Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What did you learn in school today?

What did you learn in school today?

Many times we ask children a variation of this question.   Sometimes we ask: what did you do in school today.  Far too frequently the answer is “nothing”.  There is, of course, a wide range of reasons for this answer.  The most obvious is that the child in fact did not learn anything or at least not anything that she can articulate.  Or the truth might be that what was done or learned just takes too much energy to talk about so he won’t.  The really sad truth is that much of what she learned in school today is pretty useless for tomorrow.  And that is what is so scary because the stakes are so high.

I think it is a condition of the human nature that when we don’t know what to do about something we look for concrete measurements to make us think we are progressing or not.  And so in order to improve education we started to measure everything with tests.  We know based on incoming college freshmen testing that these young adults are no better prepared for college today than they were before all the testing.

So what should we be teaching kids in schools if not algebra II?  First of all, most of today’s students will wind up in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.  So any notion of preparing children for specific jobs doesn’t really make sense.  Continually we ignore what employers tell us they need in good employees whether we are talking about retail sales, health care, cyber sleuthing or space travel.   We need people who can solve problems.  Doesn’t matter what kind of problem.  Does the person have a strategy for solving any problem?  As in define the problem, identify the information needed, know how to find the missing information, make an informed decision after weighing all the consequences that one is aware of at this time. 

Humans need to learn self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.  Yet how many of these skills do we learn in school.  Not too many because the results can’t be measured by coloring in little bubbles on a scan sheet or clicking on a computer screen button.  These are hugely difficult skills to learn and just as difficult to teach.  Yet their value to us as individuals is so much more important than all the “stuff” we memorize in school.  Think about this, you can’t Google self-awareness.   Oh you can, but the result you get back probably won’t help you when you try to figure out how to lead a fulfilling life.  And the way things are going, you won’t be learning that in school today either.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What’s it all about Alfie?

Remember the old song, “What’s it all about Alfie?”  The next line is “is it just for the moment we live?”   I would like to change that line to “is it just for the moment we learn?”
We are obsessed as a society lately with raising standards for our educational system.  The immediate translation for this phenomenon is testing and more of it.  Every five to ten years we have a new batch of tests, each one promising to be more rigorous and to yet again raise standards.   By now our kids should be doing graduate work while still in high school.
In fact just the opposite is true.  After 20 years of testing and raising standards, institutions of higher learning are still reporting that about a third of all incoming freshmen need zero credit remedial work because they are not prepared for college.  Taking these zero credit courses costs students more money for their education and delays the completion of the 4-year degree. 
Why aren’t these tests working to improve what kids know?   First of all, after a year or two of the testing, scores always go up.  Why is that?  Simple enough.  Teachers catch on and begin teaching to the current test.  We are told that isn’t so but what would any teacher in her right mind do when she knows the end-of the-year evaluation will depend on test scores of students.
Secondly, kids know the information is just for the test.  So once the test is over they are free to forget it and fill their brains with the information for the next test that they know will be equally useless.⨪
What would happen if the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) actually paid attention to the careers portion of the readiness?  First of all we would teach Algebra 2, only to those students who were going on to technical training in college.  The rest of the kids could take Economics 1 where they could learn to be wise money managers about debt, signing contracts, credit applications and paying their taxes by themselves online.  Maybe instead of teaching the colonial period six times over we could teach a better course in government and citizenship.  A course in which the responsibilities of citizenship receive just as much attention as the rights of citizenship would be a welcome addition to the curriculum. 
Kids could learn about careers that had more openings than trained prospects.  They might even learn to do some of the skills in those careers.  We have made going to college a political//social issue.   We have young adults heading to college without the skills to be there, a good reason for them to be there and not a clue what to do once they get there.

Over the last 20 years we have learned that better test scores have yielded mainly better test takers.  OK, we have done that.  Now could we move on to educating our students for the world they are about to enter.  Maybe if we taught them some things they could use right now, there would be a better chance that what was learned was retained.  Because the truth is Alfie, it is not just for the moment that we live nor is it just for the moment we learn.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Not all that complicated, ask the students

Isn’t it grand when research supports what we easily believe?  During the Great Recession, principals were required to lay off teachers.  Because of the circumstances they were given more latitude than they generally have.  Generally because of union contracts teachers are laid off following the principle last hired, first fired rather than based on teacher performance.
The situation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina changed that scenario.  In 2009-2010, principals were given more discretion than usual regarding whom to keep and whom to let go.  Generally, teachers with fewer than five years of experience were the first to be let go.  It is not a great leap in logic to guess that the least experienced teachers could also be the lesser performing group.  However this special situation also allowed for principals to target less effective teachers regardless of how long they had been teaching. 
A study appearing in Education, Finance and Policy followed up on student achievement after the lay offs of the Great Recession.  The study found that 84% of laid off teachers were probationary teachers.   So the rule of last hired, first fired prevailed.  Principals said that they didn’t see the point of terminating tenured teachers since union rules gave them “recall rights” for any future position openings.
 Teachers with over 30 years of experience were also among the first batch to be let go.  Those teachers were receiving both a salary and a pension.  These folks known as double dippers are allowed in NC.
But the really good news is that on the whole, the teachers who were laid off were rated about 1/3 of a standard deviation less effective by their principals than were the teachers who were kept on.  Even better news, fifty-eight percent of teachers who received a “below standard” rating on any evaluation category were released.
The very good news was that keeping more effective teachers raised student test scores.

Every time the notion of using principal evaluations for staff review and/or merit pay comes up, the unions roadblock it.  They are happy with the pay increases for staying on the job and getting another degree.  This study gives some merit to the argument that good principals know who the good teachers are and, if allowed, they can make choices that are good for kids.  Now if you REALLY want to know who the best teachers are, just ask the students.  Truly they know and most are too young to appreciate the benefits of not telling the truth in important matters.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Kiss of Death

The Kiss of Death

What does government do when it wants to do nothing?   Answer:  refer to a task force or a committee to study the problem.  Government studies problems to death without doing anything.  Some times methinks this is the primary function of government.
The current issue is a bill that was introduced in the Maryland State Legislature this session by State Senator Joan Carter Conway from Baltimore City. 
Roughly 10% of public school children have disabilities that are defined by both federal and state law.  These children are required to have an education that meets their specific educational needs.   The specific needs are spelled out in a document called the Individual Education Program or IEP.   Every child receiving special education services has one.  However, there are often disagreements between parents and school officials about just what the need for services is.  Parents have to give their permission for significant changes to their children’s programs.  However, there are other changes that the school system can make without parental approval. 
If parents are very unhappy they can take their case to mediation and/or to a hearing before an administrative law judge.   The problem is it costs money to hire experts and an attorney to plead the case.  School systems have high-powered attorneys on retainer whose sole purpose is to thwart what parents’ want.  If a family wins a legal dispute their legal costs will be reimbursed.  But since the change in the make up of the hearing officer to an administrative law judge rather than a professional knowledgable in the specific disability area of the child, parents only prevail in about 5% of the cases.  Both parents and school systems know the deck is very much stacked against parents.
Legislation in the Maryland General Assembly would have shifted a bit of the balance of power to families.  Under the proposed bill certain changes in a child’s educational program could not be made without parental approval. If the system wanted to make these changes without the permission of the family, the school system would have to initiate the hearing.   School systems are against the bill.  The Anne Arundel School Board voted to oppose.  The School Board President said, “parents want the best for their children but school staff know the resources the students need.”  She went on to say, parents are not the experts in special education.   REALLY!  So parents have raised this kid, dealt with her 24/7 but have no clue what resources the child needs?!  They may not have a degree in special education but I think they are experts in their child.  The child will be the responsibility of the school district through the year the child turns 21.  The child will be the concern of the parents through the time the parent is buried.   Hmmmm, let’s see who has the bigger stake in this child’s future?   The school system that knows best, of course, also mentioned that teachers would miss too many days of school if they had to testify at due process hearings.  They are also concerned that if parents get to choose educational placements they might opt for options that would increase costs.   Costs in dollars I am guessing because they are certainly not considering costs in children’s lives. 
You know the old saw about kicking the can down the road.   Well now with this new committee we will be kicking kids’ lives down the road.