Saturday, January 29, 2011

Teacher Quality, No Easy Solution.

In his State of the Union Speech on Tuesday President Obama said the following: "If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.” I like the idea of money but am not solely driven by it. I chose to be a teacher after all. Education reform seems increasingly motivated by the idea that incentives will improve teaching and ultimately student performance. The logic goes if you pay teachers based on how their kids do, teaching and learning will improve. Perhaps they will...but I have my doubts.

One frightening prospect educators are facing in my state is the implementation of the "growth model" for teacher evaluation(more frightening than the included graphic which is meant to clarify the plan). It really is not that innovative and that's what concerns me. This is presented by policymakers as a simple way to judge teachers and implement merit pay and it is hard to argue against.  It even sounds good. But beware the obvious or easy solutions in education. This model looks at student achievement between grades and measures growth rather than looking only at whether a student is proficient on certain standards. ( See Developing a Growth Measure in Virginia ) If your students do better, you get paid more.

This effort to evaluate and reward teachers oversimplifies what we do. To attempt to implement a fair system is almost impossible and all those involved should face this reality instead of doing something for the sake of doing something. UVA Psychologist Daniel Willingham briefly explains this here. So besides not being fair I am also concerned about this reliance on a single indicator.

Public perception of these tests and the perceptions by those who deal directly with them might differ more than just a little. I spent the last 48 hours questioning the validity of my recent SOL results. It has in fact made me rethink whether I should trust these tests at all. It is after all only 1 test. As a tennis coach if I made decisions about my roster solely on how fast athletes were or whether they had a good serve some of the most successful tennis players I coached would never have made the team. Further, some players on my team might not have improved but instead gained a great deal more from competing. Why can't we see similar flaws with high stakes testing? Education seems one of the few places this is acceptable.

Much good has come from the SOLs my state uses but the impact on the school and classroom is not all good. Yes we are accountable but now we may focus too much on these tests. Schools often consume vast resources to just to give these tests. We teach to them, develop remediation plans, give thousands at each school, bring in extra staff, reshape our schedule, all for these tests. Right after the results come back schools shift gears into remediation mode in the name of meeting AYP. We might get these kids past the test but are we really serving them long term? Some research suggests simply taking the test again might yield the desired outcome and that perhaps remediation might not be as worthwhile. Too bad in my subject area they have only released 1 test. SOLS are good but should only be part of any plans for improvement.

Kids should be tested and held accountable. I think a better measure of accountability is called a grade. A more global measure of achievement, knowledge, skills, and effort. I reflect often on whether my grades are valid and SOLs in fact have helped with this. But grades rarely even come up when talking about my class and my evaluation. Talk is about SOL results and what I am doing to improve them. Actually it would be fair to say all schools worry about is pass rate. So in theory a teacher's class average could fall but they have fewer kids fail and they would be seen as a success. So SOL results should only be one part of the way we measure and evaluate teachers.

Teacher quality in my opinion(and some research agrees) is probably the single biggest factor in outcomes. That's simple. But finding a way to make us all better teachers is not as simple. I am wary of politicians that develop simple ways to make us better. I am also wary of whether current plans and money will really improve teacher quality overall and especially in at risk schools. We need to strengthen our current compensation practices in education and some level of incentives may be part of a more comprehensive approach. But alone I am skeptical they will fix what need fixing. I welcome positive change and know we can come up with something better. As we seek to recruit quality teachers for the future will they be ready for the new way they will be judged? Or will they seek other employment when they encounter some of the current reforms and solutions.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Teaching Underground Grassroots Teacher Response to the State of the Union Address

So tonight we get both a Republican and a Tea-Party response to the President's State of the Union Address, so we here at the Teaching Underground have decided to throw our hats into the ring and offer the official "Teaching Underground Grassroots Teacher Response" to the State of the Union Address.  We've included relevant text from the President's speech tonight below in italics with our comments embedded.  So here we go...

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.
     History has shown us that America is at its greatest when we forge ahead and live up to our unique ideals of democracy and progress.  We have seen some our worst moments in times of fear spent chasing after a dream just because a perceived opponent might reach it first.  Innovation is the buzzword of today, but true American innovation is original and "organic."  The sheer size of China and India alone must lead us to conclude that in the future we will relate to them as partners on the world stage.  Perhaps it is time that we learn what our unique role in this partnership will be instead of chasing their dream and pretending that all we need to do is educate our children the same way they educate theirs.

What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That is why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.  It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
     Agreed.  That first line may sum up the reason why most of us entered the teaching profession in the first place.  But in the current environment of accountability through testing, how do we standardize "what would you change about the world."  Our education systems must not lose sight of the value of teaching our students to do more than memorizing equations in it's desire to measure.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.
     We spent much of the twentieth century producing a quality workforce for America.  When the corporate world found a better deal they took it.  If we want to produce jobs in America, we need to also consider that education is not a race.  A race is something you finish and either win or lose.  When I attended the University of Virginia, students referred to themselves as first, second, third, or fourth years because in the eyes of its founder, "one cannot reach seniority in learning."  We need to understand that education is about Human development, not Human resource development.

Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.  America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.
     Also agreed, but it is about more than just sending kids to college.  A college degree does not guarantee success anymore.  A lack of a college degree is not a death sentence.  Our students need a vision of what they can become.  Ask any number of unemployed or underemployed college graduates what they think about this comment.  Rather than pushing all students into this vague notion of college, we should make sure that our students are thinking about their future and how they hope to give back to the world.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done.  We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.
     I appreciate an acknowledgment that the responsibility for the education of our children is not squarely on the shoulders of our schools.  We do need to instill a reality check that hard work and discipline are the keys to success, but also the truth that sometimes even this isn't enough.  We need to learn from personal failure and understand how to positively respond to setbacks.

Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.  To all fifty states, we said, “If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.”
     I'm writing this tonight with an eye for the weather, wondering whether we will have school tomorrow or not.  Sometimes we risk our lives to get to school, and other times we sit home in the rain.  If schools were smart, they'd hire a meteorologist to make this decision after all, they're the professionals.  Why wouldn't we let the meteorologists make the call on school cancellations?  It seems that we're becoming more and more willing to let the economists make the call on school reform.

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.  And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.  You see, we know what’s possible for our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.
     Flexibility is key.  This is why education is best left in the hands of local government.  We spend so much time and resources on National and State mandates for chunks of money that usually doesn't even cover the cost of implementation.  Federal and State governments are essential in setting minimum standards and ensuring equity in education, but their efforts to prescribe policy hurt our ability to effectively and (yes I'll say it) efficiently educate our students. 

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said “Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.”
     OK, and this example tells us what?  Not to be negative, this is a great story, but I'm not sure what it tells us about how to move forward in education. 

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.  And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
     I do like to think of myself as a builder of people more than a nation, but thank you for the shout out.  I can't help but think this is a little bit of a back-door comment however.  We have a system too complex to simplify this good teacher/bad teacher dichotomy.  Part of the reason I'm a good teacher is that I work for a good system, with adequate support and resources.  Within that system I have some of the best students, some of whom would succeed despite my efforts if not because of them.  How do you compare that to a teacher struggling to keep student attention daily because they lack necessary resources and administrative support, and the students they teach come into the class struggling.  In ideal situations, almost anyone could be a good teacher, but on the contrary, in some systems only a few would have what it takes to be an excellent teacher.

In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child – become a teacher. Your country needs you.
     Yes we do.

These are just a few of my initial reactions, don't judge too harshly.  I used to think that national rhetoric about education was just that, harmless rhetoric.  After all, the federal government doesn't control our schools.  But in the last decade I believe the national rhetoric and the cascade of reforms that it has required greatly impacts the education systems of America.

So there you have the official "Teaching Underground Grassroots Teacher Response" to the State of the Union Address.  What are your thoughts?  Feel free to share using the comments link below.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What's My Average?

In the debate over current school budgets the "average class size" statistic has become increasingly significant. The statistic is misused and covers some disturbing trends that directly affect the quality of what I am able to do.

Admittedly most concrete data and studies indicating benefits of smaller class sizes exists at the lower grade levels but class size matters( See: or ). At higher grade levels class size clearly impacts instruction and learning as well. Yes kids can learn in a big lecture style class and they can also learn in a small hands on interactive class. But as a teacher it is more difficult, sometime impossible, to operate as effectively when student loads continue to grow. Am I complaining? Yes.

It is imperative that we work to keep classes with at risk, special education and similarly challenged students small. This is as much for behavioral reasons as it is academic. That means that core classes with "typical" kids are forced to grow. Not being a math teacher that simply means I must devote less attention to each student.

In an educational landscape dominated by hard choice decisions distanced from the classroom, increasing average class size seems an enticing way to increase efficiency. Having more students jeopardizes many of the more engaging and perhaps rigorous activities. Quality feedback and interaction with the teacher declines. This is not good. Can we still teach and kids still learn, yes. But simply put, one can only grade so many essays or homework effectively. That reality somehow gets lost between the desktop and the budget.

We all agree better teaching can mean better learning. While adding students might save money the true cost can never be measured in dollars.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

True Reform Cuts Too Deep

My Psychology class has just finished learning about the theories of Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis. An underlying principle of these theories is that some things are too painful or hard to deal with so we protect our ego through defense mechanisms. I'm not sure if it is just the leadership of our school systems, or American Society in general, but I believe that public education bashing has become a communal defense mechanism to displace the blame of our national problems.

Just over a decade ago, states across the nation began moving toward accountability through standardized testing. From my observations in Virginia, schools largely rose to the challenge. Virginia SOLs viewed as a minimum standard became a benchmark for certain under-performing schools, and a starting point for others. If the Virginia Standards of Learning are quality measures of student performance and school success, our students are doing well. Statewide results can be found here.

After looking at statewide results for all students, with the exception of one category at 83%, every other category shows pass rates of 86% or higher. We can do better, but we're not doing bad. In my classes, when less than three-quarters of my class performs up to par, I question my overall approach. When ten to twenty percent of my students aren't getting it I question my approach to those students. Public schools in the United States are not failing the majority of our students. Our political and educational leaders continue to look "outside" for the answers and demand greater measures of accountability to drive improvement.

Perhaps the answers to "fixing" our system of education can be found within the system itself. What stops us from looking at the qualities of schools, teachers, and students who find success in and through school? For one, I realize that part of the problem is that a "one-size-fits-all" system of education cannot work. That is one reason that some students succeed while others struggle, we use the success of the majority to justify our methods to educate the population. However, I also think that we are somewhat afraid of asking that question because of what we would find.

Two recent articles illuminate part of the answer to this question. The United States ranking in the international results of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) administration has renewed criticism of the efficacy of American Public education. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, Robert Samuelson states "what we face is not an engineering problem; it's overcoming the legacy of history and culture." In another piece regarding the reform agenda of Michelle Rhee, the media's infatuation with her ideas, and the results of PISA, we get this comment: In large part, the answer is drawn from our brutal history, a history “reformers” don’t like to discuss.

The American public education system is exemplary. We have long realized the necessity of making every effort to guarantee an education to all children within the borders of our land regardless of race, parentage, disability, or attitude. In the drive toward accountability and the results of subsequent testing (whether this is valid or not would require more treatment than available here) we realized that we were doing well in educating the populace, but we are certainly falling short with some.

Now that we know which students are failing, we continue to do our best in the classroom to reach those at risk of being left behind. I can't take credit for all of my successes in the classroom. I've had great mentors, helpful peers, and most importantly some excellent students who sometimes perform well despite my efforts rather than because of them. Likewise, I cannot bear complete responsibility for the failures of my students. Critics of our system(s) of education from within or without do a disservice to our nation's children by leveling the blame on "failing schools" and "under-performing teachers." I agree that those problems should be addressed, but I will candidly admit, we can't do it alone.

Education reform that simply introduces new technologies and instructional strategies won't get us there. Calls for greater accountability and greater testing won't move us forward, they will simply continue to illuminate the problem that we all know exists. Privatization and business models will sell to the public and make someone rich, but won't get us where we need to be.

Any honest discussion of education reform must address the societal issues that impact the students we serve and their varied needs from community to community. That's hard work and requires us to think about more than just changing the way schools do business, but changing the fabric of our communities.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Wishes for the Educational New Year

Start by appointing a really smart, non-partisan, experienced and plain speaking classroom teacher to lead the charge and settle things down(I know many). They'd work with the systems already in place to fix what needs fixing and build on what is working well. This position could be at the national or more appropriately the local level. 

We should seek to promote a mentality that fosters pride in our schools and respect for learning. Since international comparisons are all the rage, follow Finland’s lead- - Let's make proposals where leaders develop a set of ideals and a framework for success rather than passing strict and inflexible laws and rules that are unproven and stifle and demoralize. Move a little slower in case we are heading in the wrong direction. Immediately stop bashing our schools systems. Build them up instead of blaming them for all the ills of society. Stop ceding control of our community schools to corporations and businesses who are mainly engaged for their own bottom line. Stop allowing economic and political forces to use our schools for personal gain.

Here is my 5 point plan
-Hire better people
-Reduce Bureaucracy-make EVERYONE work directly with kids and in a school building
-Allow teachers to become leaders(give them power to make decisions without leaving the classroom)
-Establish high expectations for students and teachers
-Find Transformational Leaders
-Throw some money at schools with no strings(apparently like we did with Wall Street)