Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Let's see if we can get it right this time?

Let’s See If We Can Get it Right This Time…

If my memory is serving me correctly, the Maryland State Department of Education has tried five times in the last 30 years to come up with a statewide standardized testing program - all in the name of improving instruction.
The latest and greatest failure is the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers, better known as the PARCC tests. 
Everyone agrees that the tests are too long.  They are too disruptive to the instructional process and the results come back too late for the teaching staff to do anything that approximates using the test information to inform instruction.
But worst of all, after three years of teaching to this test, the kids are still not passing it.  Just 34 percent of the State’s elementary and middle-school students passed the most recent PARCC tests in math; nearly 42 percent did not pass in English.  These results are politically unsustainable.   I mean even kids in the economically advanced counties aren’t passing the things.  The tests are based on the content from the Common Core curriculum.  Most education experts have said all along that the standards in Common Core did not align with child development, but what do they know. The tests take upwards of 9 1/2 hours to give.  The idea originally was that all states would give the same test based on the same standards and school systems could be compared across states.  That idea really never got off the ground.  About half the states went with a different test right from the beginning- the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium.  That always sounded like a butter substitute to me but what do I know.
So for this current school year, Maryland together with New Jersey, New Mexico and the District of Columbia will be the last hold-outs for the PARCC assessments.  
Education is one of the biggest deals to governors. You will notice that Governor Hogan is claiming credit for the most money for education ever!  That is great but he really didn't have anything to do with it, there is a state law the dictates the increase every year. 
 So when people complain about a state-wide test and scores on those tests by students are terrible even in the “good” school systems what’s a governor to do.  Simple leave that test for another one.
And that is exactly what Maryland is hoping to do for the 2019-2020 school year.  The State Department of Education has put out a request for proposals (RFP) for a company to come forth and develop the new test, it will be called the MCAP, Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program.  Kind of catchy don’t you think?
The teachers’ unions are all over it.  It doesn’t exist yet but it is going to be shorter and the results will be back sooner.   But don’t you worry it will be just as rigorous.  Citizens be assured this is going to be no PARCC Light with a Maryland seal on the cover.  No cost figures have been released as to how much this ever better standardized test will cost the taxpayers after spending millions and millions on the PARC test.  Trust me it will be a bundle.
We have had Project Basic, MSPAP, MSA, HSA, PARCC- now comes MCAP.  Maybe the State will finally get it right this time- or maybe they will decide to use all that money to put better instructional programs in place for the students.   Nah, we are not quitters.  We will keep trying to get a state test that will be politically viable.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

No one was ever fooled...

No one was ever fooled…

Remember when you were in elementary school and your teacher grouped the kids into the Little Red House group, the Bluebird group and the Robin group.  All the groups were equal—right?!  Was there anyone in the class who did not know which groups was the slowest group and which group was the smart kids?  Didn’t think so.
Recently a study of over 12,000 students in 2,100 schools found that although kids in the lowest group did improve and by 3rdgrade almost half of the students in the lowest group had moved up to the median group. However, the researcher found that NONE of the children who started kindergarten in the lowest group moved up to the top group by 3rdgrade.  There are multiple reasons for this situation. One of which is that teachers do not believe that the students in the lowest group have the ability to be in the highest group for whatever reason. But first some other research.
In a series of three new studies from Switzerland, researchers asked teachers to evaluate student profiles. All of the test scores showed the children to be on the borderline of rigorous academic achievement.  The children’s records arbitrarily assigned them to high, median or low income families.  Again, it is important to note that these were arbitrary assignments, not really the children's socioeconomic status and the test scores were very similar for all children.  Over multiple studies, teachers assigned the lower income children to the lowest reading groups even though their test scores were essentially the same as the arbitrarily assigned higher income kids.
What these studies suggest is that we have been grouping children wrongly all along.  Here's a new idea, instead of grouping children based on teacher perceived ability, why not group the children according to the skill set they need to develop.  So, you can have children of differing abilities who all need to work on decoding by the use of phonics.  Another group could be working on decoding using a whole word or context clue approach.  And still another group of kids who are done with decoding, could be working on comprehension.  Every eight weeks, students are assessed again and groups are shuffled according to the new information.
In fact, a new approach, Assessment to Instruction (A2I) assesses children in four areas of reading instruction: decoding, fluency, comprehension and usage.  Students are grouped for instruction based on particular focus skills rather than overall reading ability.   The system does a several things.  First, it targets the areas of literacy that children need rather than working on all areas with all kids.  Secondly, it mixes up ability levels within the targeted skill areas so children do not see themselves as the low achievers in the room.  Lastly, it produces better outcomes.   In a recent longitudinal study in California, students who participated in the A2I approach over three years performed significantly higher than the control group that used the standard ability approach to grouping.
Every kid always knows which group is the dumb bunnies; and sadly so do the dumb bunnies.  By grouping kids according to skill set and changing the grouping every couple of months, even the smartest kids may not know which group is the dumb bunnies. Not a bad way to confuse children. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Inclusion is a delusion

Inclusion is a delusion- now we even have research

Many of us have said for a very long time that inclusion is a delusion that will not work for either children with disabilities or for plain kids.  It is a system that painted over a plan to save money with cheap PC statements about how much the children with disabilities would learn from the plain kids and how empathetic the experience would make plain kids.  Clearly these folks have never studied human behavior. 
 Some disability advocates have argued for ALL children with disabilities, regardless of the severity, to be educated in general education classrooms.  Today more than 60% of children with disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in a general ed classroom.  Not quite what the all-in advocates want but certainly enough to do damage to the kids with learning challenges.
Now comes some research that shows there is little academic benefit to the students and there is little evidence that the general ed teacher has the preparation to meet the unique learning and behavioral needs of students with challenges.  Oh, and there is also the interest and the will to learn on the part of the general educator. 
Unfortunately, common wisdom seems to be that the more a child with a disability is educated with plain students the greater the likelihood is that the program is appropriate.  In this model appropriateness  of program is based on setting not on instruction OR on academic growth of the student. One study looked at children with math disabilities who were taught with specially designed instructional methods.  Their progress was compared with similarly disabled students who were taught in an inclusion class with instructional methods that included multiple means for students to express learning.  This method is known as Universal Design for Learning. The two groups had very different results.  The math achievement gap between students with disabilities who received instruction in general education was double that of those children who received specially designed instruction in a separate group.  By year 3 the gap is even greater!   
Favoring the placement of children with disabilities in general ed classrooms seems to ignore that the vast majority of these kids have already failed in general ed, that is one of the prime reasons they were identified as having special learning needs.
Teachers, too, are chiming in on their thoughts with their feet.  Teachers without special education certification in North Carolina were 2.4% more likely to leave the school or teaching when 1/5thof their students had IEPs.   Teachers with “inclusive” classrooms report spending less time on instruction and more time on behavior management.  It is not clear whether the increased time on behavior management by the teachers was due to lack of skill on the part of the teacher or noncompliant behavior on the part of the child.  Nationally, the number of teachers with special education certification has declined to the point that the ratio of special education teachers to children with disabilities is LESS than the ratio of plain children to general education teachers.
There are 3 stakeholder groups in this discussion: students with disabilities, plain students and teachers, both general ed and special education certified.   All three of these groups would benefit from causal research into the benefits of inclusion on the achievement of all children.  
Until we free ourselves from the preconceived notion that location of program is an indicator of academic progress, that research is unlikely.
We will continue to wave the magic wand, declare inclusion a victory, and move on to other fairy tales.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

High Quality Teachers-dream or reality

High Quality Teachers- Dream or Reality

The Kirwin Commission named after Brit Kirwin former President of the University System of Maryland has been charged with making recommendations for the improvement of education in Maryland.  One big part of the recommendation is the report of the sub-group on High Quality Teachers and Leaders Workgroup.
There are many recommendations from the group, all of which will dramatically increase the cost of teachers in Maryland.  The bigger question is whether the recommendations, if funded ( a HUGE if), would also increase the quality of the teaching in Maryland.
The first section of the report addresses pay equity of teachers with other professions and with teachers in Massachusetts and New Jersey. The Workgroup is recommending an-across-the board increase of 10% in the next three years in order to achieve this objective.  No mention is made of whether or not merit will be taken into account for this increase nor of the fact that the cost of living in New Jersey and Massachusetts is much higher than that of Maryland.  
The report acknowledges the roles of the various unions in setting teachers' salaries.  It recommends that the State conduct periodic benchmarking studies of teachers' salaries. Each county and local union will receive from the State at the start of each collective bargaining process the weighted salaries of comparable professionals such as registered nurses and accountants.  Again there is no mention of the fact that merit figures highly into the salaries of other professionals unlike teachers who all receive the same salary with the same education and same time in the profession in the same jurisdiction.
The next big section of the report concerns a career ladder for teachers. The career ladder they are suggesting is similar to the those found in Singapore and Shanghai.  
The State would provide the design parameters for each step of the ladder, although local systems may make their own corrections within the parameters spelled out by the State.  It is projected that there will be many more teachers at the bottom rungs of the ladder than at the top.  Positions at the top will also be limited so that people will only be able to move into those spots based on availability.  This approach is different from a salary plan implemented by Baltimore City in which salaries are regularly topping 100K based on a system similar to earning merit badges.  In the proposed system,  movement up the ladder will be a function of performance and experience.  There will be a teacher leadership track and an administrative leadership track.  Individuals may move horizontally between the two tracks.  Along with these new tracks will be a proposal to raise the standards for acquiring a teaching license.   The new standard does not measure classroom performance but rather a test of teaching ability.  These new tests require the submission of portfolios designed to show how well an applicant teaches absent the children in a real classroom.  An individual can prepare a great portfolio but will it fly with 28.5 children in a real 8th grade classroom. 
All of these steps admittedly will dramatically raise the cost of teachers. And if teachers can’t meet the new standards, the plan will also reduce the number of teachers at a time when student enrolled in Colleges of Education is falling significantly.  
This is an ambitious plan that will cost a great deal of money without really assuring that the quality of teachers will improve.  Unless we can also improve the quality of the teaching we will just be getting better paid weak teachers

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

How do I IEP?

How do I IEP?

The school year is about to start anew.   For many families that means there will be an IEP meeting that will need to be negotiated.   These meetings can be fun, fulfilling and/or demanding and torturous.
Federal and state law require that the IEP (Individual Education Program) be truly individual to each child and be the document that describes how FAPE (Free appropriate public education) is provided to each child.  FAPE is guaranteed to each child with a disability from birth through the school year in which the child turns 21.  A school system cannot plead lack of resources or staff for failure to meet the requirements of the IEP, so it is very important that the document spells out what is needed.
Since school systems cannot claim shortages as reasons for not providing the services, they will sometimes go another route and insist the child does not need the service.
Flash to parents, first of all the IEP is a serious deal for your child, please dress the part.  You want to be taken seriously by the staff.  There is a good chance that staff will outnumber you, so you need to look like someone who is not to be messed with.  Parents may bring an advocate or an attorney to the meeting.  They may also bring separate independent evaluations about their child.   The law requires that the team consider these evaluations.  Consider does not mean accept or follow the advice given. It means simply that, consider. So, the team can read the evaluation, put it aside, and they have considered it.
This past year the Supreme Court gave parents a bright new tool. The Janus decision is very clear, an IEP that provides only the minimal amount of progress for a child from year to year is not providing FAPE.   In the past, before this decision, IEP teams could count any progress at all as meeting the requirement.  Now families can demand more and they can insist on differing expectations to meet their children’s needs.
It is not unusual for staff to report school performance that is below that which families see at home or for teachers to indicate that instructional performance in the classroom is higher than that shown on a formal evaluation. Kids do better at home because there is usually less pressure and parents help in many ways their support to provide.  Likewise, in everyday instruction, there are many supports that allow a student to do better than on a timed formal test.
No matter how young or how old the child is, a parent’s eye should be on where you want this child to be when the entitlement of FAPE is over.  
The IEP is parents’ best control over their child’s education. Use it carefully and wisely.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Will Your School Stand UP?

Will your school stand up?

Does your child go to a good school?   How do you know?   If you follow the common wisdom, you can tell by the test scores.  School systems are required to post the test scores of each individual school within the system.  Real estate values go up or down based on the posted scores.   Families agree to privately transport to the schools with good scores and/or make up reasons why their children need to go to the schools with better scores.
But are we chasing the wrong pots of gold?   Is there really lifetime success at the end of these rainbows?  The answer is probably not.
Sure, learning to read, write and do arithmetic are very important skills that will lead to vocational success but they won’t work alone.
In fact, a strong school stands on four legs not just one.  Like a table that is unbalanced unless there are 4 legs of equal length and strength, so a good school needs to provide skills in four areas equally.
It is easy to argue that a good school does a good job of teaching academic skills.  A really good school teaches those skills in multiple ways, matching the teaching style to the learning style of the children.  The teachers teach kids how to problem solve and apply old learning to new situations.  There is minimal emphasis on memorization and repeating answers to problems that someone else has solved.
No table stands on one leg.  And no good school does either.  There are three other legs that good schools provide for their students.
At some point in time, the expectation is that children will leave school, be it after high school, college or grad school and look for productive employment.   This means that ALL students need vocational and soft job skills to be able to thrive in the world of employment.  One of the most important of those skills is the ability to work in a diverse workplace. The United States is becoming more and more diverse.  Already white students are less than half of the students in public schools.  The workplace will soon follow.  Kids need to know that a big part of keeping a job is showing up and showing up on time.  It is being respectful to supervision and being able to problem solve and work collaboratively.  We are not teaching those skills and we need to.
You may have noticed lately that folks are lacking in social skills as well.  Saying please and thank you seems to be a lost art.  Yet those simple words can oil many a sticky situation.  Just yesterday I saw a car cut off an ambulance with its siren on.  That is an instance of poor social skills taken to a life-threatening extreme.  We know more about communicating in code via text, than we know about talking to each other.
Doesn’t matter where we go or what we do, we take ourselves with us- 24/7.  Most of all we need to learn to accept and like ourselves just as we are, without the “if only”.  As in I would be a better person, “if only”.  Each of us is the only version of ourselves.  We each need to learn to love the person we are, to put on our own oxygen mask on first. Teachers can be a huge help in teaching our children while they are small, before the world beats the joy out of them, that each of the children is a really special person and deserves to be celebrated.
That’s it.  Four legs to the table, academic, vocational, social and emotional.  As with any sturdy table the legs need to be of equal length and equally strong to create a sturdy balanced table.  So it is with schools.  Don’t be fooled by the shell game that teaches us that only test scores count.  Because when all school is said and done- we each need all four legs for our table

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Hate: A back-to-school supply

Hate, a back to school supply

Three swastikas were found on the mirror of the girls’ bathroom.   A homophobic comment was left in a note in a student’s desk.   Inside the back pack of a Latino student was a note that said: “Go back to Mexico”. The n-word has been whispered to students as they pass in the hall.  Muslim students are called by racist terms.
These instances are not new.  They have been in schools for decades.  What is new is the the uptick in the number of these incidents in schools since the election of Donald Trump.   There are some who will say that the coarse language used by Trump in referring to some minority groups has given license, if not tacit approval, to these events.  They will say that Trump’s influence has emboldened some children, teenagers and even school employees to openly espouse hateful views.
But can we really blame it all on Trump?  While his behavior makes him an easy target for blame, it is also true that schools have long been a venue for bias and harassment.  It is easy to say, it has always been thus. That does not let school leaders off the hook.   What a school can do and what a school should do to improve the climate so that all kids feel safe need to be one and the same.
These incidents are most likely to occur in suburban schools where white students are far in the majority.   As America becomes ever more diverse, these schools and all schools, are going to need to learn how to live together with everyone.  Minority students regularly report that majority students and staff just don’t GET the pain that is felt by the targeted students.
That situation needs to change.   Schools need to tackle diversity head on.   Diversity clubs and councils need to teach majority students that contrary to the old rhyme, words can harm us and do regularly.   White administrators want to do “one and done”.  They want to hold a meeting, invite a speaker, have a talk and then declare victory and go home.
It is not that simple by any stretch.  First of all, school leaders need to call out hate wherever it is found and bring it out of its hiding place.   They need to work to get first-hand accounts from the victims to the victimizers and let the victimizers know the harm they have caused.  Victimizers need to be made to do the research to see what horrible damage their hate has caused and does cause.  Social media gives hatred its best forum ever, more visual and faster.   So when a group of kids in a Maryland high school had a scrabble day and spelled the N-word on t-shirts with letters, the photo went viral.  Parents were informed of the ”incident” but there was minimal discipline.
School administrators need to see that these are not “incidents”.  These events are indicators of our failure to educate students to live in a diverse democracy.  It is way past time for us to start getting this right.
School is about to start soon.   We ALL need to actively make sure Hate is not the school supply we send back with our kids when classes start.