Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bold new plans

This month the University of Maryland's University College has floated a bold new idea.  Competency based education!  Quite remarkable really, students will be able to earn credits based on the demonstration of content rather than just being able to repeat what the prof has said.  University College is the arm of the University of Maryland whose mission has always been the reach out to non-traditional students.  The backbone of their program has been the men and women of the armed forces who were serving overseas.  They used to brag that the sun never set on University College.  With the reduction in the armed forces, the College has seen a significant reduction in students so they are seeking to re-build enrollment by reaching out to the business community and trying to partner with that community to train and education current employees.
Of course, no good idea goes uncriticized.   People are complaining that what it means to be competent is not clearly defined.  Clearly defined has never been an issue in traditional course work.  Each instructor "clearly defines" what is expected at the beginning of each course.  Just ask students how often mind reading has been the most important skill when trying to get good grades.
There are so many just mind boggling ideas here.  Such as students would finish the course in as much time as it took to master the content.  Could be more or less than the typical semester.  Just imagine the emphasis would be on student learning not hours in a classroom.  One professor even had the courage to say out loud that he thought it was a good idea "so long as it does not lead to cutting faculty positions."  Now that's putting it out there- student learning vs. jobs for the teachers. Throughout the discussion of whether or not the competency based approach was a good idea, was whether or not it would be financially beneficial to the College.
The Harbour School has been measuring student learning based on a competency based program for over 20 years.  The approach is both so logical and intuitive that one cannot help but wonder 1) why every school doesn't use the approach and 2) why do schools keep acting like it is a remarkable new way to measure learning.
Truth is, with a very few exceptions, in the real world, you either can do the job or you can't do the job.  If you aren't competent in the skill, you will either be trained or be released from those job responsibilities.  Granted, teaching in a competency based program is harder work for the teacher.  Responsibility shifts to student learning and away from teacher teaching.  In the traditional program the teacher throws content out there and the student either makes the catch or not.  The teacher is considered to have "taught well" if he or she adheres to quality accepted practices of what is good teaching.  In the traditional model, good teaching can occur independent of student learning.  Not so in the competency based approach.  Of course the question of whether there can be good teaching without student learning is a discussion best left for another day.
Until then, let's hope that the University College of The University of Maryland follows the lead of The Harbour School and moves to competency based learning.  It is a good idea whose time has long since come.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Where did all the children go?

I just returned from 17 days in China.  Let me say first of all that the Chinese people could not have been kinder or more welcoming.  They love to practice their English on Americans since their government's policy makes it unlikely that they will be able to travel to America.  However, children do start to learn English from the very early grades and people do quite well considering the huge differences between English and Chinese.   We could learn something there.
Among other places, I visited the four largest cities in China.  China has 1.3 billion people- yep that's billion with a "B".   It has 1/4th of the world's population.  I mention this fact not because I want to show off what I learned but because of this next very curious experience.
In the seventeen days of my visit, including many standard tourist attractions, that were predominately frequented by Chinese not westerners, I saw not ONE, that is correct, not a single child with a disability.
My curiosity started with questions about how China does special education.   I was met with quizzical and confused looks.   Finally I was told that we do have some schools for deaf people.  I believe they do but I did not see a single person sign to another.  I was frequently asked to notice the strips of concrete tread engraved into sidewalks.  I was told that these were to help the blind.   But I never saw a single vision impaired person, no white canes, no guide dogs.
Then came the final question.  What about people with learning problems or emotional problems.  That was when the looks got really confused.  Often people just said "we don't have any".  Now granted with as many people as China has there are many jobs that can be managed with limited cognition.  For example, people sweep the curbs of major highways with brooms made of bamboo.  They wash down the road dividers with mop like hand tools.  Things are clean in China that Americans have no expectation of being clean or expect a machine to come along and do the job.
But the people doing these jobs looked just like everyone else.  We did not see a single person who was visibly disabled.  By contrast, on the relatively short hop from Chicago to the east coast on our return, there was a boy who looked to be about 12.   He also looked to be and acted as someone with autism.  Right there, right away, barely back in our country was a person with a disability.
Where are they in China?  Surely China must have its share of kids with disabling syndromes.   Here is what is scary.  China has a one child policy.  There are severe sanctions for failure to adhere, even to the extreme in some areas of forced abortion.  Are these children allowed to die at birth?  Are they given up for adoption?  China still has orphanages and still allows westerners to adopt out.
These children have to be born and they have to be somewhere- but where are they?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Lots of Sound and Fury...

The news was all abuzz in the last week about the connection of student test scores to teacher evaluation.  Federal law, No Child Left Behind, required testing for almost every elementary school year and 3 high stakes tests in high school in English, math and science.  Then along came Race to The Top, President Obama's contribution to the federal muddle of improving education.   In order to get Race to the Top money a state had to link student test scores to teacher evaluation.  The recommended percentage was a 50% linkage.  In the beginning, teacher unions and local school systems went along with the game to get the money.  Notably in Maryland, Montgomery County and Frederick County refused to play.  So when Maryland got 250 mil, they got zip.
But now the piper must be paid and folks are having lots of second thoughts.  Principal's are recommending a new evaluation processes, some of which do not include the linkage to testing.  In Maryland the State Board recently approved counting test scores as 20% of the teacher's evaluation.  Whatever happened to the 50%?  Reality and push back.
Now there comes a pledge by unions, the local school boards and the state school board to agree to work together to come up with a new plan.  Some principals and school systems have gone so far as to having principals and teachers establish learning objectives at the beginning of the school year and evaluate teachers based on the achievement of those objectives.  But here's the rub.  Many of those objectives are so innocuous that they would be almost impossible NOT to achieve, as in raising overall math achievement by x% without naming the measuring stick nor doing pre and post testing.
The fact is, what are all these people jumping and shouting about.  Unfortunately a teacher's evaluation has zip to do with the salary the teacher will receive each year.  That is determined by the extra degrees a person has and the years of service.  And by the way, research has shown that those extra degrees are expensive in salary but do not provide a commensurate improvement in teaching ability.  But they do look nice in the statistics of staff education.
Why don't we just start with getting rid of bad teachers.  Every principal knows who they are.  And so does every union because they are protecting them from losing their jobs.  Data seem to show that roughly 10% of all teachers are ineffective.  If the unions cared about something besides their own health and welfare benefits they would want to clean up the profession as well.  But they don't.
So the bottom line is 20%, 50% who cares about degree- it's evaluation that no one is really interested in doing anything about.  We just keep throwing up straw men to argue about.  Keeps us occupied and away from the real issues.