Friday, February 25, 2011

Data-Driven Decision-Making Kills Crickets!

“Diana Virgo, a math teacher at the Loudoun Academy of Science in Virginia, gives students a more real-world experience with functions. She brings in a bunch of chirping crickets into the classroom and poses a question:” So begins a story related in the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. They applaud the teacher for providing a concrete lesson to understand the notion of a mathematical “function.”

I learned a different lesson altogether from this story. After gathering all the data relating to chirp rates and temperature, the students plug the information into a software package and--- AHA! The hotter it is, the faster crickets chirp and even better, IT’S PREDICTABLE! Now students have a concrete example of what a function is and what it does. Next comes the point where the story grabs me. The Heath brothers mention (in parenthesis no less, even calling it a side note, as if this isn’t the main point) that “Virgo also warns her students that human judgment is always indispensible.” For example, if you plug the temperature 1000 degrees into the function, you will discover that crickets chirp really fast when it is that hot.

The moral of the story is this: Data-driven decision-making kills crickets!

Unfortunately, it can also kill good instruction. Recently while attending a district-wide work-session on Professional Learning Communities, a nationally recognized consultant suggested reasons why teachers at a small middle school without colleagues in the same subject should collaborate with teachers from other schools in the same subject. He suggested that when these inter-school teams see that one teacher has better data in a given area, the others could learn what that teacher is doing to get such good results.

I’m not against this type of collaboration, but could it be possible that a teacher from one school whose student testing results (data) are not so good is still better than a teacher in a different school with excellent data? For example, might the data at school A look better than school B because students are getting better support at home. Perhaps school B spends more time making sure students are fed and clothed before concentrating on the job of instruction. What if school A has stronger leadership and teacher performance reflects teacher moral, support, or professional development?

Teachers must collaborate and share stories relating to instruction that works, but if student test-data is the only metric used to evaluate effectiveness we are essentially determining that crickets chirp very fast at 1000 degrees. There is a better choice than “data-driven.” Next week I’ll share my thoughts on this alternative and together we can strive to “save the crickets.”

Follow-up Post: Why Data-Informed Trumps Data-Driven

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Education Reform Lessons from Egypt

History teachers live for a time like this.  The "Jasmine Revolution" blooms.  Following popular demonstrations and protests in Tunisia, the news of Egypt has captured the world, and we wait to see what will happen in Yemen, Algeria, and Jordan.  Remember 1989, across Europe, oppressive governments crumbled and the world changed seemingly overnight.  I wonder if the world is about to change again.

Across the nation, people are calling for a revolution in the way we do education even if they stop short of using the word revolution.  Many people are taking the opportunity in light of the recent resignation of Hosni Mubarak to point out that Egypt has achieved the beginning of democratic reforms in just eighteen days, contrasted with sustained efforts to create democratic reforms in other countries in the world despite millions of dollars and years of effort.  Are there lessons from these developments that could serve our quest to lead improvements in education?

First, the "social media" impact on the Egyptian protests may be overstated, but clearly, openness and communication were vital in the spread of ideas and the linking of like-minded individuals able to make a difference in the nation.  Social media didn't spark this revolution, but it certainly facilitated.  Some of the primary work needed to facilitate revolution in education will occur when teachers become more connected and find ways to effectively spread their ideas; more than just "lessons that work" but deep ideas on how we educate our students.  That is part of the inspiration for this blog, and the reason we try to encourage comments and feedback from readers.

Second, in the media we are hearing many comparisons with efforts at democratic reform in Iraq to the popular movements underway int the middle east.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with U.S. involvement in Iraq, the shift toward democracy has been long, expensive, and difficult.  In Iraq, the democratic reform has the appearance of coming from the top down, or perhaps even imposed rather than grown.  Imposed reform is not organic.  It is too disconnected from the reality of the people.  When I cast my vote for legislators in Washington to represent my interests, the reality on the ground in a nation thousands of miles away is vastly different.  The gulf between classroom reality and the thoughtful minds of those who believe they have the ideas to reform has grown too deep.

From WikiLeaks to the Jasmine Revolution, the lesson of the 21st century is becoming increasingly clear.  Meaningful change and reform is no longer vertical.  Thomas Friedman noted that "The World is Flat."  The longer this fact is resisted in education the longer it will take for our American education system to move out of the 20th century.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Free Speech and the Ultimate Education Taboo


At least some of the nation is familiar by now with the case of Natalie Munroe.  Munroe stands to lose her job as a teacher because of the comments made on her blog.  The blog has been removed, but the last page cached by Google can still be viewed.  I've read reports of the comments in other news stories and while the comments reflect poor judgement and attitude in general, it does not appear that any of them were directed at a student in general.  Should she lose her job for engaging in this type of free speech?

I have certainly made efforts to skirt some of the major issues and problems facing my school district when writing on this blog for fear that it could lead to negative outcomes, but I have never felt the urge to publicly vent my frustrations regarding students.  Munroe expressed that this blog was a personal blog, never intended for student or administrator viewing.  I believe that lesson number one for all of us is that we give up the right to choose our audience when content is posted online in any forum.  Just this year, students began to discover another blog that I maintain which has become an expression of my religious faith.  When they ask me about it or comment on it at school I start to get a little anxious about what kind of repercussions this could have in my teaching profession.

So how much freedom do teachers have to express themselves and their personal opinons online?  Perhaps a good standard would be that if it is acceptable in public it should be acceptable online.  I cannot pass judgement on this particular case without really seeing not only the comments, but the context of Munroe's musings, but this information is not currently available.  Many teachers have chosen to go the route of sarcasm and parody to anonymously bemoan and complain about difficulties of teaching.  (A prime example being Mr. Teachbad -- be warned, this content is not always G-rated quality)  Even if we draw the line at student directed criticism, how far can a teacher go in criticising the institutions which employ them?

I have frequently resisted the urge to use this forum to raise issues pertaining to my high school and school division, but sometimes I want to open the window on our school to the public and help them see what day-to-day life in the school looks like so they can better understand the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Is that appropriate?


The second issue raised by the "Natalie Munroe Blog Scandal" is that of student motivation and accountability.  Increasingly, this has become the taboo topic for discussion in the public policy forums of education.  I have been lucky to teach mostly seniors in elective Psychology classes for the last six or seven years.  With a few exceptions, they are capable and eager to learn.  But I can vividly remember some of the classes that were not.  My third year of teaching I had already decided that a career change was in order if things did not improve the next.  They did, but as much a result of my students as my effort. 

In responding to the Munroe story, one commenter urged her to get out of the profession anyway because part of the job of a teacher is to motivate these students to learn.  If more people outside of the classroom understood how much of a struggle this can be, the impression of teachers in America would greatly change.  Increasingly, accountability drops in the lap of teachers at the exclusion of all else.  One argument takes the analogy of production.  If a company builds a defective product, the product isn't blamed for coming out flawed.  I've yet to meet a "product" that plays a role in its own development, possessing the autonomy and ability to respond to or rebel against the process which creates it.

I never want to be the teacher, and I would never support a teacher who attempts to make students shoulder the entire responsibility of their own education, but questioning the ability, motivation, or effort of students has become the taboo topic of education.  If nothing else, I hope this event opens the door to looking holistically at how we promote student achievement.  Accountability for administrators in providing solid leadership, accountability for teachers in providing quality instruction, and accountability from students in taking ownership of their learning and achievement.

My thoughts on all of this could change over time, but I believe it really opens the doors for discussion that could benefit our profession and the individuals in it.  What are the limits to teachers' free speech online?  and Is it time that we break the taboo of questioning student responsibility and accountability for their own education?


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Innovation in Education: The Missing Link

I predict that “innovation” will soon become the newest addition to the famous Lake Superior State U list of “Banished Words.”  So confident that I just submitted it on their website and I encourage you to as well.  I do not oppose the idea, indeed I embrace it, but I think we’ve exhausted the word's usefulness to our lexicon.

Despite my misgivings, I must use the word here to describe why in education, true innovation is so rare.  A recent TED Talk by TED Curator, Chris Anderson helped me gain a better appreciation for innovation and led me to think about why this sort of innovation is so elusive in the world of education.

Anderson coined the phrase “crowd accelerated innovation,” but in his talk he argues that innovation has always been a group process.  The difference today lies in the internet’s ability to ramp up the group process to a level never before achieved.  So for Anderson, innovation requires three elements—a crowd, light, and desire.  The crowd is a community of individuals with a shared interest or purpose.  Light refers to the need for each member of the community to be visible, to see what every other member is up to.  Finally, without desire, no motivation exists for creativity or moving forward rather than taking satisfaction in the status quo.

On the surface, all of these elements appear to be in place within the world of education.  We have no shortage of community, countless parents, teachers, administrators, and even business leaders are committed to elevating the level of education in the community and the nation.  A ready supply of desire exists few causes more noble than preparing young minds to reach their full potential in life.  I contend that light is the missing link in true innovation of our profession.

Light requires individual connection and the visibility of all members of the crowd.  We have a fa├žade of light in the world of education, but we still lack the true connection and visibility required for effective innovation.  In Anderson’s talk he gives several examples of how internet video has sped innovation in several areas. 

One example refers to a Unicyclist.  Today, a unicyclist may watch his or her community of cyclists perform various tricks and stunts on YouTube.  Rather than passively watching, the cyclist may then take the ideas seen in the video, practice them, make them better, then share the innovation with the community where other cyclists may repeat the pattern, thus accelerating the rate of innovation among Unicyclists worldwide. 

A more sober example refers to scientific procedures caught on video which serve to make replication of such procedures easier and more accurate versus the traditional method of pouring through pages of text and making assumptions in order to confirm scientific findings.

In both cases, the practitioners of the discipline openly share their ideas and practices with the community.  This open sharing facilitates crowdsourcing as everyone in the community is now free to take these ideas, shape them into something new, and share the results back to the community.

So what’s stopping this from happening in education.  First is the drive toward standardization.  We have standardized tests from common standards leading to a common curriculum.  The myth that arises from this is that we can have standardized instruction.  With other types of innovation, the crowd is free to adopt what works, adapt it to their situation, and share successes or failures.  The more we expect standardized instruction from teachers, the less freedom they will enjoy to experiment with what works and what doesn't in their classrooms. 

We bemoan the effect of teaching silos, but when innovation is more top down than lateral, innovation is not really innovation.  It is a manager with an idea expecting his or her employees to make it work.  Teachers do have opportunities to avail themselves of each others expertise in order to benefit from crowd accelerated innovation, but it gets harder by the day.

Time has become a great issue.  Under the auspices of economy, teacher workloads have increased across the nation.  I suspect though that economy is the scapegoat for this action.  Political and educational leaders alike pay lip service to teachers with general statements about their hard work and ability, but their policies and agendas treat them more like assembly line workers than artists.  School districts must provide teachers with the space for reflection and innovation rather than working them non-stop while expecting others outside of the classroom to be the innovation minded.

Just in the last three days, I've been able to watch my fifth grade son engage with his classmates on "Edmodo."  At lunch I shared the story with a colleague.  By the end of the day he was showing me how he had begun to integrate it into one of his electives and the useful features that I hadn't even noticed while watching my son work.  While showing me this, I talked about some ways that I had been using my blog to supplement some of our class activities and he explained how certain features were more suited to the "wiki" spaces that he had set up for another project.  Later, over this weekend I showed my wife how to create a Prezi presentation for a grad school project.  I got the idea when another teacher sent several links to resources that she had used successfully in her US Government classes.

All of this took place with no more than one hour of interaction at the most.  I would love to take all of these resources-- the blog, edmodo, wikispaces, and prezi-- for the next month and really integrate them into instruction to find out what works, what doesn't, and what is worth pushing on to my colleagues as we collaboratively engage in the process of innovation.  As a teacher, I will take all of the isolated minutes that I can scrap to engage in the collaborative process of innovation.  I would ask from the public, politicians, and especially the educational leaders who directly make decisions to protect this space for classroom teachers, and facilitate innovation in education by allowing us to become a greater part of this process.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Holy $#!%, We Are Bad Teachers

This thought recently passed through the minds of my colleagues and myself as we reviewed our students mid year SOL scores. We each originally did so in isolation and when we came together and realized that everyone had seen a drop in student performance, I am not sure we felt much better. We got our scores by E-mail and the next day sat down in our PLCs (professional learning communities) to gather ourselves. We realized that there was a rather precipitous drop in how we did not just as individuals, but as a department. And present company excluded we have some darn good teachers so what gives? It is a question that plagued us that might not have any singular answer. We wiped the confusion off our faces and tried doing one of the few things we could, teach.

What this insecurity revealed was how vulnerable we remain with the use of a single indicator. What was clear was that our department had done terribly compared to previous year(s) which goes against every trend. We did not see this coming. Though roughly half of the students have taken these tests(many honors and AP student are enrolled in year long courses and will take the test in May) and percentages should go up, there were some very disturbing trends. Fact is, our scores stunk. The funny thing about facts is they often don't answer questions, they only make you ask more.

Recently the state contracted with a new testing company. There is plenty of the usual edujargon about how the tests would be scored(little of which anyone truly understands). This company was tasked with administering new standards. In my subject there were in fact very few significant differences and given the tests and questions are treated like national security secrets, not sure we'll be able to get a handle on whether the test difficulty changed. We wondered if they specifically asked questions targeting all the new content or not. If they did it might perhaps provide some explanation but would seem a flawed approach. The scary part about this is that I've begun to question the validity of the test. If the test was "harder" wouldn't that throw off all that statistical mumbo-jumbo used to make the results more valid. Maybe it was how the test was scored, the size of the sample of students used to norm the test, the score drop for each teacher, the drop on all 3 SOL subject tests, similar issues at all our local high schools, or even being shocked by the drop in kids that got a perfect score for me last year...Something's fishy.

A cynic might suggest this was some covert effort to discredit our schools and prove we are failing(I do not share this alarmist approach). Our scores have always gone up and by 2014 100% of students in Virginia must pass every test. This is not actually going to happen. Just thought it needed to be said. That's a discussion for later post. Maybe the testing company felt some pressure to "up the ante" and ensure they could be trusted. Maybe they used all new questions and content we were accustomed to teaching now was no longer being assessed. It would be an understatement to say these scores are designed to confuse. In the past we might look next for correlations with AP scores to gain insight but can't yet compare that data. Would that even help?

Not being a total conspiracy theorist I think other factors are at least worth mentioning. To begin I had a student teacher. Those that didn't saw the same thing so that's probably not it. The school switched from an every other day A/B yearlong schedule to every day 4x4 semester classes. Some dismiss this completely but I actually think this could explain a small drop, but not to the degree we experienced. This schedule stinks! It was implemented last minute and is just not what I consider beneficial for learning. We have far less time for instruction both in length of classes and total numbers of days, enough so that days were added two days before exams to meet minimum state requirements.

The timing of the tests was not ideal as we started them immediately after the Holiday break. This likely affected at risk kids more and they took it even later after exams, two weeks later. We as teachers are also teaching 1 more class than in previous years. That means about 25-30 additional kids for each of us(I'll teach 157 by years end, but there is talk of of "capping" it at 150...gee thanks). When you do this more of the responsibility inevitably shifts to the learner. Teachers just can't provide as much attention and help. It is tough. Moreover most kids are taking one additional class adding to their burden.

Still I sit here in some weird funk. Disappointed for the kids who failed, working with others to help those who qualify to retake the test immediately, and just plain ticked I am no closer to finding out exactly what happened...and most important to me, AVOIDING THIS IN THE FUTURE. I don't have the direct means to improve my teaching for these kids on these tests. I'm not just talking about data. Data has a funny way of satisfying those far removed from what is really going on, but most teachers say it is overrated. While the decline of the higher achieving kids might not be what gets the attention in the AYP world, it is equally as troubling. I am now experienced enough to comprehend the greater significance of the SOL test, how those scores are used, and what they really mean(you can read into that what you want).

One reality I have to confront is that the issue might in fact be me. If I didn't think that at some level, it would be a mistake. That insecurity keeps me motivated. Not sure it changes much but scores could soon affect my compensation. I know scores at schools can vary and even overcome some things often seen as predictors. Speaking of predictions, I think it would be safe to expect similar situations at schools around our state. Some might take comfort in that, we do not.

The chain of teaching, learning, ASSESSING, and improving has many links. It appears to me that one of those is broken. Maybe someone paid more money who doesn't work much with kids can someday help me identify which link it is.