Saturday, August 24, 2013

Easing Back In...

The school year is ramping up, so I'm easing my way back into blogging. I'm thinking of a few big posts, but I 'll start as we always do at the beginning of the year with the essential information. And what I've learned from two weeks of meetings, it's this: there's never any excuse for using the non-word 'planfulness,'

That is all.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rhetoric Versus Results

The actual results of current school reform efforts undergo some close study. Not surprisingly, the results don't quite match up with what anyone is saying.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Income Inequality and Academic Performance:


The conclusion that made my heart swell:

But we need to do much more than expand and improve preschool and child care. There is a lot of discussion these days about investing in teachers and “improving teacher quality,” but improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments may be even more important. Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children.

This means finding ways of helping parents become better teachers themselves. This might include strategies to support working families so that they can read to their children more often.. It also means expanding programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership that have proved to be effective at helping single parents educate their children; but we also need to pay for research to develop new resources for single parents.

It might also mean greater business and government support for maternity and paternity leave and day care so that the middle class and the poor can get some of the educational benefits that the early academic intervention of the rich provides their children. Fundamentally, it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone.

The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.
                                                                        --Sean F. Reardon

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Privatization of Education has always been seen for what it is: an assault. So, why are we suddenly so complacent?

Check out this thoughtful piece that gives some historical background on the trend of private foundations driving school reform. It's pretty fascinating.

The final paragraph is a kicker:
I would find this a worrisome situation for public education even if I thought the education policies of the new large foundations were sound. But I do not. I find the brazenness, arrogance, and disregard for public decision making of current philanthropic attempts to influence federal policy just as dangerous to democracy as the critics of the original foundations contended so vociferously 100 years ago.

Friday, April 19, 2013

More for-profit education "reform"

I will make the leap and assume that I have said enough here that I don't need to even express my disgust with essentially every word used to describe the goals of this "skunk group."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

When it's illegal to teach...

Yes, Ohio wants to make it illegal to teach sex education. Teachers who do their jobs face a $5000 fine.

Could we be lucky enough to see such a case before the Supreme Court?

A good rule of thumb: distrust those who want to limit others' access to information. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Who Do We Really Work For?

Consider this entry in the absurd files of standardized testing:

Our state has a multi-million dollar contract with a very large testing corporation. In general, this corporation has very little interest in what we have to say about anything because we are a state with a minuscule population and our multi-million dollar contract is a drop in the bucket compared to other states. For example, this company dictates when our end of the year testing takes place, and they decide that it takes place in 3rd quarter. Figure that one out.

The writing assessment has long been a sticking point, and there's been a real yo-yo of activity surrounding this assessment. One year it's changed radically, then next it's gone completely, and then next it's back in its original form with a new name.

Right now, we're dealing with the last of these.

Now, a quick aside about how testing works. For a company to score writing assessments, they have to have sample assessments for "norming." These are assessments that are put in front of a large group of scorers, and they work together to determine what is proficient and what is not, and it (hopefully) helps them weed out bad prompts.

The way that companies collect these sample prompts is through "pilots." These are test items that are given to students that don't count toward anything. The only reason students do pilots is to provide data and raw materials for the testing company.

Okay, so let's consider the current year, in which our students have already been through two testing periods, one of which is three weeks long, and are now going to complete their writing assessment. Fine.

However, for my particular grade, they also have two pilot writing prompts. That means that we are required to have three testing sessions, and only one of them actually does anything for anyone other than the testing company (and that one is highly suspect).

We're teachers, so we're trained professionals when it comes to resigning ourselves to stupid practices, but we all agree on one thing: we're going to give one class period each for the pilots. Our students already lose too much instructional time to assessment.

Then we are told that that is not acceptable. The rules of the assessment (which is not an assessment) state that they must have at least a 90 minute test window for the pilot prompts. That means that we must not only use our writing classes to administer the pilots but also two class periods of our Reading sections as well.

We fight. We complain. We make general nuisances of ourselves because we know that this is bad for students and a waste of everyone's time and energy. But, the rules are the rules. So, once again, we resign ourselves to more stupidity.

But the question remains: whose rules are they?

Essentially, a corporation is dictating the use of classroom time in my school. And what that corporation decides is that we should use class time to gather data for them. It even dictates precisely how much class time. Not only are we gathering data for them free of charge, we're actually paying them millions of dollars for the luxury.

To complain in any way that has any chance of affecting change, we would need to talk to legislators at the state level, and whatever you've heard about the big, scary teacher's unions, they're nothing compared to the lobbyists for textbook and testing companies. So, we're resigned yet again.

But it's always nice to know where your orders come from and who is making the important decisions regarding classroom practices.

Heads up, folks. Current education reform is a racket designed to continue lining the pockets of these corporations under the insidious misnomer of "accountability."

At least we know who we're accountable to.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Class War isn't even a pun anymore

If you ever doubted that schools were an active tool of class warfare, just check out the story of the proposed bill to link children's grades to their family's welfare benefits.

Thankfully, Campfield dropped the doomed bill after using it as it was intended: as a bludgeon to beat at the poor.  He doesn't like using children as 'props?" Could have fooled me.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why exactly did we take all of those classes on Piaget and child development?

The Next Generation Science Standards have just been published, and they stand as science education's answer to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), meaning that the over-riding philosophy behind the CCSS is spreading ever-deeper into American education.

Now, there are a lot of things that I think the CCSS get right, and it appears that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) follow suit: They raise the level of rigour, they focus on critical thinking and application of skills and content, and--just by their nature--they create some sort of level playing field for a population of students that is increasingly transient.

But at the heart of both the CCSS and NGSS is a flawed premise. That premise can be boiled down to one backward idea: If we need to increase rigour, the way to do that is to push down, to make what used to be eighth grade content into sixth grade content, or--worse--what used to be second grade content into Kindergarten content.

We see this philosophy working unchecked in every aspect of school reform. Obama's budget proposal gives us more of the same: Preschool for all and day-long Kindergarten.

Underlining all of the current reform is this idea that more school is the answer. If they're not getting multiplication by fourth grade, we'll start in second.

All of this makes for terrible reform for two very good reasons.

First, I believe we're doing little more than accelerating student burn-out. The idea that Kindergarten and early elementary is a place where young children actually WANT to be, where they are enthusiastic about learning, is almost dead now. We've almost killed the wonder which should reside at the heart of education. While I have fond memories of learning to read in first grade, if I were in school today, I'd be the focus of a reading recovery specialist and tagged as at-risk due to my lagging skills. At the early stages, increased rigour often leads to increased labeling of students.

More importantly, this shift ignores the question of childhood development. I teach 12 and 13 year olds, and every year, I send students on to the eight grade who never demonstrate proficiency in a handful of skills (mostly abstract thinking) because, no matter how many ways that skill might be taught, or how hard they worked, or how early their exposure began, their brains were simply not ready to process it.  In the eight grade or maybe the ninth, suddenly it comes to them like a thunderbolt.

So, why should we waste more class time, at earlier ages, practicing skills and concepts that students are developmentally unprepared for?

Other philosophies, such as Waldorf Education, actually attempt to account for children's development. And when you take it into account, the results are exactly the opposite of the current trends: the early grades focus less on content and complex skills.

Compare that to the current system where we teach content and reteach content, the SAME CONTENT, year after year, and each year students appear to have it, but when the next year rolls around, it's gone. That's teaching, and quite often it's top-notch teaching, but it's not called learning.

Now, the current philosophy tells us that we should begin this futile process earlier.

This is all a long way of saying something simple: We need to stop basing our educational models on economic competition or on some wrong-headed idea that teachers just aren't working hard enough, and we should start thinking about how children learn.

There's plenty of research and data out there. Honest.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Monday's Provocative Claim

Whether or not you find efficiency to be an absolute good, there is no project less efficient that public education.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is something approaching a universal truth that when conservatives have bad ideas, their ideas--bad as they are--are at least rather specific and actionable. Witness Bush's No Child Left Behind. Sure it's really a frontal assault on public education in general and teachers' unions in particular, but at least it's a plan. And look at how efficient they were in getting that plan rolling.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to talk about ideas. And when it comes to education, one might very well ask, "Where's the plan?" More often than not, those plans tend to be reactionary. Witness Obama's Race to the Top, which just adds another filthy layer of competition (and corruption)  to the still reeking, shambling mass of NCLB. For all of the Liberal platitudes about education, we sure don't hear much constructive being brought forward.

And more often than not, liberal politicians seem easily swayed by the conservative camp's way of thinking. Education is a bipartisan topic, the thinking seems to go, ignoring the effects bad policy has on very specific populations of students.

If you need specifics, consider Chuck Rangle's piece on the importance of education in furthering the civil rights struggle. Who could disagree? I might go farther and say that soon education will be THE civil rights struggle. But what would Martin Luther King Jr. make of this piece?

He'd have little use for it, I think, as he'd have little use for the anemic policy of the so-called American Left. Say what you will, the Right seems to have taken the lead when it comes to activism.

How can we--in good conscience--point out the necessity of education in the lives of our children, especially our at-risk children, and how can we look at the shameful data regarding schooling and incarceration numbers, and how can we have nothing to say about how to make this better?

Where are the calls for real school reform? Where are the calls to dismantle the phony school reform that is further crippling American education?

When will someone decide that education is actually important enough to do something about?

It better be soon, because the other guys have a real advantage: they've got themselves a stupid plan.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

It's time to abandon work-centric metaphors to describe education.

On the one hand, we should celebrate talk about school reform that is something other than the same tired ideas about charter schools, free-market education, or accountability, and Thomas Friedman's recent op ed delivers on that account.

On the other hand...

Thomas Friedman is an economist, and his interest in education is economic, but I can't help but bristle at the acknowledgement that the current school system was built to acclimate and train students into an industrialized work-force and then see that followed by the claim that since the current work-force model has changed, therefore the educational model must change. How about some acknowledgment that the process of education is not the same as work? How about some acknowledgement that education is useful above and beyond its efficacy in securing high-paying jobs for students?

The thing is, I agree one-hundred percent with almost all of Wagner's suggestions, but I agree with them not because they will ease students' into imaginary jobs but because what is continually described as 21st century learning is what I call Learning. Period.

It's clearly a false claim that our current form of schooling was ever well-designed to prepare students for those "high-wage, middle-skilled jobs" of the past generations. To pretend that the almost exclusive emphasis on content over skills was somehow appropriate, as if those  "high-wage, middle-skill jobs" made regular use of Algebra II and depended on a worker's knowledge of the names and dates of Civil War battles, is just dishonest.

What Wagner is really describing is a move away from schooling and toward education, probably the most revolutionary shift we could ever hope to see, and the fact is that as the United States moves swiftly away from global capitalism's core and further into its periphery, "schooling" will be less and less necessary. But if our rationale for shifting is that somehow millions of newly educated students will "invent" high-wage jobs within that framework, we're almost certainly wasting our time.

Instead, we must invest in education, as opposed to schooling, so that we can build a citizenry capable of rethinking and rebuilding their world. But then, that's been the subversive purpose of education all along, which is why we see so very little of it in schools.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Monday, March 18, 2013

Can we redefine "indiscriminate?"

This excellent piece on the cost of "sequestration" for education is worth a read, though I have some trouble with this claim:

"The sequester's guillotine has little regard for good or bad programs as it unselectively slices spending across the country, but perhaps nowhere does its indiscriminate blade fall more harshly than within education. The students who will lose out will be the ones we should be most careful to protect: children from poor families and special needs kids.".
Yes, I understand the point,  but it's worth remembering (as the article actually goes on to say) that when we slash government programs, it is anything but indiscriminate; the harshest results will always be felt by those who are most in need, and a large percentage of those people happen to be children.

So, while the phony haggling over the budget continues, and while austerity becomes more and more of a genuine reality, it's worth remembering that when government representatives talk about tightening our belts, they're really talking about removing supports for millions of school children who need food and education.

To see how austerity measures are expected to affect your state, go here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday's provocative claim:

Grades are not only stupid, but they are actively detrimental to learning.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Yes, the standardized tests you hear being bad mouthed really are that terrible

 Below is a released item from the PAWS, Wyoming's state standardized test. Student progress is measured by scores on this test, and teachers' evaluations are based on students' results on this test. My school's AYP scores, determining whether or not we are a "failing" school is based on results from this test. 

The state's contract with Pearson runs about eight million dollars.

And, incidentally, the test is terrible.

Consider the following released items. This is from the Reading portion of the test and is meant to assess students' ability to utilize functional texts. Three out of the ten questions connected to this item don't meet the most basic criteria for quality instruction: that they measures only what they set out to measure.

1.       Which change in the enchilada recipe should you make if you are cooking for four people?
a.       Use 1 whole yellow onion
b.      Use ½ teaspoon chili powder
c.       Use 2 pounds of ground beef
d.      Use ¼ teaspoon of garlic salt

      2.   What should the check amount be if you are ordering three copies of the cookbook?
a.       $20
b.      $40
c.       $60
d.      $80
The first two of these items mix math skills in with the "select and apply" skills meant to be measured. Now, should seventh graders be able to multiply by three and divide by two? Absolutely. CAN all seventh graders multiply by three and divide by two? Not at all. So, what happens is that lack of basic math skills interferes with measuring basic reading skills.
Not only that, but even students who do have good math skills will miss these items because they introduce weird variables into the assessment of basic skills. So, students with good test-taking skills will be more successful than those without, regardless of reading ability.
The third item here is the most nefarious.
3.       Suppose you want to add the following step to the directions. “Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.” Where would be the most appropriate place in the directions to add this step?
a.       Before Step 1
b.      After Step 5
c.       In Step 6
d.      In Step 7

This question does not measure reading ability at all. It essentially determines which kids have relevant background knowledge and which ones don't. Kids who have experience cooking at home will do well, while students who don't, won't. Put simply, this question is class warfare.
Yes, there is some basic logic that could help determine the answer, but even if students were to apply knowledge of basic prefixes to work it out, they could still choose option b, and they would still be wrong.
What actually bothers me more than assessment scores that don't measure what they claim to measure or teacher evaluations based on assessment scores that don't measure what they claim to measure is the fact that this test mostly measure students' ability to take tests, and if I want them to do well, I have to spend time teaching them how to take tests. We have to talk about what to do when you get questions that cannot be answered by reading. In other words, I have to take time away from reading instruction in order to teach them how to take a test that will not measure my ability to provide reading instruction.
When we talk about this in class, the students get angry.
I don't blame them a bit.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Walmart-style Education

Life is currently making blogging impossible, but you should certainly check out this article  connecting the dots between "school reform" and big business.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When I don't have time to actually write, I snark.

Ron Paul. (Getty Images)
Ron Paul (Getty Images)

Brace yourself. Ron Paul is working on an Education Manifesto.

If you want to know how the free market will save our children's souls, this should be right up your alley.

I, on the other hand, expect it to be endlessly entertaining drivel.

There, my first psychic book review!

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Remember when I called for a conversation about the purpose of education? Here's the demonic version of that call.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday's provocative claim:

Higher Education is where good pedagogy goes to die.

Alright, come at me.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Garfield High's Protest Fizzles

This past week, the protests in Garfield High surrounding the MAP came to a rather undramatic conclusion.

We shouldn't be surprised, for if we were allowed to credence the claims leveled against the test, we wouldn't be able to help but deconstruct the entire testing industry that currently runs public education.

So, in my despair, I'd like to focus on the question of educational growth and the current structure of public Ed.

One of the most salient (read: measurable) points brought up by Garfield High teachers was the fact that the margin of error was larger than the expected growth, rendering results essentially meaningless.

To clarify, one of the strengths of the MAP test, at least in relation to other state and national standardized tests, is that it's based on growth. Students test in the fall, and their score is compared to a rather huge norm group. Based on that comparison and their current grade level, growth goals are set. The test is the administered again in the spring. One of the challenges is just how to deal with high-performing students, whose growth goals are both rather narrow and at the same time almost unattainable.

What I would like to question now, with an uncharacteristic lack of finger-pointing, is why our expected growth would narrow and shrink at the high school level.

The standard answer to that question is easy to infer. Elementary is a time of huge growth. Nowhere else will students be expected to process such large amounts of brand new information. Therefore, we should expect that once students have reached high school, that they are settling into a mere application of skills and knowledge.

We'll set aside a whole school of thought that argues against this set-up on the grounds that teaching later rather than earlier is preferable, especially math skills. Instead, let's just ask if this is what we want American education to look like.

Let me propose a different model: elementary education is dedicated to the building of basic skills. Middle school-as it ever shall be-becomes the gentle transition, shifting the focus toward the metagonitive, toward the reflective, toward application of knowledge. High school then become a place where years of skills can be brought to bear on an inexhaustible amount of content.

Essentially, elementary becomes the place where students learn how to learn (as schooling implies they need to do), and high school then becomes the locus for what should be a fairly explosive amount of learning.

I find this model at least as "obvious" as the one described earlier, but I don't believe this is how schools operate.

Of course, even if they did, this is precisely the kind of learning that is most difficult to measure on a standardized test, so we've really come full circle.

Nonetheless, i still have one question that I'll leave you with: Is it not possible that one reason learning slows to a crawl at the high school level is because teaching itself tends to vanish at that level?

There, I knew I could point a finger before I was done.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A few Words from Mister Holt

This idea that children won't learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, "positive and negative reinforcements," usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, "If we didn't make children do things, they wouldn't do anything." Even worse, they say, "If I weren't made to do things, I wouldn't do anything."

It is the creed of a slave.

― John Holt, How Children Fail

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

M.A.P. Boycott

I continue to watch with great interest how the Garfield school's boycott of the M.A.P. test develops. Today's  news seems quite dramatic.

I continue to be a bit baffled as to why this particular test has drawn such ire, but I'm convinced of one thing: this is how meaningful change will happen, with teachers, students, and parents driving reform from the ground up.

Now, can we put AYP requirements on the agenda?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

First Principles

Thanks to Edutopia for illustrating what I believe more and more to be one of the central problems within public education. Check out the following chart (click through the pic to download the PDF):
As with almost anything in America, we are hobbled by the sheer plurality of belief. How can we expect to accomplish anything in education when we cannot even agree on the most basic first principle such as the purpose of education?

What's important to recognize is that this is not simply a rift amongst Americans. It's not as if there is a difference between what the public thinks education is for versus what teachers think education is for. In any school building, you will find almost as many answers to the question as there are teachers.

Now this may appear a rather unimportant detail, this question of what education is for. After all, the mechanic doesn't need to know what you're going to do with your car in order to get it in working order. But in teaching, it has EVERYTHING to do with the way we go about our business. It affects what we teach, how we teach, what and how we assess, and how we respond to assessment data. The chart above barely scratches the surface of these differences.

What's more,  as much as I may wish it were otherwise, there is no clear demarcation between the beliefs of the "good" teachers and the "bad" teachers. I personally know teachers who deliver first class instruction, give excellent and exhaustive feedback, and respond to student assessment data all in perfect accordance with "best practices," all the while believing that the purpose of education is to get students ready to join the world of work. So it's not that there's any kind of one to one connection between belief and practice.

But (again, like so many things in American life) a teacher's beliefs are often the only rationale behind the very worst kinds of practices, and the fact that the belief system is pretty common in schools gives that rationale a kind of false credibility.

Take for instance a recent Edutopia facebook poll asking if teachers believe that students should be allowed to retake quizzes and tests. A surprising number of teachers answer quite emphatically in the negative. Now, this should not be so surprising, considering how it's a position with a great deal of inertia behind it, but in attempting to support their position, their own beliefs about just what education is for come to the forefront.

Answers like, "There are no retakes in the real world," and "They have to learn to be prepared and get it right the first time," (besides being demonstrably false) tell us everything about what these teachers believe their role in society is: To prepare students to enter a cut-throat work-world by replicating it as nearly as possible, right down to the sting of defeat.

I happen to believe that these teachers are flat wrong, but the fact that their belief system is so prevalent, and is actually considered beyond debate for many citizens AND teachers, means that these kind of detrimental classroom practices are unlikely to end anytime soon, again, not because they are a necessary result of that belief, but because the belief is a convenient support for bad practices.

One way we could begin to talk about improving education would be to start having this conversation all the way down to the building level. It's the most basic tenet of good instruction: You have to have the end in mind. If we can't agree on that, what kind of results can we expect?

So, chime in: What are we doing here?

Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Social Studies"

This article calling for the abolition of Social Studies classes is fascinating for multiple reasons.

On the one hand I have a deep suspicion of anything approaching "character education" in our public schools, though mostly due to a fear that such programs would be successful at instilling the driving systems of belief and the the touchstones of American culture into students. I mean, first off, what could be worse than that? And besides that, don't we already have television?

Despite the tone of Beran's article, this is not just a paranoid fever-dream of an ultra-conservative faced with the inevitable breakdown of white-supremacist culture. This is also a real question facing schools.

How much of grades address what students know and can do? How much of grades reflect character traits such as hard work and punctuality? How do we measure those traits? Should we measure those traits? Do schools--already shouldering the vast majority of what were once considered parental responsibilities--have a responsibility to teach students to be decent people? And who precisely decides what that means?

Mostly, Beran's article is a beautiful illustration of two important ideas:

One: Elementary education has to be a political high-wire act, for the basic values that are needed for a classroom to even function (e.g. sharing, community, cooperation) can be seen as emblematic of a whole left-wing conspiracy to undermine American values. And honestly, they do. Beran's cult of the individual is shaken at its foundations when we talk about community.

Two: Education is always political. The wish for an unbiased, apolitical pedagogy is itself a political stance, and probably a dangerous one.

In the end, I wish Beran well, knowing that he needn't wory too much. In reality, there's nothing more inherently conserative than public education. He's fighting a battle he's already one.

Monday, January 28, 2013

E.D. Hirsch and the power of vocabulary

E.D. Hirsch continues to earn his role as my own personal bĂȘte noir in his latest article about vocabulary acquisition.

In it, Hirsch continues to sound the clarion call of his own desperate anxieties regarding anything which strays from the most basic, banking-method of education (read: anything that can't be packaged into books that can be sold to overbearing parents at a healthy profit). So dedicated is Hirsch to the idea of rote learning and purely quantitative education that he actually singles out "Finding the main idea" as some abhorrent new-agey fad that "usurp[s] students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself."

Nope, no reflective thinking allowed.

So, mostly, I shake my head and chuckle at Hirsch's ongoing public airing of his own insecurities.

But this article caught my eye as it focuses on something that we can actually agree on: the importance of vocabulary acquisition as both a measure of and a tool for education.

Not surprisingly, I disagree with almost every point he makes about how to deal with the issue, but let's look to the problem itself first:

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

Let's grant the premise that vocabulary is a pretty accurate measure of content knowledge and is a great aid in further learning. Where Hirsch seems to go off the rails is in that last sentence: why should this be a language arts issue?

The answer of course is because if we make vocabulary acquisition our goal, then what is needed is a clearly sequenced curriculum whose purpose is to deliver important, content-specific vocabulary in such a way to work it into long-term memory.

However, if we reject the premise that vocabulary is the goal of education (as anyone who would like to ponder the question for half a moment will do), this methodology appears dreadfully wrong-headed. What needs to happen is that ongoing reading instruction should be embedded in the content area classrooms. Rather than teaching a three week science unit in English class to focus on vocabulary, students in science class should be reading and utilizing content-specific vocabulary in its appropriate context. This seems to me so obvious as to be almost not worth saying, but apparently I'm wrong. I am continually left to wonder if Hirsch's tortured logic is crassly intentional or sadly, desperately genuine.

What Hirsch continually fails to grasp is the reflexive nature between content and skills, knowing and thinking. In his throw-out-the-baby-the-the-bathwater reaction to progressive education, he's put himself in the unenviable position of disdaining critical thought itself.

Hirsch is clearly correct that there have been errors of methodology in American Education, and many of those errors are being remedied (albeit slowly). The idea that memorization by rote is an absolute evil is an idea that has had its day, but I would argue that it hasn't fallen into disrepute because of the failing of the middle class. Rather, it has fallen away because teachers and administrators have come to recognize that basic content knowledge, while far from the goal of any real education, is a necessary prerequisite to doing the work that makes up education.

Hirsch's praise of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is right on track, but he is willfully blind to the higher level thinking skills that are everywhere weaved into the CCSS (including an entire standard about identifying the main idea in an informational text), skills that require a firm grasp of content, vocabulary, etc., in order to ask students to do more with the content.

So, how do we fix the vocabulary gap? Hirsch proposes three solutions: "better preschools, run along the French lines; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool."

While the idea of highly academic preschools makes me queasy, it is the best of his three solutions as it focuses on what is most important: the early development of reading habits and relationships to language.

What do more economically well-off students receive that really makes the difference? They are much more likely to have been read to as babies, toddlers, and children. This is the result of a whole constellation of factors, not least of which being that poor parents tend to have significantly less time to spend, working multiple jobs to pay their bills. Add to that the cycle of poverty, and we have large percentages of students being raised by parents who do not even recognize that reading to children is something that is done.

Therefore, I would label this as an economic problem. But even in terms of a pedagogical approach to solving the problem, the idea of a uniform vocabulary acquisition program aimed at two year olds is ridiculous. What we need are children who are read to, who learn to experience and love text. I sincerely wish there was more room in Hirsch's thinking for the joy of reading and learning, and his preschool recommendation seems anathema to such joy.

If we want students to be better thinkers, better scholars, and better citizens, then they must have ample opportunity to think critically about a whole range of issues. It is impossible to do so without a certain level of knowledge, and an important part of that knowledge is vocabulary. When I teach parts of speech to my 7th graders (there's an example of "how-to" education gone wrong) I am always careful to emphasize that the purpose of working so hard to identify subjects and predicates is not that it will make them smarter people or even better writers, but so that we can all share a common vocabulary. That way, when I say, there's no subject, so that's a fragment, students understand what that means, and then we can work on making better sentences.

That thought process, which Hirsch sneers at, is becoming more prevalent, not less. Under the moniker of "Twenty-First Century Learning" we have a recognition that there is simply too much information, and that it changes too quickly. Therefore, we must focus on what is essential to help all students navigate a world that no longer has a use for Hirsch's canonical lists of cultural touchstones. Vocabulary will continue to be one of those essentials, as it allows us to manipulate ideas, attack complex problems, and work cooperatively with others, all of which make up the true essence of education.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Schools as Tools of Political Leverage

 Consider THIS story, about the Wyoming legislature's proposed bill to allow Bible as literature classes in Wyoming public schools.

Opponents say that the bill is useless because such classes are already allowed and the Supreme Court has explicitly allowed them.

The bill's sponsors don't even deny these criticisms. They claim that the bill is designed to help "reassure" schools and "raise awareness." In other words, the bill is nothing but fluff, a way of demonstrating something (though what that something is, precisely, is a bit of a mystery) about the separation of church and state.

What's clear is that in this case the House Education Committee is absolutely unconcerned with issues of education, instead choosing to use their power to maneuver schools into their own ideaological battles.

Well, done, ladies and gentlemen. Well done.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

How Can We Serve?

"Commitment to teaching well is a commitment to service. Teachers who do the best work are always willing to serve the needs of their students. In an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture, service is devalued. Dominator culture pointedly degrades service as a way of maintaining subordination. Those who serve tend to be regarded as unworthy and inferior. No wonder then that there is little positive discussion of the teacher's commitment to serve."

    ---bell hooks, "How Can We Serve," Teaching Community. Routledge, New York and London, 2003.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Josh's Big Three

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with a friend who found herself suddenly thrust into a teaching position. She has lots of education and an abundance of intelligence, compassion, and drive, but no teacher training.

I told her that would be fine.

Very little of what I received in my Education courses prepared me for the realities of classroom teaching anyway, and the things that really matter can be boiled down to a handful of philosophies and practices. So, the poor thing found herself subject to a crash course of my design, focused on what I consider the bare essentials for classroom teaching.

Needless to say, as a teacher, I appreciated the chance to reflect on these questions for my own selfish reasons. And as long as I was thinking and talking about it, I figured I may as well write about it.

So, I present to you my three essential understandings for classroom teachers. I warn you, they will not be esoteric, political, or inspirational, but will instead be terribly, perhaps dully, practical.

1. The PLC Model's Essential Questions

This is a bit of a trojan horse, carrying multiple ideas in with it, and I'm going to bastardize it here as I divorce it from it's collaborative context, but they're important enough questions that I'm doing it anyway.
  1. What do students need to know and/or understand? (Standards/Benchmarks)
  2. How will I know when they've got it? (Assessment)
  3. What will I do to aid students who don't get it? (Interventions)
  4. What will I do to enhance the learning of students who do get it? (Enrichments)
This boils down almost the entire educational practice into four questions, but it's remarkable to consider how many of these questions are never really considered in planning. Teachers, egged on by a lot of shallow education classes, tend to focus on developing exciting instruction. "Everyone come up with a new and kinesthetic way to teach the parts of speech!" Therefore, the most important question for novice teachers is usually, "What's a cool way to teach that?"

While this is obviously an integral part of teaching, many teachers suffer from a cart-before-the-horse misunderstanding of its place in planning. The worst thing we can do is to spend valuable class time on something because we have a really cool way to teach it.

At its heart this is the Understanding by Design (UbD) model, otherwise known as Backward Planning. It's the model that turns the whole "Teaching to the Test" from a pejorative into a powerful teaching tool. "Teaching to the Test" is only bad when your test is bad. As many teachers find themselves teaching to sub-standard state or national standardized tests, it's easy to see this as an evil.

But when we think about it, what else should we be teaching to? If we start with what they need to know, and we design assessments that accurately measure if they know it, what else would we possibly want to teach to if not that assessment?

Once we've got that out of the way, then we can bring the full force of our creativity and content knowledge to the task of building engaging instruction that will get them there.

The last two questions (and especially the very last) are the ones that get the least attention. Too often, the philosophy comes down to, "I taught it and they did or didn't get it, and my job as a teacher is to record that fact in the form of a letter grade." The PLC model, however, is built on a philosophy that says that the teacher's job is to ensure learning for all students, and when they don't get it, my job is to have a plan for how to deal with that. Designing interventions to help struggling students and enrichments to further the learning of students who are already there, is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of classroom teaching, and it is unquestionably the place where you are most likely to experience that greatest moment in the profession: When a student looks up and says, "Oh, I get it."

2. Gradual Release of Responsibility

What the PLC model leaves out (quite purposefully) is the question of classroom instruction. Once again, my teacher training tended to put a premium on flash and style, and not so much on effectiveness. Moreover, teachers tend to take a lot of things for granted. Often, an assignment asks students to write about the idea or concept under discussion, ignoring the fact that the writing itself is something that aught to be taught if the teacher does not want to be endlessly disappointed and annoyed.

Gradual Release of Responsibility is a system of instruction that can be summarized in three steps:
  1. I do
  2. We do.
  3. You do.
The first step is always teacher modeling. If I want my students to write a written response, I have to demonstrate for them how to do that. I give them models of responses which we analyze for ideas and organization. I model (with my invaluable document camera) the actual thinking and writing of a response. Obviously, I chunk this activity up as necessary.

Then students get a chance to practice the thinking and skills in pairs or table groups. They know it's practice, and they know they have lots of resources to help them along. They work, and the teacher circulates, answering questions and giving feedback.

And then we debrief, listening to examples of the groups' work, talking about trouble spots and difficulties.

Then we get to the stage where a lot of classroom instruction begins: the students complete the activity individually.

Once this methodology is internalized, you realize that a lot more of your time is spent teaching, rather than simply assessing students' inability to perform learning activities.

3. Ongoing Formative Assessment

In a field so overwhelmingly dominated by assessment--most of it pretty inauthentic--it seems strange to speak of assessment as an important instructional tool, but that's exactly what it is.

First: terminology. Most of what we think of when we think of assessment is "Summative" in nature. That means that it's simply record keeping. It allows students to demonstrate their understanding (or lack thereof), and while this data may be used for many purposes (some of them quite nefarious), it will not be used to drive further instruction. Why not? Because we're moving on. The summative assessment simply tells us who got it and who didn't.

"Formative" assessment, on the other hand, measures student understanding for the purpose of informing further instruction.

More importantly, "assessment" is not synonymous with "testing." Almost anything can become a formative assessment if it is used in that way. A homework assignment shows that a majority of students are still struggling with a particular skill. Therefore, I alter the next day's lesson plan to reteach and re-assess. When the work shows that a small percentage of students don't understand, I develop a plan to target those students.

Formative assessment is about getting the students where they need to be.

I find that the "better" I am as a classroom teacher is in direct proportion to the degree to which I embed formative assessments, large and small, into everything I do. The largest part of my job becomes taking the class's temperature and prescribing the necessary medicine.

One effect of this way of thinking is that a lesson plan is never really a lesson plan. It's a suggestion. It's a list of learning activities. I begin with every week planned (or, preferably, over-planned), but rare is the week in which that plan proceeds as written, because I am constantly tweaking, reteaching, re-assessing, and re-inventing. It's this dynamic response to assessment data that is the definition of quality classroom instruction.

Now, obviously this is in no way a comprehensive list of skills and strategies for classroom instruction, but these ARE, in my opinion, the most important, and they were also all suspiciously missing from my teacher education training.

So, teachers, what did I miss? What would YOU name as your big three?


For further reading:

On PLC work: Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement by Richard DuFour, Robert E. Eaker.

On Understanding By Design: Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe.

On Gradual Release of Responsibility: That Workshop Book: New Systems and Structures for Classrooms That Read, Write, and Think by Samantha Bennett.

On Formative Assessment: Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam.