Saturday, December 10, 2011

Slow and Steady wins the race, thank goodness!

My older son is a swimmer, and as I sit at at a regional swim meet, I'm struck by how important resilience is in sport. My son has been swimming since he was about six, and he's always been quite good (if I do say so myself). We've stuck with swimming because it was a sport that he did well with, for he seems to do better with individual sports than team ones. We've encouraged him to swim through thick and thin because we see that when he's successful, he feels good about himself and learns to set and meet goals. Both of these results are important to us as his parents because we know the effects will stick with him for a lifetime.

Yet, not all of his peers in swimming seem to be in it for the long haul. Many of the boys who have swum with him over the years are beginning to burn out and quit the sport. Some of these kids were amazing swimmers, blowing away the competition (including my son!) in both summer and year-round meets. When people watched them swim, they would be impressed by their swimming talent. But as these kids have aged, they have slowly faded from the scene for a variety of reasons. Some fade because they become involved in other sports (swimming is not the "cool" sport where we live that football is, imagine that). Others, though, have faded because their early talent for the sport is not as impressive as it was. Other kids, who have stuck it out and trained through the years, are catching up, at times matching or beating the young phenoms. Instead of taking that new competition as motivation to get better, these kids are breaking. They avoid big meets and cut back on their training. Whispers among parents at the meets and practices suggest that the kids are either disappointments to their parents or causes of concern as the kids battle depression or act defiantly due to their frustration over not being the best anymore.

These young swimmers are caught up in our culture's worship of talent. While we in the US say we value hard work, what we adore is talent, especially precocious talent. We love the kid who wins the piano competition at age five. We are amazed by the baby who reads or does math before kindergarten. Prodigies get to appear on the Today Show and have one million hits on YouTube. We have built a culture of fame for prodigies, but what happens when their peers catch up with their talent? Has the prodigy, who never had to work hard to be successful, learned the value of hard work? Will they push themselves in order to be better? Or will they give up because they are no longer as good as they were? Unfortunately, I'm seeing too many phenom swimmers giving up, burning out, and fading away.

I hope I'm teaching my son that he needs to be in it for the long haul. He's a pretty good swimmer now, but he's not the best of the bunch. With each year, though, he gets a little better, a little stronger, and a little more savvy in competition. At this rate, he'll hit his peak in late high school or perhaps early in college. He has potential to be a collegiate swimmer, and perhaps qualify to try out for the Olympics if he wants. But that potential does not depend on how talented he is today. It depends on how hard he works between now and then. To me, if he learns that hard work will get him from here to his dreams, then I've done a good job as a parent, whether he actually gets to swim in college or the Olympics or not.

My favorite Aesop's fable is "The Tortoise and the Hare." The talented Rabbit, so sure of his physical superiority in a race, fails to work hard and even slacks off, leaving room for the slower, but persistent Tortoise to beat him. I'm glad that "slow and steady wins the race." That way, more of us have the hope of winning, if we just stick to it. Resilience wins, every time.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Do the Numbers Really Mean? Not Much, Really...

Recently, two articles from The Washington Post's blog The Answer Sheet got my attention. One detailed the adventures of a school board member who took a version of the Florida standardized, high-stakes test students must take in order to graduate and help their schools earn a "successful" label. The other outlined the "evidence" that shows how education majors come from the bottom third of college students. Both, I feel, tell an interesting story about what we've come to value in education and how we've let it corrupt our notions of learning.

I was very intrigued by the school board member who took it upon himself to take a version of the Florida high-stakes test. While he was not allowed to take an official version, he took one that was similar to what students must face each year. He took subtests in reading and math, and he failed miserably. This upstanding, community-servant, double-master's-degreed businessman could not complete one math question and only got a D on the reading section. His performance, though, was not what intrigued me. His motivation was. He wanted to take the test because the schools in his district were continually being labeled as failing with students not passing these tests, yet he personally knew teachers who were doing outstanding work and students who could read and do math. His experiences didn't match the reported scores.

The second article also intrigued me because I've heard reformers complain before that teaching would be a better profession if we could attract the "best and brightest" of our college students to pursue teaching. Groups such as Teach for America were founded on this premise. TFA began by recruiting Ivy League all-stars to work in schools for two years with the belief that their brief service would revolutionize schools. Being in the presence of a passionate, brilliant Harvard grad would surely make a sullen, inner-city, disaffected youth love learning again, right? But learning that my colleagues and I are believed to be underachieving, dispassionate, regular-college grads who have ruined kids' love of learning was not what intrigued me. My reality was. My experiences do not match this study's report or TFA's philosophy.

I have personally known thousands of students in my career. The vast majority of students I've worked with could read, do math, write, and speak well enough to be successful in college. Now, I'll admit that I have worked in communities that value education and support their schools. Even so, not all students in those schools came from families that supported the quest for education. I've worked with students who did not pass our state tests, but even those students could read, write, and do math. And most of those still went to college and were successful.

I have worked with hundreds of teachers. The vast majority of teachers I worked with love school and learning so much that they overachieve at schooling. They are bonafide nerds about school. They are conscientious about doing work and want to help students be successful at school. While I never sat around with my colleagues bragging about our high school test scores, I do know that most of my colleagues graduated with honors from high school, college, and graduate school. The teachers I know are not in the bottom third of anything, except maybe in salary.

Ultimately, our notions of learning have been corrupted by a system that values test scores over something more meaningful. The fact that I'm calling it "something more meaningful" and not giving it a more concrete name shows that we really actually don't know what we want students to have when they walk across our commencement stages. We want for our SAT/ACT scores and GPAs to mean something - that we've learned something valuable and important. But the more we assign that value to these scores, the less it seems that they actually signify anything important. The numbers have come to have more value than what they signify. And that has lead us to this ugly place where numbers bestow value onto people instead of people assigning value to the numbers.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Queen Bees or Aunt Bees - Women in Educational Leadership

Check out this blog entry I wrote for the Leading Edge Institute - a Birmingham, AL, non-profit dedicated to fostering women in leadership.

The best leaders know that sharing power with others does not compromise their own power. Sharing power creates more efficient organizations that foster innovation, creativity, and resilience.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Repurposing "Readiness"

I work in a public high school, so we are all focused on "readiness." We want our students to be college "ready" and AP "ready" and "ready" for the real world. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog recently posted a commentary by Monty Neill of Fair Test in which he describes a Race to the Top initiative that encourages states to create a "readiness" test of kindergarteners as part of a Comprehensive Assessment System for public schools. Neill argues that readiness tests for kindergarteners will affect them negatively, convincing these little ones that they are failures at a young age and persuading their teachers that their students are not capable of academic work. These tests would deprive our youngest learners of the type of experiential learning that they need.

As I read Neill's commentary, I thought about education's love-hate relationship with tests. We in education have always given tests. I'm not sure I know a teacher who doesn't assess her students on a regular basis. Whether it's a summative unit test or a question-and-answer session during class discussion, teachers constantly assess their students. Yet, we in education also bemoan tests as time-wasting, fun-sucking, cognition-draining adventures in futility. I'm not sure I know a teacher who jumps for joy when state testing time rolls around. All criticisms of the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives blast their reliance on tests as the gold-standard of accountability. We find ourselves in a classic approach-avoidance conflict: we are compelled to assess our students so we know where they stand yet we hate judging them (and being judged ourselves) for where they stand.

I argue that we should stop fighting the tests. We won't win that battle anyway. The tests are here to stay, regardless of their quality or validity. What we need to do is repurpose the tests, educating the public and policy makers about what value these tests can provide. The problem with the current testing zeitgeist is that the test results are sold as a measure of how well we've prepared students. I'm not sure any educated person, or any person in education, really believes that's what tests really do. We've all taken tests that didn't really measure what we knew. These tests do not measure "readiness," so we should stop hoping that they will suddenly start measuring "readiness" because we use them as an accountability tool. So instead of using tests as measures of "readiness," we should use them as measures of "opportunity." 

I always told my students that testing days were the most important days in the course. The testing day was the moment of truth when they would discover whether they knew the material or not. Most students are very confident that they know the material going into the test. In fact, the overconfidence effect is a well documented phenomenon in psychology. People tend to be very confident that they will perform well on a task, but their performance generally does not equal their confidence. Because students don't know what they will be tested on, they assume that they will be tested on what they know. They don't anticipate that questions will come up about stuff they do not know. We don't expend a lot of energy studying information we already feel confident that we know. We do, however, expend great effort learning information that we do not know. So the testing day is when what they don't know is revealed. For students to recognize what they didn't know is the first step to learning.

I am interested in assessing our students, even in kindergarten, but I'm not interested in using the test results to punish parents, students, teachers, or schools for not getting these youngsters "ready" for school. I am interested in assessing our students so that we can know what we need to focus on in the classroom. Can our five-year-olds entering kindergarten read? Can they add or subtract? Can they name the current President of the United States? If so, I'm going to need to plan lessons that take students farther than what the Common Core or any other standardized curriculum would dictate for kindergarten. We waste tons of time in classrooms teaching students material they already know. Test results should point us in the directions we should go from this point forward. The "readiness" approach instead uses test results to scold us for not having the map that tells us where to go.

So, Mr. President and Mr. Secretary, rethink your interpretation of test results. The results will not tell you whether our students are "ready" for anything. But they will tell you how many resources we will need to meet the learning needs of our students. Use the scores as indicators of how much work needs to be done instead of indicators of how little work has been done. See the scores as opportunities to demonstrate just how far students can go instead of evidence that someone has failed. This simple repurposing may be the honey you need to get teachers on board with your reform efforts. Of course, by getting teachers on board, you may not need reform efforts after all.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

AP Annual Conference Presentation 2011: Scope & Sequence Suggestions for AP Psychology

Here is a link to my powerpoint presentation for the session I lead at the AP Annual Conference in San Francisco, CA, in July 2011.

Teaching AP Psychology is incredibly fun, but can also be incredibly challenging. While I was fortunate to teach the course for an entire academic year, some folks must fit it all in during a semester. Some people also feel bound by the order of topics in the textbook. I present some options for how to design a fun, interactive, and interconnected course that will maximize interest and time. Feel free to comment with questions or innovative course ideas!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why We're Losing the Ed-PR Battle

Which would you rather eat - hamburger meat labeled as "85% fat" or "15% lean"?

Research shows that how situations are presented to us - known as "framing" - influences our thoughts and behaviors about those situations. Hamburger-meat consumers are more likely to buy that pack of meat if it's labeled "lean" than "fat." We are more likely to carry an umbrella on a sunny day if the weatherman says there is a 20% chance of rain rather than saying there is an 80% chance of sun. There is no difference in the chance of rain in either frame, but our behavior is very different in response to it.

Education reformers today are very good at framing. They employ folks whose sole purpose is to frame the argument in ways that will influence policy makers and venture capitalists to support their ideas and reject the ideas of the opposition. They have even figured out how to sway the public sentiment in their direction.

Let me stack these frames up for you, and you tell me who seems to be winning here. Ed reformers give us "No Child Left Behind." They give us "Race to the Top" and "Turnaround Schools." They rail against "Last in, First Out" and the dreaded "Status Quo." They point fingers at "teacher unions." They cry out that "poverty is no excuse for failure!" They "Teach for America" and propose that "Knowledge is Power." They put "Students First" while they are "Waiting for Superman."

What are the frames from their opposition? They say, "but the kids are poor and come from broken homes." They complain about politically charged school climates and vindictive, lazy administrators. They insist that some children will be left behind because some kids just aren't smart enough to go to college. They cross their arms and say they're not going to run in any race, thank you very much. They plead for more money to fix crumbling buildings and broken air conditioners, assuring us that a pretty building will make all the difference. They complain under their breath as they spend valuable time on test prep. They insist that Superman is not enough to fix the problems that face us.

The frames the reformers provide are showy and nice, enough to showcase something valuable. The other frames are chipped and bent, looking quite ready to be replaced. The sad fact is that the reformers are offering nothing of substance in this debate to put in these pretty frames. Charter schools systems haven't been the salvation of failing schools, even if they are reaching a few of the failing students. Turnaround plans like those in Central Falls, RI, aren't producing results. Arne Duncan predicts that 82% of schools will be labeled as "failing" in 2011 as No Child Left Behind bears down on even highly performing schools. And states are putting the brakes on their winning Race to the Top reforms as the realities of those reforms become clear.

But the responses to these reforms leave educators looking cold hearted. Instead of looking within ourselves and being our own best critics, we educators are making lame excuses that blame everyone but ourselves. We teachers are busting our butts to do a good job, and all you people expect out of us are miracles. But, come on, our students are left behind because they are poor or lazy or stupid or bad. Their parents are uncooperative and apathetic. The administrators are vindictive and lazy. The DOE is unsympathetic and out of touch.

How can we expect to win the hearts and minds (and money) of the public if we don't take appropriate responsibility and fix those parts of ourselves that are broken? We need to take a good, hard look at tenure to see how we can avoid the perception that tenured teachers simply "phone it in" until retirement. We need to examine constantly how we prepare students so we give them the best possible choices for their futures. We need to develop systems of accountability for students and teachers that provide direction for continuous improvement. Right now, we are letting others come up with ideas for how to address these problems. We need to stop complaining about how difficult the job is. We need to take charge and develop programs and solutions that we can embrace. We do not need to be afraid of change. We just need to create a change that will work.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The "Readiness Myth" - Why We Don't Want Students Who Are "Ready" Already

completely prepared or in fit condition for immediate action or use
duly equipped, completed, adjusted, or arranged, as for an occasion or purpose

When is a student "ready" for the next phase of their lives? Students are "ready" when they are "completely prepared...for immediate action" and "duly equipped... for an occasion or purpose." We talk about "readiness" all the time in schools, but I don't think we are using the word "ready" in the sense. We use "ready" instead to label students for placement in grades, courses, and college. We determine whether students are "ready" to go to the next grade or "ready" to take that AP class or "ready" to enter college. We have made "readiness" a high-stakes enterprise. Students who are "ready" are allowed to matriculate and take that AP class and enter college without taking remedial courses. Students who are not "ready" are held back and denied entry into advanced coursework and charged hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to take extra courses that don't count toward a degree.

In my opinion, our use of "readiness" to determine whether students can move on to the next phase of life is broken. We use "readiness" as a key that opens doors for students who are deemed "ready," and we withhold the key from students who are not. Lack of "readiness" has become code for "stupid" or "lazy" or "falling short of potential." Education reformers are now using "readiness" to grade teachers and school as well as students. If teachers and schools are not getting students "ready" for the next test or grade or graduation, then those teachers and schools are failures, just like their students. "Readiness" now has the highest of stakes attached to it.

Jay Mathews' Class Struggle column in the Washington Post recently addressed community college placement tests. The College Board, who authors the ACCUPLACER test for many community colleges, encourages students in their instructions for the test by saying that it is not possible to "fail" a placement test. Yet, community colleges use the scores from this test to determine placement in remedial classes. So, in essence, students can "fail" the placement test, as Mathews points out. These students end up spending money and time taking remedial courses because they are not "ready" for "real" college work.

Here is the flaw in our logic of "readiness" - if students are already "ready" already for the next phase of their lives, what do we have left to teach them? If students are "ready" already for AP classes, what does the teacher have to offer these students? If students are "ready" already for college work, why should they go through with college work? I believe that if we only teach "ready" students, we really aren't teaching. We are merely babysitting.

I've taught many AP students over the years, and there were several who really didn't need me. They were the poster children for "readiness." All they really needed was the course textbook and perhaps an encouraging email from me now and then, and they would have passed the AP test with flying colors. These students were very "ready" for AP and for college work. I had little to offer but some tricks of the trade for writing free-response questions and tips for remembering often-confused concepts. I didn't have to do much teaching for these "ready" students.

Now, my non-"ready" students were those who really needed me. They needed me to work with them to develop the skills they needed to be "ready" for that test in May. They weren't as independent as my "ready" students. They could read the textbook and still not understand everything they read. They needed me to critique their essays extensively and repeatedly before they were able to write a coherent, cohesive response to a prompt. Some days, my non-"ready" students battled with me over each and every teaching point. Other days, they trusted that what I was teaching them would make a difference in their lives. We enjoyed a dynamic give-and-take relationship in the classroom that I truly enjoyed. I loved seeing the light come on with these non-"ready" students. I felt like I was accomplishing my ultimate teaching goal - to make a difference in the lives of my students.

I've had many colleagues over the years who did not want students who weren't "ready" for advanced coursework. When course selection time came around, these teachers would demand that students complete applications or take placement tests to enter their classes. They would meet with teachers in feeder classes to talk about which students were "ready" and which were not. They would complain about teachers in feeder classes who were too generous in recommending students for advanced courses. They would make students and their parents sign forms saying they were aware that the student was overreaching their potential by taking advanced coursework over the objections of their teachers or their placement test score.

For the most part, I think these teachers are well meaning. They don't want to set students up for failure. They don't want to see students frustrated when the course gets tough. But I think these teachers are missing the real point of schooling - to teach students how to overcome failure and frustration. They were missing the point because they were afraid that their students' failures would reflect badly on their teaching. Students who are "ready" already are not likely to encounter failure in our schools. They will rarely be frustrated with our classes. And they will rarely be challenged. And they will make us look good as teachers. We will look good when they do well on our tests, but I don't think they will ever really learn anything from us.

In today's climate of data worship and high-stakes accountability, we have become afraid of students who are not "ready." Students who are not "ready" will be frustrated with us and our course expectations. Students who are not "ready" will fail sometimes, if not entirely. These students may not give us the data we need to make AYP or to be deemed "effective." They may make our AP pass rates fall. Or they may make us look really, really good. The risks of teaching non-"ready" students are great, but so are the rewards. So instead of using the data we generate to create appropriate learning goals for our students so we can help them become "ready" and ultimately succeed, we are using the data we generate to punish students for not being "ready" already.

Real school reform will happen when we embrace non-"ready" students and get on with the business of school, helping them to become "completely prepared" and "duly equipped" for whatever life has for them. Teaching them how to overcome failure and how to deal with frustration will do more to make our students "ready" for the real world and the 21st century than any amount of test prep or data worship. Our new evaluation systems for students, teachers, and schools should focus more on non-"readiness" than "readiness." "Readiness" is a prize we should always pursue but never achieve. For by achieving "readiness," we then have nothing left to learn.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Teacher Appreciation - What We Can Control and What We Can't

Note: I have changed the blog address to update the new title and focus. If you have bookmarked this blog, please update!

As I celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, I've been reflecting on what teachers contribute to students, schools, and the community at large. I've also been reflecting on what teachers can't contribute to students, schools, and the community at large. I am typically what some folks (like my husband) would call a "control freak," wanting to be "in charge" and controlling what goes on around me. My sisters would confirm that I've been bossy since childhood (ah, the joys of being first born!), and because of these traits of mine, I've become somewhat of an expert in determining what I can control and what I can't.

Figuring out what we can control and what we can't control is important to mental health. I can control how prepared I am for an emergency, but I can't control how extensively I am affected by that emergency. The recent tornadoes in my home state of Alabama show this. Many people hid out in their "places of safety" during the storms, which was the right thing to do, but the sheer power and magnitude of the storms made most preparations futile. Does that mean we should not go to places of safety for future storms? No. The lesser magnitude of future storms may make our planning and preparations crucial to our survival. We can only do what we can do and hope our preparations are enough to meet the power and magnitude of what we face.

Teachers face circumstances that vary in power and magnitude every day. Some of those circumstances can be faced with creativity and planning. Other circumstances can only be faced with patience and flexibility. Figuring out when you need to plan and when you need to be flexible can be the key to a healthier approach to teaching and learning. To me, there is one main circumstance teachers can control, and one main circumstance that they can't control.

Teachers can control what goes on each day in the classroom. Lesson planning is essential to a successful school day. Students need to be busy and engaged throughout the day in order for learning to happen. The work students do needs to be all things to all students - interesting, important, and appropriately challenging. A well planned lesson can address both learning needs and potential discipline problems that may arise.

Teachers can't control what students bring into the classroom each day. Even the most well planned lesson can be sabotaged by students who are belligerent and defiant. The real question then becomes why the student is belligerent and defiant. To me, this is where teaching and learning become truly complicated. Each student is bringing a different issue to the classroom each day, and how much those issues affect their learning (and your teaching) determines what remedies you might try. Some students are upset with parents or friends. Others may be dealing with poverty or abuse or substance abuse at home. Still others may be upset with you or another teacher in the building about their grades or the amount of work you assign. And yet others just may be insecure or immature and want attention at inappropriate times.

The task of teachers in these instances is not to "fix" what's wrong with the students, which is what you can't control, but to create an environment in which these issues become minimized, which is what you can control. You cannot make a student's home life better or correct immaturity (at least in the short term!). But you can create a classroom environment that is safe, structured, flexible, and engaging so students can leave their personal issues at the door and work on the tasks at hand while they are with you. You can leave your own personal issues at the door as well, not bringing to your classroom your home issues or insecurities or personal biases. You can explain students' behavior as the result of situations they are in rather than personal flaws they cannot change.

Some teachers work in environments in which poverty, abuse, illiteracy, and behavior problems abound. In these environments, it may seem as though no amount of planning or creativity will ameliorate the issues students bring into the classroom. In fact, teachers in these environments often feel like those folks who lost everything in the storms. They prepared, they planned, they did all the right things, but in the end, it was all for nothing. They only escaped with their lives, and in many cases, some didn't even escape with that. Teachers in high-risk schools often feel beaten up by the storms of their circumstances. They may learn to be helpless in these environments, which can lead to their lack of motivation to do the creative planning necessary to make learning happen successfully.

Other teachers work in environments in which students are generally well prepared for learning, but who at times may be immature or uninterested in learning. In these environments, instead of feeling helpless and defeated, teachers typically feel pretty confident about what they do and how they do it. These teachers tend to plan well and are creative with most of their lessons. Most of their students are compliant and even thriving under their tutelage. But these teachers can be blind to the reasons why some students are not successful. They may hold so tightly to their procedures and plans that they cannot imagine why some students aren't engaged or even enthralled by their teaching. These teachers need more patience and flexibility than planning and creativity. These teachers are like those who weather less severe storms. They plan and prepare and protect themselves from the winds and rain, and they usually escape with little to no damage. But some damage can happen, and instead of raging against the existence of storms, we simply clean up the mess and consider how we can avoid the types of damage we faced in the future.

Resilience is not cultivated in an environment free of conflict and adversity. Ultimately, resilient teaching is not about being in a school that is without problems or working with students who are without problems. These schools and students do not exist anyway. Resilient teaching is about preparing for the best while expecting the worst. Resilient teaching is about creativity and planning, patience and flexibility all at the same time.

So to all the teachers who exemplify resilient teaching every day, kudos to you! Let's do all we can to help both our students and our colleagues be more resilient every day.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Trouble with Data

Personal Note: I've been away from the blog for about a month due to the birth of my second son, Simon. He's a beautiful, easygoing, healthy baby boy who has been a wonderful addition to our family. Now, back to the blog...

As I've been taking care of my new baby, I've been thinking about how the worship of data has gotten us into a real mess in education today. The whole drive for education reform today revolves around how to produce and interpret data generated by students in the classroom. Race to the Top, and its predecessor No Child Left Behind, require the generation and use of data to make crucial decisions about how to educate children in public schools. The data is used to determine school improvement efforts, school reform efforts, and, if reformers have their way, teacher effectiveness efforts. I'm afraid that educating children has taken a back seat to the production and interpretation of data in our schools today. Instead of data reflecting what goes on in schools, data is now what is done in schools.

In science, a study is only as good as its data. Scientists spend more time planning how they are going to collect their data than they spend actually collecting it. This planning is crucial because variables need to be controlled. The goal of a scientific study is to determine cause and effect - does Variable A cause Variable B? Scientists have to consider all potential variables that could cause Variable B to occur in order to isolate Variable A's causative power. Scientists have to plan the type of data to collect. They have to plan how they are going to analyze the data before they even begin to collect it. They consult with others to figure out whether their plan for data collection and analysis is sound. The actual data collection moment may take less than an hour, while the planning takes months or even years. Once they collect the data, they analyze it and share it with more colleagues who provide advice on the analysis and the potential interpretation of the data. They work with others to generate questions about what the data means. The scientific process even involves seeking out critics who will look for weak spots in the data collection, analysis, and interpretations so that only the strongest research will be published.

We in education really only have ourselves to blame for this mess we're in. We produce mounds and mounds of data each day - attendance data, assessment data, discipline data, and on and on. Yet, we have done relatively little with this data over the years. We may have looked at the data. We probably even analyzed some of the data. But, in general, we have committed two major errors with our data:

1. We do not collect our data with any plan for how we are going to analyze and interpret it.

2. And we do not share our data with others.

We commit the first error because we typically do not plan for data collection with the purpose of research in mind. We simply collect data, and after the fact realize that we should probably analyze it to see if the data shows that Variable B happened. By haphazardly collecting data, we cannot know if Variable A is the cause of Variable B because we did not control for any of the other variables that may have also caused Variable B. Did the standardized test score our students earned last March occur because the teacher was awesome? How can we know if we haven't controlled for the multitude of variables that have influenced that test score - past experience, parental involvement, poverty, number of snow days that year, etc.? Generating data last March does not automatically mean we can interpret that data in ways that provide definitive conclusions about any variable that wasn't controlled originally. And in schools, very few variables are controlled, ever.

The second error is perhaps our most grievous. If we are collecting data purposefully, and if we are analyzing it to make meaningful decisions, then we are doing a poor job of communicating our data and conclusions to a wider audience. We should be our own best advocates for what is going on in the classroom because we are in the best position to know whether a teaching strategy or a curricular program is effective. We should be collecting data with the analysis in mind, and once we analyze our data, we should share our findings with the world. If we did those things, we would not be in the current climate of hostility toward education that we are in now. We would be able to discuss our practices and results authoritatively instead of defensively. We do not teach our teachers and administrators how to conduct sound research in the classroom or school. So instead of getting educational research that is meaningful and important, we get eduspeak and excuses.

Can you use standardized tests or course grades or graduation rates or discipline records to determine effective teachers and schools? Yes, if that data is collected with these ends in mind. Yes, if that data is collected in a way that controls for the extraneous variables that also can cause test scores or course grades or graduation rates or discipline incidents. Until the data we collect in schools is collected purposefully, the conclusions we reach from the data is speculative at best.

We need to take charge of our data so we can speak with our own voices in the education debate. How much more powerful would our arguments for reform be if our conclusions stood the test of scientific criticism? To me, the best charter school is not one that eliminates tenure or has shiny new lab equipment. The best charter school would be one that seeks to collect data purposefully and is willing to share openly the results of its experimental teaching practices, good, bad, or ugly. But to me, I don't see any reason why a regular public school couldn't be like this. Good data collection is not rocket science - it's just science.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why K-12 Students are Different from Adults

It would seem unnecessary to post about how students in our K-12 education system are different from adults. But, in light of the dialogue I've been reading and hearing over the last couple of years, I believe it might be useful to point out how the current suggestions for reforms in education may be missing important differences between students (aka, children) and adults. I apologize if this seems a little obvious.

1. Children are often immature. Research has demonstrated pretty definitively that students, even those in high school, are physically immature compared to adults. The US Supreme Court even cited such research when it ruled that those who commit crimes when they are under the age of 17 are not eligible for the death penalty - the parts of their brains that govern mature thoughts are not as highly developed before age 17 as they need to be to make important decisions about their actions. Thus, while I am all for putting "students first" and catering to their learning needs and proclivities, ultimately students are not as aware of what is best for them as they think they are. They would rather hang out than do math. They often fail to see the long-term consequences and benefits of their actions today. They often lack perspective about how something they learn in algebra or English class may be important to them in the future. They certainly don't appreciate that their failure on a test can cost a teacher her job in this climate. Thus, they need adults around to help guide them past their immature decisions so they can learn how to make mature ones as adults.

2. Students have little tolerance for boredom. Ask any classroom teacher what happens when a lesson is boring. It's a nightmare! Students become restless or sleepy (depending on their current level of sleep debt, which is likely large!), and the class ceases to become a learning environment. When students disconnect from the class experience, they are usually not polite about it (see point #1). They typically play around with other students or spend precious energy figuring out ways to distract the teacher from teaching, mainly because that's just funny to them (again, see point #1). Thus, putting more students into a classroom where the teacher cannot give more individualized attention is likely a recipe for disaster. It would save money, and perhaps that's really the goal of that reform recommendation. But my bet is that it will not lead to greater learning. It will just lead to more management. To manage large classes, you tend to sacrifice the needs of the individual for the goal of the masses. This classroom setup will produce boredom for someone, and you just have to hope that someone is the more mature kid in the room.

3. Students can smell weakness. The best measures of effectiveness of teachers are not their value-added scores or their school's AYP status. The best measure is the word-of-mouth the students give about that teacher. People would ask me, "What kind of teacher were you?" My response was always, "Ask my students." I always felt I did well in the classroom because my students did well on their tests, and they seemed to be pretty well behaved when they were with me. But I would keep my ear on the ground to hear what they said about me behind my back. I would also solicit periodic anonymous feedback about my teaching from them. Usually, they were pretty honest with me. I'd hear all sorts of helpful suggestions like "You should not give those types of quizzes any more - they're impossible!" or "Sometimes you are very sarcastic, and I'm not sure how to take it." I also got immature suggestions like, "We need to have more free days." I knew from this feedback, though, what I really needed to fix. When I flubbed it up in the classroom, I would hear about it from my students. They had little tolerance for bad teaching on my part, and they made sure I knew it. And I appreciated it because it helped me keep on my toes.

Adults are usually much more mature and polite than our students. They can think through decisions and not react with immaturity when things are challenging. They can be polite in the face of a boring meeting or continuing ed class. Adults can be much more forgiving of weakness in the workplace, since people's livelihoods are at stake.

I think that education reformers need to stop thinking about students as miniature adults and start remembering what it was like to be a child or teenager. Motivating a room full of immature teenagers is not like motivating a group of people in a large corporation. The approaches are necessarily different. The amount of work it requires is necessarily greater.

To reform education, you must not put students first. You must put yourself in the students' shoes and remember what it was like to walk around in them. Then, you can start formulating plans to help them move out of their sneakers and into some wing tips.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Egalitarian and Generic - Redefining Our Educational Goals

Education for all has not always been the philosophy of schooling in the US. For the last century or so - and really, truly only for the last 60 years or so - US educational philosophy has tried to create an egalitarian and generic schooling system. We want our children to attend schools that are equal (and it's only been since Brown v. Board that we've actually really tried this), and we want our schools to provide a generic education for our kids. We don't want it to matter where we live - we want our school to be just as good as the school in the neighboring community or state. We don't want it to matter what our kids want to do after high school - we want them to be prepared for any type of future they may end up pursuing. This is quite a high and lofty goal, and I must say, we've not been able to provide it.

This type of education has not always been the goal of education in the US. The founders didn't feel as though an egalitarian and generic education was necessary or even desired. That the founders didn't include a national education system in the Constitution is telling. Yes, Jefferson believed an educated citizenry was important to successful democracy, but he didn't necessarily believe that the "citizenry" included anyone but the privileged. Education was for those who could afford it or those who deserved it. It was left up to states to decide whether they wanted to bother with educating anyone, and it took a long while before the idea of education for the masses took hold.

The Industrial Revolution and the end of child labor laws brought upon us the dawn of education as we know it today. When we stopped allowing children to work, we needed a place to put them. We also realized that they needed to be prepared for the types of futures we wanted Americans to have. We began to experiment with the idea of schooling for everyone, first putting everyone into a little red schoolhouse and moving on to more efficient models that divided students into grades and courses. It was only after Brown v. Board that we started believing that school could be for everyone. It was only then that we tried to figure out what that really looked like.

Today, education reformers are trying to redefine egalitarian and generic. Instead of judging whether these ideals work based on the type of courses we offer or the quality of our school buildings, they want to define these ideals based on test scores and effectiveness ratings. They still want for no child to be left behind (egalitarian) and for all of us to race to the top (generic), but they don't believe we in education have succeeded in either of these goals. They believe that education is unequal and dependent on your socioeconomic status, and I must say, they are probably right.

The numbers don't back us up. Students from higher socioeconomic areas are more successful at school than their poorer counterparts. Students who attend schools with more resources are more likely to go to selective schools than those who go to schools with fewer resources. Students from certain demographic groups are more likely to do better than those from other demographic groups. The numbers are damning, and we have not done a good job at explaining them.

Maybe we need to embrace a new philosophy of education in the US. Maybe we need to redefine what it means to get a good education. I don't want to abandon egalitarianism - without this part of the philosophy, I would not have been educated as well as I have been. I was that apartment kid on free and reduced lunch who worked hard to get into college on scholarship and worked even harder to stay there. I believe in the power of education when it works. But perhaps we need to redefine what it means to have a generic education.

Our culture rejects generic. We are trained from the earliest of ages to be set apart. We worship prodigies and geniuses and overachievers. We don't want our kids to blend in. We want them to stand out. We want our kids to attend selective schools and get prestigious internships and land coveted jobs. But our culture wants us to produce these kinds of results without seeming elitist - essentially, without sacrificing egalitarianism.

I believe schools need to be better at assessing students' skills as they grow instead of assessing the knowledge they are supposedly accumulating. The knowledge they accumulate is less important than the skills they develop. No one has ever asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of my job through a multiple choice tests or even an essay prompt. But I have been asked to demonstrate my skill sets that make me qualified for my job. I have to give presentations and analyze data and write reports and generate new ideas and deal with emerging technologies, all skills that I began learning in school.

To me, in order to demonstrate my skills, I have to possess a knowledge base. The knowledge should be a given if I can demonstrate that skill well. And if I don't know an answer, I can go look it up. I've never been called out by my bosses for not knowing an answer, but I have been called out on not being able to do something.

Maybe our standardized tests need to be skills based rather than knowledge based. Maybe the standards we develop for curricula should be skills based rather than knowledge based. What we need to realize is that knowledge is not generic. Skills are generic. Let's move towards a skills based education in order to redefine what we all believe are the good parts of an education. Let's go back to an egalitarian and generic educational system, but on terms that will really help students prepare for tomorrow.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Standardized Tests - What's in it for the Students?

Test scores are being lauded as the gold standard of measuring school and teacher effectiveness, at least according to some. The education reformers of today continually point to test scores as measures of our weakness as a system and herald test scores as our brass ring to grasp. Schools have been giving tests to students for decades, and their usefulness as been sketchy at best. Yet, for some reason, education reformers today are wanting test scores to lose their sketchy reputation and save us from the wasteland that education has become today.

Questions abound about the use of tests in schools - are they measuring learning? Are they cost effective? Do they measure teacher effectiveness? But the one question I don't hear anyone asking is why should students do well on these tests in the first place? What is the motivation for a third, eighth or tenth grader to do well on a standardized test? Why should our students care at all about how well they do on these tests? To me, this is the issue at the heart of why it is dangerous to use test scores as the brass ring.

I have mixed feelings about tests and test scores. My experiences with standardized tests and their scores range from positive to negative. On the positive side, I taught AP classes for most of my classroom career, and the standardized tests at the end of those courses largely defined my success as an AP teacher. I never had 100% of my students pass the AP Exam, but they did do well each year. I always felt the AP Exam was a pretty fair measure of what my students knew about the course I taught, even though, inevitably, there were concepts on the Exam that I had not taught my students. There were too many terms and too many applications of those terms to ensure that students were exposed to each and every possible concept they might encounter on the Exam. So, I never tried to cover everything in my class. Instead, I taught the material I was supposed to teach. I also spent time on their mental preparation for the Exam, assuring them that they would encounter terms and applications that they had never heard of before. I taught them not to panic. I taught them how to do their best even if they didn't know all the answers.

On the negative side, each year, my state has given high stakes graduation exams each year since I was a student in school. In order to graduate, you had to pass some or all of the content-based tests given in highly structured and monitored environments at your school. Now, I'll say the state does all it can to help students pass these tests. The tests are untimed. Students can take the tests up to nine times before graduation. Seniors who haven't passed certain parts of the exam are assigned to intensive classes designed to remediate them. To teachers and students alike, these tests are a bother at the least and a nightmare at the most. The tests are bothersome in that they take at least fifteen instructional days out of the year for students who must take every possible opportunity to take the tests. The tests are a nightmare for parents of students who struggle to pass them. The irony always occurs that students can pass their courses in high school but not pass the graduation exams. In this scenario, students don't graduate with a diploma, but a certificate of attendance. They must report back to their high school to take the graduation exams until they pass in order to get a diploma and get on with their lives.

In both of these testing circumstances, the student's motivation to do well on the test is at the heart of their success. For the vast majority of student taking either type of test, passing the test is not in question. Most students will do well on AP Exams or graduation exams even if they "phone it in." They do well because they try. It can actually take more effort to do poorly on these exams! The prospect of sheer boredom for the 2 to 4 hours of the test is enough to motivate students to at least try to answer the questions. If you look at the test data, you will see that most students actually do very well on these tests.

But these aren't the students education reformers and conscientious educators are concerned about. The students we are all concerned about are those who do not do well, and these students often fit into certain demographics. They come from difficult home environments. They have had bad experiences in school. They identify with stereotypes that predict failure in school. They fall into the achievement gaps we all are horrified by. The question of the day is why aren't these students doing well? The fingers are pointing at teachers right now, but no one is asking these students why they think they aren't doing well. And, to me, that is a big oversight.

For my AP students, some students would do well because they wanted college credit. Some wanted to do well because they wanted to beat other students and have bragging rights. Others wanted to please me. Still others didn't want to disappoint their parents, who paid money for them to take the tests. But I always had students who could have done well and didn't. Their reasons were as varied as the do-gooders. Some punted the test because their college of choice didn't accept the scores for the course - or the college accepted a score so high, the student didn't feel she could achieve it. Others didn't want to take the course in the first place (perhaps they were pushed into it by their parents or peer pressure). Still others didn't feel as though they needed the credit.

For my graduation exam students, some students wanted to do well because it was embarrassing in some circles to fail. No student wanted to admit to others that he was in remediation for not passing what was viewed as an "easy" test. Others wanted to do well because they knew the stakes and rose to the occasion. But others just didn't care whether they graduated or not. To some, it was cool or funny to be a slacker and fail. Some were going to work for their uncle's business whether they had a diploma or not. Some were doing so many drugs that they came to school high and were likely just in school to retain their customer base. Others came to believe it didn't matter whether they graduated or not - they were doomed to poverty and worthlessness anyway. Others, though, busted it to pass and missed it by "just this much" every time.

What about the current education debate is getting to the heart of these motivational challenges? Who is asking what's in it for students? What do students get out of doing well on these tests? Even with the AP Exams, where the benefits of passing are clear and financially sound, students choose to punt. Even with graduation/high-stakes tests, where the benefits are also clear, students choose to punt. But what about the reading tests we give to fourth graders and the math tests we give to eighth graders? What are the motivators for them to do well? Do we really expect a 10 year old or a 13 year old to care enough about school and teacher to do well? We are asking immature, underdeveloped brains to make very adult choices about doing well on a test that means absolutely nothing to them. What are the risks of failure? What are the benefits of passing? These kids can't stop themselves from touching or spitting on each other. Yet, we ask them to buy into the patriotism of school pride or the integrity of best effort for effort's sake in order to do well on these tests. We are asking kids who aren't mature enough to be conscientious about tying their shoes to make sure they do well so their teacher can continue to have a job.

I had one student whose ticket to ride for college was already stamped. She had earned an athletic scholarship to her favorite Division 1 school. Her housing deposits had been paid, and her roommate was already planning their room colors. So on the AP Exam that year, she didn't attempt any of the free response questions, and she said she made a nice picture out of her multiple choice bubbles. The frustrating part for the school was that we had helped her pay for her multiple AP Exam fees, and she punted each and every one of them she took. Even though over 75% of my students earned the highest possible scores on the AP Exam that year, should I be deemed ineffective because this student decided to punt the test? She didn't consider me or my school's reputation for one moment. She didn't show any gratitude for the school's generosity in paying her Exam fees. She had gotten what she wanted out of my class and the school, so she was fine with not earning that credit.

To me, we need to find out what students want to get out of our classes and our schools. Do they want the diploma? Is just passing all they are hoping for? Or do they want to be the top of the class? Do they want to impress their friends or their teachers? Do they want scholarships or do they just hope to get out of school as quickly as possible? Their answers to these questions will determine how well they do on our standardized assessments. To get at these answers, we have to build long-term relationships with our students in order for them to trust us enough to give us the answers. We can't build long-term relationships with teachers who are only committed for two years. We can't build an understanding of our students' motivational needs if we crowd our classrooms beyond reasonable capacities.

The calls for a fluid workforce and big class sizes are driving school towards being much like a corporation that has gotten too big to know their customers. Mom-and-pop stores know their customers and can tailor their services to the customer. They are part of the community and can adapt to the up-to-the-minute changes of the community. Customer service is personal and direct. Big corporations cannot afford to tailor their services to each and every idiosyncratic customer need. They cannot make quick changes in how they do business in order to keep the customers coming. They react slowly and often with callousness to the individual's needs.

I'd rather have a mom-and-pop school culture than a corporate one. I'd rather take the time get to know my students than be overly efficient. It is possible to be fiscally prudent and attentive to students' needs at the same time, but we have to ask the right questions. Right now, we are only pointing fingers. We are not even asking questions. We need to ask what would motivate our students to do well on tests, if that is what we are going to use. That would mean sitting down and asking them what they need or want out of our schools. Try doing that in a class of 35.

Back to Blogging

It's been quite a while since I've blogged, mainly due to my relief at being finished with my dissertation and my aversion to doing anything related to my dissertation after finishing. Earning a doctorate can be draining, and when you've poured your brain into a topic for so long, you relish time spent doing anything else. Now that I've read my fill of James Rollins and Stephen King, I'm back to reflect on teaching and teaching practice.

The first thing you'll notice is that I've changed the title of the blog to "Resilient Teaching" rather than "Optimistic Teaching." As I think about the implications of my dissertation research (I'll get to that in a later post, I promise), I feel as though being resilient is much more desirable than being optimistic. Optimism is an ingredient in resilience, but the real goal for all of us should be resilience - in the face of unmotivated students, unsupportive administrators, hostile parents, uncooperative colleagues, and combative legislators. If we can be resilient in the face of all this, teaching will be effective. I'll touch more on this throughout this blog.

I hope to engage people in healthy discussions of what makes teaching effective. Teacher effectiveness seems to be the "big idea" everyone is talking about today. What does it mean for teachers to be effective? How do you measure teacher effectiveness? What are the implications if a teacher is deemed ineffective - or, for that matter, effective? Does teacher effectiveness translate to school effectiveness? To student effectiveness? As I read the blogs of others, these are the questions of the day. And in today's economy, these questions have real implications for people's lives. I want to explore the answers to these questions and hypothesize the implications.

More later. Looking forward to this blog journey with you.