Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Give me a ring?

Give me a ring?

Some schools are just saying no to cell phones.   They are seen as disruptive to the educational process.   Frustrated educators say they cannot compete with apps, text and games.   Some kids are sexting.  Educators say that allowing students to spend so much time on their devices is just feeding an addiction that would be better terminated.
The Grand Rapids Michigan school district has banned cell phones at any time during the school day, even at lunch.   The superintendent said kids are less anxious when not tied to their phones.  More than 30 schools and/or whole districts have implemented some sort of restrictions on cell phone usage in the last year and a half.  California has passed legislation that gives local districts discretion if they want to restrict or ban the use of cell phones.  Four other states have approached the issue with mixed results.  Arizona tried to pass legislation that would ban the use of electronic devices in the classroom unless allowed by an authorized educator.  The legislation failed.   Maine tried to adopt rules restricting the use of cellphones in the classroom, but allowing them in the front office.  This legislation also failed.  Maryland wanted to appoint a task force to study the issue and report back to the legislature.  That didn’t even get out of the gate.   Utah wanted to require individual school systems to develop a policy on the use of cell phones that would be submitted to the state department of education.  That, too, flopped.
Some teachers have asked administrators to restrict the use of cell phones.  But why is there so much push back?
The biggest push is from parents not the kids.   They want to be able to reach their children in case of an emergency.  Oddly, this is one of the big reasons some school safety experts do not want the students to have cell phones in school.  In case of a real emergency, school safety people say they want the students to be following staff directions and NOT looking at screens. Some parents highly resent that they cannot contact their children whenever they choose, emergency or not. When schools do implement cell restriction policies teacher say they are too difficult to monitor and take as much time away from instruction as the phones themselves.  They also say that the students are pretty adept at using the phones undercover.  
The most rational direction seems to come from the organization Common Sense.   The notion seems to be that cell phones are now an ubiquitous part of our lives.   We need to teach kids how to appropriately use them and to develop a plan not a ban.  Give me a ring when you figure that out.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Is Special Education Worth the Cost?

Is Special Education Worth the Cost?

Or as the saying goes, is the juice worth the squeeze?  Recently a talk show host suggested that the taxpayers were being taken to the cleaners with the high cost of special education and that the results were not worth the investment.  She used as her example of special education costs the per pupil costs for a special education center in Baltimore City.  She then compared their 4-year graduation rate with the graduation rate of other schools, including a high school for which students qualify by exam and grades.
Not sure whether to attack her logic first or her values.   Both are seriously flawed.
Let’s start with logic.   The very fact that these students are in a special school indicates that whatever their disabilities are, they are sufficiently severe that they cannot be accommodated in a general ed school.   This situation is all the more meaningful in an era of least restrictive environment where administrators do whatever they can to educate children with disabilities in a general education environment with plain kids.   When a system places a child in a public separate day school, that child has significant challenges.   Additionally, that school will also offer more robust staffing for related services such as speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and clinical services.   Parent counseling may also be an option.   These services cost money!  This talk show host was clearly logically challenged.   One of her statements was, “I don’t know but I am sure that most of this money is being spent on administration.”.   If she acknowledges that she doesn’t know, how can she be sure!   It is also confusing to me why the magical number of graduating in four years is so important.  Isn’t the goal of a high school education to prepare a student for employment, post-secondary education or both?   So if it takes a year longer to do that isn’t the time spent well worth the investment?  The woman compared apples and grapes and came up with lemons.
Now onto the values issue.   Children with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate education at public expense.   They have had this right since 1975.   If you disagree with this right, would you send these kids home with nothing but day care like facilities or worse hidden in their homes or into the warehouses that stored them.   Providing children with disabilities an appropriate education is good for the kids and good for our society.   From the point of view of the students, an appropriate education enhances their abilities and helps them to have a self-actualizing life, something we want for ourselves.   From the point of view of society, an appropriate education for people with disabilities can give us tax payers rather than tax users.    The Harbour School’s follow-up graduate survey shows that our students have gone on to good paying jobs with salaries that are taxable as well as providing benefits that would otherwise have to be paid by the taxpayer.   As to the higher cost of an education for a child with disabilities, that is a paper tiger. It costs more to educate a kid in high school than it does to educate a student in elementary school.   It costs more to educate a physician than it does an accountant.  No one is suggesting we make those costs equal, either by increasing one or decreasing the other.
So the question of whether special ed is worth the cost is kind of irrelevant.   The US Congress settled that issue a long time ago and President Gerald Ford agreed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

There Just Isn't Room

There Just isn’t Room

Test scores do not seem to be budging and when they do it is often, particularly in math, that they are trending down.  We are all about test scores so all this superfluous stuff like music, art, physical education and performing arts need to be squeezed or cut out all together.  There just isn’t time! In the old days these courses were called minors and the important classes were called majors. That poor logic, unfortunately, makes sense to many school administrators.   It is no wonder test scores are so low.
First of all, let’s look at what these so called “minor” subjects bring to the student.   The ability to problem solve is a critical academic skill.   It is also a skill that is used and refined in the arts. Problem-solving is an extension of creativity.  Employers regularly tell us they are looking for employees who can problem solve and are creative.
Secondly, for many students the arts are where they are successful.  The arts are what bring them to school every day and sustain them through the often boring and failure inducing academic “major” courses.  Without having the arts to look forward to as a break in the school day, many kids just wouldn’t come to school.  Every child needs one place where he or she can shine.  Often it is these performance based areas.
Thirdly, teachers of the arts relate differently to the students than do teachers of academic subjects.  There are no state tests in the arts, so there are no pacing guides.   Teachers do not need to be on a particular topic on any given date.  So teachers can relate to the kids and talk to them about their lives without being concerned about losing their place in the pacing guide.    It is natural to chat with a colleague while working on a piece of art or trying to get a rendition of a scene or song just right.   Many students are dealing with violence, addiction, divorce, serious illness or socio-economic issues.   Handing a student a book or a worksheet doesn’t cut it when the child has real problems.   Teachers of the arts can meet students where they are emotionally and can develop that cherished teacher-student bond of trust.  
Fourthly, the arts and music make a great coping mechanism for kids under so much stress that they feel they cannot work.  Listening to music on a device or drawing in a notepad can help a child move to a different mental state and calm down.  If we welcome the arts into our classrooms, we will see kids thrive.
But none of this is possible if there are no arts people in the building.  We need to make room.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Test Should Discriminate

Tests should Discriminate

Tests are designed to discriminate and that is good.  The purpose of a test is to discriminate between people who are good at something and those people who are not.   The key issue is not that tests discriminate.  The key issue is whether the test uses relevant factors in making its discrimination.

For example, driving tests are designed to determine who should be allowed to drive a car and who should not be allowed to have a license to operate a vehicle.   Almost all people would agree that knowledge of traffic regulations is a relevant factor in driving a car.   Vision would also be a relevant factor.   And it is.  But vision can be modified by eye glasses or contact lenses to the point where visual acuity is sufficient to operate a motor vehicle.   If vision cannot be sufficiently modified then the individual cannot be allowed to drive a car.   However, most people would agree that eye color or hair color are not relevant variables and that they should not be used.   On the other hand, some variables such as the ability to parallel park a car have now been determined to be used so infrequently that it is no longer tested in driving tests.

This same paradigm can be used in analyzing math test scores.  There has been a great deal of consternation of late about the decline in math scores on standardized tests.  Some have suggested that the issue is elementary school teachers, who are considered to be generalists, and not sufficiently skilled in math to teach it.  That argument begs the question of why are high school students also having declining math scores when most high school math teachers are specialists in the field.  Next up for concern, is the curriculum itself.   Local school districts with declining scores are rushing to change up the curriculum and the teaching methodology that goes with it.  The theory is that a different and, of course, better curriculum will yield better test scores.   Changing the curriculum has been the “go to” for school systems needing to improve test score since the millennium and yet test scores do not vary that much.   We could blame the students and suggest that climate change is lowering kids’ abilities to do math.  But no one with good sense would go there so we won’t.

To me the most obvious culprit in the declining test scores is the measuring tool being used to take the measure.   Almost 20 years ago a curriculum known as Common Core was developed by educators across the country (NO, it was not imposed by the feds) to create a common standard among states for educating kids so that the skills of a fifth grader in Alabama would be similar to the expectations for a fifth grader in Oregon.   In order to measure how kids were doing in meeting these Common Core standards companies were paid large sums of money to develop the tests that would make the measure.  Maryland chose the group of tests known as PARCC.   From the beginning everyone rushed to teach to the test so their scores would be great.  Teachers were not involved in developing the Common Core curriculum.  It was done by state level educators.   If someone had deigned to ask those same generalist elementary educators, they would have  quickly learned that the children would not be at the developmental levels appropriate to the skills being demanded of them.   In order to worship at the throne of the God of Rigor, skills were pushed down from higher grades to lower ones.   If the kids’ developmental levels are not there yet, no amount of good teaching is going to make the plants bloom before their time.   There is also the issue of relevancy because scores decline as kids get older.   Try to convince an adolescent that the tasks of algebra II are useful in their daily lives, or even will be useful when they become adults.   Good luck with that.

Last school year was the last time Maryland gave PARCC tests.   Now Maryland will give the MCAP ( Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program) test.   This set of tests will be shorter than PARCC and we are assured that it will be just as rigorous- all bend to rigor.  But the big question is – will the scores be better.   If not, we will again blame the usual suspects:  teachers, curriculum, poor schools.  There is a big elephant in the room but we will not see it.   It will have the letters MCAP written big and bold on its side. And it will discriminate, but will it be discriminating on the correct variables.