Thursday, December 27, 2012

Beware Governors Bearing Gifts

McDonnell proposes 2% teacher pay raise

That's how the headlines and lead ins on the news went on Thursday evening two weeks ago.  Sounds good right?  But like most things in education looks can be deceiving.  How and why Virginia governor Bob McDonnell found the $59 million in tough budget times to fund such raises demands a closer look.

The 2% pay raise horse on the shore of the VA General Assembly and local divisions is an incentive to accept some significant changes to the way teacher effectiveness is measured.  Time will tell whether they take the bait.  State funding for such raises would be provided to localities on a sliding scale based on the ability to fund or the "composite index".  This will motivate smaller, more rural and economically disadvantaged districts to be more willing to accept the changes as they will receive a greater share.  That will likely translate to more support in the General Assembly where the VA Senate has previously blocked McDonnel'ls efforts at reform.  

The Education Fairness Act will bring stricter teacher evaluations, extending the probationary employment of new teachers to reach tenure from3 to 5 years, increases support for STEM(Science, Technology and Math) and also make it easier to fire teachers after one Unsatisfactory rating.  Virginia Education Association President Meg Gruber wisely stated that legislation must be evaluated to see if it is open and honest.  Wise words indeed.

VA teachers are 31st in the nation in compensation and haven't gotten a raise from the state in 5 years.  That puts more pressure on localities to fund their own systems and with declining property values that has been difficult.  Some have tried to keep up, few have.  Everyone knows teaching is a far from lucrative profession and most agree teachers should get more.  Still, experienced and informed educators like the Underground are wary as we know that if we take the bait and roll the horse within the walls of the city it might be full of unpleasant and in our minds unhelpful things.

The heart of the matter is Teacher Evaluaton and Job Security.  McDonnell and others want to chip away at tenure, continuing contracts and link performance to pay.  On paper these seem reasonable.  But the devil is in the details and one does not have to look far to appreciate the complexities of evaluating teachers effectively.  You can easily find some insights by typing "teacher effectiveness" in the search box top right.  If you are too lazy, here you go.
The TU and any other right minded educator welcomes any and all reform that improves education, helps kids learn and helps teachers teach.   While I hear a whisper in my ear saying "take the deal" we'd be wise to remember Virginia is a conservative state.  That is not a partisan statement and instead references the Old Dominion's cautious and measured approach to most issues.  The mechanisms of government are wisely inefficient at times and the first jump at Race to the Top cash or any other dangled incentive might be wise to be sure what they are doing is true reform.

McDonnell is a generally well received governor.  But this administration also proposed mandatory ultrasounds for women, sued its largest higher learning institution, omitted any mention of slavery in declaring Confederate History Month and  flip-flopped on state employee pension contributions to the tune of 5% after borrowing from that same VRS system.  So one must excuse any up-front anxiety on the part of those teachers affected.

By now we have covered ad nauseum the issues of how to evaluate teachers
The state school system has its share of bad teachers but efforts to purge them(referred to as "deselection") should not frustrate the good teachers already leaving the job at an alarming rate.  Every profession has those that under-perform and attempts to improve or remove  these individuals must be precise, delicate and some might say not coming from Richmond.  If the state continues to lean on localities to fund education why then do they increasingly demand more control of it?

So what the future holds for the Education Fairness Act, Virginia education reform and all those within the state's public schools is uncertain.  Our representatives and leaders might be wise to emulate many of the state's teachers in taking a more skeptical approach to such carefully crafted and named piece of legislation.  Our citizens would be wise to take the advice of one unheeded Trojan who after considering the source of the gift said..."Hey...maybe we should look inside this thing first?"

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Week

It was a difficult week around the nation and even at our own school.  On Friday the last day of an emotional and difficult week, amidst a notably high absentee rate, members of the TU shared bagels in the morning among classes, were greeted by cupcakes from young people we hardly know as part of "cupcake love day" and were reminded yet again that we get the chance to work every day with some pretty special people.  As we head out for a much needed and well earned Christmas Break, we wish you and yours the best.    We thought we'd share a little piece of  our school.


Monday, December 17, 2012


I dropped my daughter off at Kindergarten like any normal day.  But little felt normal about today.   The only visible sign of why it was not normal was the low hanging pair of flags that hung motionless in the morning fog.  It reminds us that it can be a scary world.  At times it makes no sense.

At our school, one affected in a way by violence within our community already this year,  the day began with a brief meeting where we just focused on ways to support each other and help our students.  Friday, every school, every family and every American was affected.  At lunch today the conversation in the basement was more muted than normal. We're all struggling to make sense of the events that unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut and those that haunt us even before that.  We grasp at some meaning and understanding in the senseless violence and the inconceivable murder of 20 young children and those caring for them.  But there is no sense in it. 

Our dialogue was absent the normal levity and bounced from the 2nd Amendment, support for mental health, our experiences with violence to religion.   We all have young children.  We wonder why did this happen?  Can and should anything be done? How can we ensure it does not happen anywhere ever again?

The bell signaled our return to class but we felt no better and far from normal.  Our search only brought more questions.   Its been tough and the days ahead will be no different.  Moving forward does not mean forgetting.  We must all therefore do our part to make sure the good in the world overpowers the bad.   As we do we ask that God's grace helps comfort and heal those who need it most.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Suburban Problems

In the Hebrew Bible, God provided for his people as they wandered through the desert. It never states that “God helps those who help themselves,” but while God provided the “manna from heaven” the people had to gather and collect for themselves.

Interestingly enough, they were not allowed to collect more than they needed. If they tried to double up on Monday so they could sleep in on Tuesday, their food would be spoiled by the morning. Except on Friday. No work on the Sabbath meant a little extra prep was needed to make sure one could take a day of rest.

So today, we ask if our students are overworked and/or too fatigued to learn.

Some systems are adjusting their start times to align with the natural sleep patterns of students. High schools and middle schools in our division all start between 8:50 and 9:05. It seems to work. My morning students are typically engaged and active. They don’t show significant signs of fatigue and typically, class averages in my morning classes are higher than those that follow.

Too nice to be the basement.
By the fourth block of the day, it’s a different story. My third and fourth block classes typically have two or three students that are likely to doze off during less engaging class activities. Energy levels are noticeably different. We frequently discuss the effects and importance of sleep in the context of the Psychology curriculum and at over half of my students report less than seven hours of sleep on a regular basis during the week.

By starting school at 9:00 a.m., the final bell rings at 3:45. If a student has a part-time job or participates in a sport, let’s start their shift or practice at 4:15. By 6:30 they’re leaving work or practice for home. A quick shower or break to decompress and it’s at least 7:00 pm. If they take time to enjoy a real dinner (perhaps even with family) and help out a little with preparation and clean-up it’s probably approaching 8:00 p.m. Assume this student is a senior and following the ten-minute per grade level homework rule has 120 minutes of work (most of my students would assert this is an underestimate by far) it is now 10:00 p.m. If the student needs to prepare for bed and start settling down by 11:00 to ensure being asleep by 11:30, thus guaranteeing eight hours of sleep, that leaves an hour of “discretionary” time.

An hour to watch t.v., read a book for pleasure, talk to friends, hang out with family, practice guitar, go to church, attend a basketball game, volunteer, etc.

I’m not a fool. I know that some kids get home from school by 4:30 and sit in front of the television, video games, or online until after mid-night.

What does this have to do with “manna from heaven?”

Perhaps God’s plan in the story was to teach the Hebrews in the desert that just because it’s there doesn’t mean you need to take it. You can over-achieve and collect more than you need, but in the end, what you have is rotten and spoiled.  And you’ve likely missed out on something you can never get back to get it. Sometimes it’s necessary to put in extra work, but when you do, it has a purpose. Getting a little ahead of life from time to time allows you to take a break and prepare for a new season of effort without stressing over everything that’s left undone.

The Hebrews needed guidance from their God to learn this lesson and our children need a higher guidance to learn it as well. It is a system issue, and it cannot be solved by the individual effort of students, parents, teachers, or administrators. It requires a cooperative effort from all involved to manage expectations and balance the drive to provide opportunities with the reasonable limitations on what students are allowed to do.

Of course, that only addresses the problem of kids who have ample opportunities and the means to take advantage of them, which leaves us with a whole different set of challenges to face.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Monday Maslow

A teacher calls an off-task student to attention, “Jack, please listen to these directions.”

The student continues to carry on his conversation with a classmate, so a little more directed the teacher says, “Jack, listen to the directions and you can talk after we get started.”

With a nod, the student acknowledges the teacher and verbally assents, “o.k.” but turns immediately back to his friend to finish.

“Jack, I’ve asked you three times already, you need to listen so that you understand the task, if I have to speak to you again I will move your seat.”

The student responds as asked. He stops talking, puts his head on the desk and refuses to participate for the rest of class.

Can anyone other than teachers identify with this?

For goal-directed individuals with high achievement motivation this is irrational behavior. “Better” students don’t do this. My AP-level seniors articulate as much every day. These students have no problem describing why they hate a given teacher (too much work, negative attitude, unfair treatment). But, their attitude toward the teacher makes no difference in their willingness to follow policy and work.

Two years ago I taught “Jack.” Jack was in my government class with his girlfriend, “Jill.” They both came from an economically disadvantaged background. At seventeen, they lived a lifestyle usually more likely to be associated with twenty-somethings. They lived together with extended family. They both worked to contribute income to the family. Jill missed school often. Jack would usually provide the excuse that one of the younger children stayed home sick and Jill’s mother had to work.

They rarely completed homework that couldn’t be finished in class. I could imagine why. Both of them worked and their income was needed to help with the family. At home, with smaller children, they were two of the three adults and with shift-work, often responsible for the children in the evening if not at work.

Neither of them enjoyed school and both of them saw it more as a burden that made life difficult than an opportunity to make life better. They were both very good people and I enjoyed getting to know them, but they lived in a world different than one that I understood.

After class that day, I talked to Jack about his behavior. I said something like this to him. “Jack, I don’t understand. When you get upset with me, you refuse to work as if not doing your work hurts me somehow. You’re only hurting yourself.”

His response helped me understand a little better. School was the lowest priority in his life. At seventeen, he already had financial obligations and commitments related to the basic priorities of life—food, housing, health care. While not the head of a household, both of them assumed a level of responsibility for the family unit. They weren’t married, but in their socio-cultural context, they lived as a committed couple, looking to a future together. He felt little control over the outcomes in his life, but here, in the classroom was the one place he could exercise this autonomy and control with little concern about the consequence.

We had a good relationship and I learned much from him.

I wish that reformers and policy-makers could learn more from students like this.

I know there are flaws in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs/Motives, but several examples are inarguable. If I need to go to the bathroom, that need trumps all others. If I need to eat, that need trumps all others. If I’m afraid, the need for security trumps all others.

If I feel alone, a search for companionship pervades my life. If I feel like a failure, the search for success drives most of my action. But if my belly is empty I don’t have time to worry about the loneliness or failure, I just want food.

Maslow’s Theory does not apply rigidly to all cases, but humans do prioritize the needs in their lives, striving to meet the most basic usually before even considering the higher goals of life. Isolated stories of overcoming the odds don’t prove the idea is wrong, it just proves that like most rules, there are exceptions.

Educators must do everything within their power to overcome the odds of poverty and life circumstances with the children in their care. We must approach every child knowing that he or she has the potential to achieve.

But we must never allow the public to believe the lie that education alone can level the playing field by creating the rising tide to lift all boats.

Friday, December 7, 2012

APWATW (A picture is worth a thousand words). v 3

Add your own insightful or humorous caption for the image in the comments section.

The DC cheating scandal investigation widened this week when it was revealed Rhee's Karaoke  version of "I Will Always Love You"  was lip synced.

The Broadway version of Rhee's school reform proved a box office flop.

Monday, December 3, 2012

How Big is Your Effect Size?

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Effect Size

I like that title better.

I’ve been intrigued by the concept of effect size for several years.  I am not a quantitative person, but I’m curious. I try to keep an open mind, but I still can’t shake a lack of faith in numbers.  I try to believe, and sometimes a good quantitative person can move me in their direction just a bit, but I’m still a qualitative guy at heart.

Two weeks ago, our school division hosted its annual “Making Connections” conference and Dr. Matt Haas, assistant Superintendent offered a session titled “You Can Calculate Effect Size.”  The fact that many teachers lack basic literacy in research and statistical methods is a detriment to our profession.  First, we fail to apply the results of research in the classroom and second, we fail to adequately participate in the conversations around educational research that drives decisions in our divisions, states, and nation.

In a perfect world, education research would be carefully vetted and practitioners could refer to current research from time to time in order to refine their skills.  In the world as it is, research on education is often agenda-driven and practitioners too often fall prey to ideas that merely sound good. (Anyone still encouraging students to discover their Learning Styles?)

In the world of the classroom, it would do teachers well to understand at least a little of the methods and language that researchers are using to influence the national conversation on education.  Influence that affects universally, such as the movement to use value-added measurements to teacher evaluations. And, influence that affects the classroom in the form of instructional methods teachers are expected to use.

In the absence of any “authoritative body” to filter and condense the growing body of educational research into something productive for American education, teachers need to develop a better understanding for themselves of how to interpret research.

Ready for your first lesson.

Effect Size= “Mean of Data Set Two minus Mean of Data Set One divided by Standard Deviation of Data Set One.” 

If you give a pre-test and a post-test, data set one is the pre-test.  Data set two is the post-test. Sometime between pre-test and post-test you “apply a treatment.” In the case of education, an instructional strategy.  The effect size measures how much difference the treatment made.

If like me, you’re not a number/stats person it’s easy to stop here and pretend that it’s too confusing to waste your time on.  This is too important for that, if you didn’t get it read it again.  An effect size should tell you how much an instructional strategy facilitated or inhibited student growth.  Yes growth (or value-added if you’d rather.)

Take this tool for what it’s worth.  It’s the primary tool used by researchers such as Marzano and other education “meta-analysts” to determine instructional methods that work, the techniques have the greatest effect size on student achievement.

Still, the greatest power in using effect size is informative, not prescriptive. For example, Marzano’s well-known book “Classroom Instruction that Works” presents strategies that have proven, through meta-analysis, to have a higher than average effect size on student learning.  He does not imply (and even directly states otherwise) that a given strategy WILL work on every student in every situation.

That's likely the greatest flaw with this type of research. What should be informative for our educational practices becomes prescriptive through policies and evaluative methods. I imagine that across the country, more than a few teachers have been evaluated on consistently applying the “strategies that work” without regard to immediate evidence of whether the strategies are working or not, leaving them skeptical and critical of the entire body of work that attempts to isolate the most effective classroom strategies.

This is why all of us, from classroom teachers to legislators enacting policy, should have a better understanding of educational research.