind and failing than I do trying to challenge those students who are at grade level or above. 

And I don't think it's fair.  Of course, it's not fair to anyone to attend a low-performing school.  But, I don't want to forget about the students who, if they attended another school, would be placed in advanced classes; would participate in academic clubs or activities like robotics, debate, creative writing club, etc.  Not simply earning A's in all of their regular-level classes and still learning less than they could.  OK... great teachers might work hard to challenge their highest-level students with interesting and rigorous material, but I can't imagine that it will ever be as effective as attending a school where staff aren't so focused on all of the problems that they have time to consider how to raise the bar for even the highest performing students.

I'm writing all this in response to the Albuquerque Public School's negative response to starting an IB program at a district high school.  I think there are a number of students in APS who could really thrive in an IB curriculum but who cannot afford the tuition at some of the cities elite, private schools (that don't provide IB but that do have very high academic expectations).  I am a proponent of an IB program and hope the school board changes its mind on this issue.

Here's the article:

ABQ/ EDITORIAL: At APS, Mediocrity For All Trumps Innovation
By ABQ Journal 
September 21, 2011

One would think that in these challenging education times, attributes like innovation and creativity — especially when based on experience — would be rewarded.

In Albuquerque Public Schools, one would be wrong. Best to keep striving for equitable mediocrity.

At least that was the message from the APS Board of Education, which was overwhelmingly negative toward a proposal from Sandia High School principal Katy Harvey to start a challenging college preparatory program known as International Baccalaureate.

One might think that Superintendent Winston Brooks, who touts his experience on a national level with the Council of the Great City Schools, would have been on hand to champion an exercise in excellence, but he was a no-show. Instead, he was at a conference in Portland, Ore.

Rather than applaud the initiative it takes to raise the bar in a district where students have just better than a 60 percent shot at graduating, board members questioned the cost (a modest $40K to start and $10K a year in a district budget that tops $600 million), complained about fairness to other schools (which have the same opportunity to propose IB or any other program), and lack of bus service (which can be negotiated and/or supplemented by carpools rather than used to drive academic excellence into a ditch).

An IB program is a demanding one accepted by universities worldwide. It has a rigorous curriculum, mandatory community service and a 4,000-word senior essay.

The Sandia program would operate as a magnet and be open to students districtwide who are able to pass an entrance exam. Experience running such an exacting academic program — which Harvey has — and buying into it are essential for its success.

So the board proposal to put it out to bid among all APS schools seems custom-designed for failure.

Board member David Robbins was the lone voice of reason last week, pointing out that nobody on the board complained when Atrisco Heritage in the South Valley got a courtroom, a feature no other high school has, and that each school has or can add unique programs.

“I don’t think we need to say ‘no’ to any new program if we can’t make it available to everyone, because then … we’re really relegating ourselves to mediocrity in the district,” Robbins said.

New Mexico’s robust charter school movement has shown that parents and students are eager for a variety of educational opportunities, that one size truly does not fit all. IB is already available at one Albuquerque charter and some private schools, but not at any traditional public school in New Mexico.

APS has been handed the opportunity to expand its offerings to students while at the same time raising the bar, not only for its students but for its other schools.

It should seize it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Test is Not to Blame

Janet Murguia: Failing Schools--Not Just a Label, A Fact

My Response (I tried to post this at the Huffington Post, but it was too long... so I just decided to post it here.)

I agree with Ms. Murguia that a great majority of schools that serve primarily low-income and minority schools are failing.  Although NCLB and its associated tests aren't perfect, the law and the tests aren't to be blamed for the achievement gap that exists in our nation. It seems like it's time to move the conversation away from whether NCLB is of merit.  I agree that there are major problems using only standards-based tests to assess our students as well as with the idea that when a student is proficient on such tests, that he/she has achieved everything our nation hopes for in a K-12 education.  It's true.  There are major problems with NCLB. 

But, I believe we do need data that compares schools across the nation.  I believe that we need to keep having the conversation about how to improve schools serving low-income and minority students.  That's why I think we need to focus our conversations more on reform and what reforms will work.  Simply changing or doing away with testing will not fix public schools.  Too much energy is wasted using NCLB as a scapegoat for the problems with public education.  On the other side of the debate, too much energy is also wasted using teachers as scapegoats. 

We have a test, the test is one piece of data that describes how our schools and our students are doing, and we need to see that data as not an end-all-be-all but as a tool to actually help improve things. At the very least, the tests tell us a truth that low-income and minority students have trouble taking these types of tests and probably also have trouble with the reading, writing, and math necessary to get right answers.  Until a better assessment comes along, let's try and come together and face the facts that a very large number of students in our nation have skills that are too low.  Let's try and come together to focus not on the test, but on the reforms necessary to make a difference.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Moving Beyond 'Blame the Teacher'

Moving Beyond 'Blame the Teacher'

The above article analogizes what is currently happening in education (blaming teachers, seeking to make them more replaceable, etc.) with US manufacturing in the 1970's and 80's.  I don't know much about the history of manufacturing, but if what the article says is true - that Japan began to overtake the US in manufacturing because the US could not get beyond the idea that low production performance was the fault of blue-collar workers - it sounds similar to the current state of affairs in education.  Yes, there might be some complacent blue-collar workers and some complacent teachers out there, but demoralizing them further certainly won't improve performance.  Seeking to improve the systems in place (top down, one size fits all....) seems, to me, the more effective place to start changing US public education for the better.

I see the dilemma, why pay teachers more or treat them better if they aren't doing a good job?  Why reward them for their poor performance?  But, without better pay and better incentives - without more autonomy and the chance to be rewarded for hard work - the profession will continue to attract people who expect to work 8am - 3pm with a 3 month summer break.

Yes, there are always the students... teachers always have the reward that their students will look back, years from now, and think about how their 10th grade math teacher really helped them to understand geometry.  But, on the day-to-day, there's no reward or recognition for making sure you get all of your papers graded or that you make sure all of your students really understood yesterday's lesson.  There's no reward for staying late after work to call your students' families.  Even test scores are shoddy measures of these types of activities that good teachers do in order to make sure their students show up and learn every day.  Which is why they don't happen in every classroom.  What can be done to encourage and recognize teachers who figure out what will motivate their students and then do it every day until their students show progress?  How can teachers really be made partners in public education, rather than cogs in the machine?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Year Round Schools

Year Round Schools May End at APS

I just read the above article, and I really don't like the idea that the school board can just vote to end year-round schedules at 8 elementary schools based on transportation costs.  I know budgets are tight.  But, it seems like the issue should be decided by school parents and staff - not the school board of a massive school district.  The schedule change saves something like $33,500.  Yes, a lot of money to me, but a drop in the bucket when it comes to the budget of the district as a whole.  It's possible that parents, staff, and students would agree to the change or maybe even be in favor of it, but it's also possible that they really approve of the year-round school schedule.  I would.  I think it's ill-conceived to have students off of school all summer, when we are griping about how our nation is consistently out-performed. 

The article does state that the year-round schools don't show statistically higher test scores than other schools, but perhaps they get the same results without having to run the same early-back-to-school summer programs that other elementary schools do.  I bet it saves cost to simply  have all of the students in school rather than creating an extra program so the schedule looks more like year round schools.  I'm always befuddled by who makes what decisions in public schooling.  It clearly seems to me like this decision, based on the amount of money it really saves and the amount of impact it will have on families and school staff, should be made by the FAMILIES and SCHOOL STAFF MEMBERS involved!

Senate Proposal Would End "Highly Qualified" Designation

Senate Proposal Would End "Highly Qualified" Designation

Hmmm.... I have mixed feelings about ending the need to be "highly qualified" in order to teach a subject.

In my previous job teaching in a rural, hard-to-staff middle school - I saw a career engineer get turned down to teach math, because he was not considered highly qualified. I could see that he isn't highly qualified to handle things like classroom management and curriculum development, but he certainly wasn't lacking in the capabilities necessary to teach middle school level math. I think situations like this do happen and I also think that, up to about 10th grade, an all-around intelligent person has the content knowledge necessary to adequately teach all subjects. Not that the person would necessarily be a good teacher, but there should be a way to prove that you are content-competent without having to go back and take college courses. After all, we don't want to deter potential great teachers from entering the profession.

On the other hand, I don't know that it's a great idea to further lower the standards that it currently takes to become a teacher. The teaching profession should seek to become MORE professional and prestigious, not less so. And part of that comes from who is allowed to walk into a classroom and be called "teacher." Not everyone is allowed to be "doctor," "lawyer," or "accountant," even if they'd like to become one. So, if we are doing away with "highly qualified," what will replace it? How will we ensure that our teachers are more highly qualified in the ways that matter to students?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Charters Stepping Up to Train Teachers

Charters Stepping Up to Train Teachers

I think this makes great sense! I'm happy to see that New Visions for Public Schools, a network of 76 public schools, of which only 2 are charters, is on board with this hands-on training. Anyone willing to take this on in New Mexico?

Landmark Online-Class Mandate On the Move in Idaho

Landmark Online-Class Mandate On the Move in Idaho

I guess it's good to prepare students who may have to take online college courses, but I personally don't see enough merit in this plan to justify forcing students into online education when they could be taking class, in person, from a qualified teacher. Thoughts?

House Gives Bipartisan Stamp of Approval to Charter Bill

House Gives Bipartisan Stamp of Approval to Charter Bill

I work at a charter school and, overall, I think that charter schools do and should have a permanent place in public education. Like my school, many charter schools provide a more close-knit atmosphere for students who need it. Charter schools also have the ability to provide a less traditional education than most public schools (although my charter school still has lots of state mandates to meet that keep our curriculum fairly similar to the public schools around us). Sometimes, charter schools even provide a more likely path to a college education than nearby public schools. What I'm wondering today, though, is whether the "innovations" that occur in charter schools have ever been adopted back into any public school systems. Charter schools are often touted as places where school leaders and educators are free to try cutting edge new education techniques, with the intention that , once proven to work in charter schools, these new, successful, techniques will then be implemented back into public schools.

Am I behind the times? Is this no longer how we even think of charter schools? Should they be thought of as places to innovate in ways that may eventually help our public school system? Have any charter school practices been successfully implemented in surrounding public schools? Are there charter school practices that could be deemed universally successful?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Study Finds Few Links Between Teacher Characteristics, Performance

Study Finds Few Links Between Teacher Characteristics, Performance

A recent study found that certification, advanced credentials, and experience in the classroom have little or no effect on student achievement on math and reading exams. I'm definitely not surprised to find out that certification and advanced credentials have no effect. And I would think experience would only make a difference for the first few years of a teacher's career. So... what DOES affect student achievement? I know that Teach For America has lots of data about the qualities that a person displays (i.e. highly organized, evidence of perseverance, etc.) and the likelihood that a person will make significant gains (2 years growth) with their students. What else is out there? Most colleges of education and alternative licensure programs don't have the luxury of turning away people who don't possess particular qualities. Neither do most school districts - there simply aren't enough qualified applicants.

So, now that we know what doesn't affect student achievement in math and reading - what does? What that can actually be encouraged for those who are already in the teaching profession? Hours per week spent working? Charting students' proficiency on classroom objectives? Co-teaching? Having a strong school leader?

Having seen my own test scores rise about 30% or so over 5 years of teaching, what seemed to make the biggest difference for my students was 1) Just getting better at teaching... sticking with it past those first 2 years, 2) Talking and caring a lot about test scores and paying attention to what types of questions were asked on the state test each year, 3)More or less forcing students to learn skills/content that they didn't learn the first time I taught it in class (by making them come in at lunch or re-do assignments) 4)Being held accountable by high achieving colleagues, TFA staff, and graduate school professors. But those are just guesses. I really don't know what caused my test scores to improve - and I guess that's part of the problem faced by those who study education. It's easy to see whether or not someone has an advanced degree, but what does "talking and caring a lot about test scores" really mean? And would it necessarily work for every teacher who tried it?

And there's always the question - are the test scores really what we're after? Definitively not. They are an approximation of students' progress toward the real outcomes that we want - success in college, skills necessary to obtain a lucrative career, well-rounded and informed citizen. Yet, we can't let our lack of clarity of exactly what results we want and how to measure those results blind us to the achievement gap that exists in our nation.

So as not to end on a hopeless note, I'm going to cast my vote for #4. I think that we need evaluators, coaches, colleagues, principals, graduate school teachers, parents, etc. inside classrooms - pushing teachers and helping teachers (not blaming teachers) to continuously find ways to help their students achieve more.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Study Groups: Worth the Effort?

Although the following article's headline sounds like something from The Onion, it does post an interesting question:  Why don't high schools encourage the formation of study groups?  I fairly well agree with the article, that study groups would require a lot of effort to implement.  And they work best when they are voluntary for students - making them possibly not worth the investment of paying staff to supervise them.

That said, parents hosting study groups in their homes is a great idea.  Parents who have participated in study groups could very effectively encourage their own children as well as a few others to study together.  But would it be difficult for parents who have never participated in study groups of their own to host such an event?  Probably.

I once read that low-performing schools need to embrace the co-parenting challenge in order to raise achievement.  I believe that's true.  It's not useful to ignore the obstacles that come along with groups of students who attend schools in low-income areas.  The school's only hope at success is to identify the obstacles and come up with creative solutions. 

At first glance, study groups seem like they may not be worth the obstacles that they'd come along with - transportation, finding time in working or very busy students' schedules, lack of motivation, lack of study skills.  However, learning how to participate in a study group would go a very long way for students who do enter college.  They also, if done successfully, could put learning in a really positive light.  And they take adults out of the equation - allowing students to monitor one another rather than asking a parent for help. 

I personally find study groups really enjoyable as well as helpful.  I think study groups could be a really great way to augment daily learning for students who attend low-performing schools - and I'm for anything that effectively extends the school day by helping students spend more time learning. Any other thoughts out there?

ABQ/ COLUMN: Studying in Groups Can Be Effective

By Leanna Landsmann [syndicated columnist]
ABQ Journal
September 6, 2011

Q: As a mom working on a master’s degree, I’m part of a study group and love it. When I see my son, a high school sophomore, struggle with his homework, I wonder why high schools don’t encourage the formation of study groups. Is there a reason?

A: Some high schools promote study groups. Others don’t for reasons ranging from educators remaining unconvinced of their effectiveness to a lack of staff to manage them. The vice principal of a Michigan high school says, “With budget cuts, we hardly have enough people to oversee study halls. Plus, study groups are hard to make work. Some students don’t want to be there, and the distractions, like one kid having a new iPad or a cute girl texting, are enormous.”

Educators who take this view may be missing a big opportunity to accelerate teens’ learning, says Atlanta adolescent-literacy expert ReLeah Lent. “Some teachers are still in the ‘I lecture; you take notes’ mode, which practically shuts down kids’ brains.” This is unfortunate. If effectively run, study groups can prepare students for college and careers, Lent says. “The Partnership for 21st Century Skills defines collaboration and teaming as essential workplace skills. Research tells us that collaborative learning develops problem solving, critical thinking, empathy, deeper understanding of content and even produces higher test scores.”

You may not be able to do much about a school’s policy, but Lent says you can help your son learn more and learn better by forming, managing and hosting a student study group in your home. “We know that learning is not a solitary activity. We’ve all had the experience of learning something more deeply when we’ve explained it and discussed it with others. Studying in a group is perfect for this generation of active multitaskers who can’t sit still, much less learn alone,” Lent says.

What’s a parent’s role with study groups?
“Call four or five of your son’s classmates’ parents to describe your idea and initiate meetings at homes for the purpose of studying, doing projects, talking through difficult content or reading assigned books,” Lent says. “Schedule meetings once a week, for two hours, no more than three. Choose the topic ahead based on assignments. Offer snacks and breaks. Because kids know from the outset that the purpose of the gathering is to learn, they take the group seriously and discover that learning with others is satisfying and effective.”

Help students and parents understand techniques that make the groups effective, such as encouraging members to think out loud, share ideas, hash out problems, discuss and compare class notes taken to clarify concepts. Reinforce the importance of participating each week and acknowledge and draw upon the different strengths each student brings to the group. Identify distractions that can become time-wasters, but “don’t hang over the kids demanding that they stay strictly on task. The idea is to have your teens create lifelong study habits that encourage thinking, discussing, and probing for answers; in other words, working with others in a quest to learn.”

The College Board offers practical tips at:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Push to End 'Social Promotion' Hits Obstacles in New Mexico

Push to End 'Social Promotion' Hits Obstacles in New Mexico

To me, ending social promotion is not an example of education reform. It is a mandate that students and schools improve without going far enough to provide the resources and ideas to make that happen. I recently saw a statistic that correlated high school drop outs with kids who had been retained in grades K-8. In some cases, multiple retentions may lead directly to a child dropping out of school. I think it is more likely that the same factors that led to a student being retained are at play in his/her decision to drop out. In any case, there's no way that I can see retention as a solution to low student performance.

In high school, it's possible that a student's apathy toward school causes her to fail and that retention might make that student reconsider the amount of effort she is putting toward school. Not in third grade. I don't think that retention would "scare" any third grader into finally trying to do well on his state test. No way.

So, while I hope that NM schools get better and social promotion becomes less necessary - I support Mary Jane Garcia (the "obstacle" in NM... according to the above article) and echo her doubts about ending social promotion.