Friday, December 6, 2013

Palm Beach Drops Grades

I was just talking to a mother of a second grader. She had been frustrated that her child, who attends a public school in Palm Beach County, never gets grades. She only gets satisfactory (or not satisfactory).  In fact, while she prepares for and takes tests, the results are never revealed to the parents or students.

Now, she's livid. She had expected that started in third grade, they would return to a classic grading system but Palm Beach has just announced: "No grades all through elementary school!"  Her reaction is: "That's retarded!"

Do grades help? Hurt?  What about the reality of grades being something that we all are used to and expect. Who is driving this no grades experiment at Palm Beach?

The Sun Sentinel reported on this last year: "Getting straight A's on report cards is no longer possible at 20 Palm Beach County elementary schools, despite even the best student achievement.
That's because those schools are test labs for assigning pupils new "performance codes" instead of the traditional A, B, C, D and F marks. The school year's second round of report cards come out Monday.

Educators say they are trying to convince parents that the new format — including the terms "exemplary" and "proficient" — is a much better indicator of whether students are mastering state standards for reading, writing, math, science and social studies.
"The biggest obstacle is that it is such a paradigm shift because all we know are grades," said Sharon Hench, principal of H.L. Johnson Elementary in Royal Palm Beach. The school uses the new report cards in kindergarten through second grade, and the old letter grade report cards for third through fifth grades.
School district administrators say they have not decided whether to expand this experiment next year to more of the 107 elementary schools. Officials have learned it's better to take their time rolling out revolutionary changes, after their failed 2009 attempt at systemwide curriculum changes.
So far, what appears to be a small number of parents at the schools where the switch began last year have complained they miss seeing letter grades on report cards, and tests too.
Kari Hansen, mother of a second grader at Berkshire Elementary in West Palm Beach, says it's harder for her to track her child's progress without numerical scores and a corresponding grading scale.
"They are just promoting mediocrity with this new system," she said.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

STEM Leadership and International Test Scores

I was just reading Steve Peha's weekly newsletter who pointed me towards an article by Gerald Bracey: this relatively brief blog post.  I'd like to quote it since it makes a significant point about technology leadership,  STEM education, and cross-national test comparisons:

It should be noted that these rankings <PISA Test> are determined by nations’ average scores. ....A publication from OECD itself observes that if one examines the number of highest-scoring students in science, the United States has 25% of all high-scoring students in the world (at least in “the world” as defined by the 58 nations taking part in the assessment—the 30 OECD nations and 28 “partner” countries). Among nations with high average scores, Japan accounted for 13% of the highest scorers, Korea 5%, Taipei 3%, Finland 1%, and Hong Kong 1%. Singapore did not participate.
The picture emerging from this highest-scorer comparison is far different than that suggested by the frequently cited national average comparisons; it is a picture that suggests many American schools are actually doing very well indeed.
Of course, the U.S. is much larger than these other countries and should be expected to produce larger numbers of successful students. But it is only when we look beyond the mean and consider the distribution of students and schools that we see the true picture. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Solution to Teacher Quality

Steve Peha, who usually has great judgement, embarked on writing one of the most ambitious articles that I've seen in awhile.  Published in the Washington Post, he attempted to provide a reasonable approach to addressing teacher quality: A 'doable' solution to teacher quality.

He basically points out that some people focus on the bad teachers but that it is very difficult to do much about the bottom 5%.  He also highlights the importance of holding onto and rewarding the great teachers which is also worthwhile but difficult.

He focuses on improving teaching of the average teachers which is the great majority.  As he puts it:

Helping average teachers won’t make headlines, but making even small gains in the effectiveness of 75%-90% of our teaching corps would have a significant effect on student achievement.
And it’s doable.

Nobody needs to get fired. Nobody has to reinvent school. Nobody has to raise taxes to expand the social safety net. We merely need to address the common problems average teachers face by providing optimized solutions that make learning better for children and teaching easier for them.
I, for one, think that we need to address all these issues but that Steve is basically right, the biggest simplest solution is to focus on basic teacher training.  Another person who greatly agrees with Steve Peha, and a good person to have in your corner, is Bill Gates.  He points out that useful PD that helps coach teachers to improve their practice is sorely lacking and easily solved. So he's solving it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Sixth Sense!

I had what I consider a great educational day today. My son and I discussed our five senses.  Then, we emailed the extended family and everyone joined in....I thought I'd share it with you.
I have long heard that humans have five senses.  Today, while talking to my son, I raised the question of a sixth sense. Does our innate ability to sense gravity via our inner ear constitute a 6th sense?  David and I think it does!  We have 6 senses through which we perceive the outside world. 
All the psych textbooks have it wrong! 
 After some though, I realize that my inner ear can not only tell me which direction gravity is pulling, it can also sense acceleration (not speed).  It's got at least two ways of perceiving the outside world.

David then told me that many people can tell you when it's going to rain.  Our joints act as barometers.  Does that mean that we have a 7th sense with which we perceive the outside world?
 You are right about balance and acceleration being an additional sense.  And that there are sensors in the joints.

There are actually more senses than even that in humans and many more in animals that humans don't have.  
----The one I'm most familiar with is the kinesthetic sense.  You know where each of your arms and legs is without looking.
----Dogs (and other animals) have a sense organ in the back of the roof of their mouths which is a chemical sense similar to taste and smell.  That's why dogs lick get some molecules back to it's vomeronasal (sp?) organ.
----Bees and some birds can sense the Earth's magnetic field and use this to navigate.
----Some fish (such as in the super-dark deep sea) can sense electricity and use this to detect/locate prey.

Aristotle is credited with saying we have (only) 5 senses.  
---But there are many more and when it comes to counting it gets hard because what counts as a sense gets debatable.  For example, there is a sense called "nocioception" (pain reception).  But I think of this as part of the sense of touch.
I learned about proprioception when my mother was having trouble with balance. Ruth

Here's something from Wikipedia:

Equilibrioception or sense of balance is one of the physiological senses. It helps prevent humans and animals from falling over when walking or standing still. Balance is the result of a number of body systems working together: the eyes (visual system), ears (vestibular system) and the body's sense of where it is in space (proprioception) ideally need to be intact. The vestibular system, the region of the inner ear where three semicircular canals converge, works with the visual system to keep objects in focus when the head is moving. This is called the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). The balance system works with the visual and skeletal systems (the muscles and joints and their sensors) to maintain orientation or balance. Visual signals sent to the brain about the body's position in relation to its surroundings are processed by the brain and compared to information from the vestibular, visual and skeletal systems.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Recent Reading

Here are some notes to self about books...(Being of a certain age, I'm having trouble keeping track, I should probably use a social bookmarking tool or something. In fact, I tend to leave browser windows open and then when they get closed by accident, I lose things.)

Just reading about Kris Nielson's  Children of the Core: Our Kids are at Risk.  A strong contrarian blog post. I think I'll order the book and see where he's coming from.

From there, I started reading Diane Ravitch's Blog. Her prose is so extreme that I find her writing less enchanting and less reasoned. Still, I'll follow her for awhile. Specifically, her "TFA award for hubris" post is just the sort of tone that keeps me from being interested in the diatribe crowd who has become so hostile and uninteresting.

BTW, here's the wikipedia write-up on her position: Ravitch critiqued the punitive uses of accountability to fire teachers and close schools, as well as replacing public schools with charter schools and relying on superstar teachers, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education (2010). The book became a surprise best seller a month after its release. One reviewer wrote "Ravitch exhibits an interesting mix of support for public education and the rights of teachers to bargain collectively with a tough-mindedness that some on the pedagogical left lack."[9]
While she originally supported No Child Left Behind and charter schools, Ravitch later became "disillusioned," and wrote, "I no longer believe that either approach will produce the quantum improvement in American education that we all hope for." In the major national evaluation, 17% of charters got higher scores, 46% were no different, and 37% were significantly worse than public schools, she said. High-stakes testing, "utopian" goals, "draconian" penalties, school closings, privatization, and charter schools didn't work, she concluded. "The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers."[10]
Ravitch said that the charter school and testing reform movement was started by "right wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation," for the purpose of destroying public education and teachers' unions.[11]She reviewed the documentary Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim, as "propagandistic" (pro-charter schools and anti-public schools), studded with "myths" and at least one "flatly wrong" claim.[12] Of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Race to the Top program, Ravitch said in a 2011 interview it "is an extension of No Child Left Behind ...[,] all bad ideas." She concluded "We are destroying our education system, blowing it up by these stupid policies. And handing the schools in low-income neighborhoods over to private entrepreneurs does not, in itself, improve them. There's plenty of evidence by now that the kids in those schools do no better, and it's simply a way of avoiding their - the public responsibility to provide good education."[13]
Her book The Language Police (2003) was a criticism of both left-wing and right-wing attempts to stifle the study and expression of views deemed unworthy by those groups. The review summarizes Ravitch's thesis as "pressure groups from the political right and left have wrested control of the language and content of textbooks and standardized exams, often at the expense of the truth (in the case of history), of literary quality (in the case of literature), and of education in general."[14] Publishers Weekly wrote: "Ravitch contends that these sanitized materials sacrifice literary quality and historical accuracy in order to escape controversy."[15]
Ravitch's writings on racial and cultural diversity were summarized by sociologist Vincent N. Parrillo:
[Ravitch] emphasized a common culture but one that incorporated the contributions of all racial and ethnic groups so that they can believe in their full membership in America’s past, present, and future. She envisioned elimination of allegiance to any specific racial and/or ethnic group, with emphasis instead on our common humanity, our shared national identity, and our individual accomplishments.
—Vincent N. Parrillo, Diversity in America[16]

I also just like reading teacher blogs. I spent an hour or so tonight just going from teacher to teacher blog...Listening to their daily thoughts...It's almost comforting that despite all the big thinking policy-makers, the inertia of the system prevents us from doing that much to change education.

For instance, for no particular reason, I just read: J'aime Holderbaum's blog (what a great pun she makes of her name).  Plus one about homeschooling online. And three more: homeschooling parents discussion forum, a non-religious homeschooling forum, and a high school homeschool resources site.

Making Word Study FUN!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Education at the Crossroads

I am a lifelong student and grew up in a family that discussed the nature of education as a routine dinner conversation. I went to public schools in the 60s and 70s and then an Ivy League school.  My career, mostly in high tech, took a fun turn a decade ago when I found myself needing to start a company (nobody would hire me, long story) and since then, I've run a pretty successful online tech company.  Since then, I've had a front road seat at the greatest historical show in town: the realtime debate and power struggle about what direction American education should take.

This blog is me trying to digest and analyze what I see.

Today, I read about this book: Children of the Core. I think I'll order it and see what this teacher has to say. From the blurb, it looks like a diatribe against the Common Core and the increased regimentation of education.  It sounds like it connects the increasing stress that teachers feel with the Common Core which is partially fair, partially unfair. Obviously, a switch in standards and educational goals means that education and educators, who mostly don't change, have to change.  Much bleating and complaining.  Not necessarily significant or not.

Here's my thoughts on what trends I see. To be clear, these are notes, not a finished essay.

Much as I tend to dislike all things Bush, I feel that the NCLB legislation was an important but imperfect step forward. It moved the quality of education to front and center in the American experience and out of the stagnant backwater that it had become. By imposing significant achievement tests into the system, it ended the decades of "happy talk" where everyone talked about progress and found stats to say it was happening when the reality was the opposite.  In terms of the worst things that it did, the simple pass/fail metric created the dysfunction that teachers tend to sort their students out early in the year into three categories: the kids who will pass, the kids who will fail, and the kids who might pass.  Then, they focus on the kids who might pass.  This isn't what all teachers do but many do. It's the most negative of all the "teach to the test" behaviors that I've seen. I've even seen vendors who sell systems that help teachers do this sort which gets sold at the school and district levels.

Changes in governance. Many of the largest school systems in the country have had a change in governance in which the amateurish schools boards get replaced by direct governance by the elected officials. I for one am mostly in favor of this.  I've seen how well-meaning and ineffective school boards can be.

Changes in teachers. A huge number of the current teaching force are in the later stages of their careers.  Many are very union-oriented and uncomfortable with any sense that they should be measured and paid by their performance. Their mentality has not changed with the times.  I feel bad for them but so it goes. A very big change is the introduction of the Teach for America teams into the ranks of some schools and now, through-out the educational ecosystem. They have a can-do must-do attitude about educating the next generation. They don't have all the answers but they do ask all the right questions.

Curriculum. This is still a stagnant confused area. I think the Common Core is a big step forward with it's emphasis on informational texts, higher order thinking skills, away from mechanics, and on writing clearly.  But, it ignored a number of curriculum questions that I think need attention:
- high school math curriculum.  Teaching quadratic equations and calculus seems to me a big waste of time. It's up there with Latin in terms of teaching hard things for the sake of teaching hard irrelevant things. Why not replace it with more useful topics like computer programming, algorithm design, logic, statistics, financial analysis, and data analysis?
- Reading and phonics. It totally side-stepped this set of issues leaving us (which is fine) in a primarily phonics-oriented educational system. It also side-stepped the fact that the biggest reform that is needed is to maintain the progress in kids learning to read.  And how learning to read is related to (necessary for and reinforced by) the rest of the curriculum.

Interest-led education... and skills....
skills needed for employment...
cost and irrelevance of college...numbers game gone weird.....