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.