Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What Is Really Needed in Education, Anyway?

I recently finished reading Amanda Ripley's book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, and it raised many questions about what is really going on in the world of education (or in education in the world!) and what really needs to happen.  Ripley makes some good points, particularly about the vast differences in educational experiences in different states, different districts, and different schools in the United States.  My experience as an educator is entirely within the top school districts in Massachusetts, so that's my vantage point about educational quality, but as a student I attended a small school in a small rural town in the Midwest and my experience as a student was very different from the experience I see students receiving in the MetroWest area west of Boston.

The high school I attended was nowhere near the quality of the schools where I live now.  On the end of course physics exam, which was a state-provided exam, the highest score in the school was 39% (yes, that was my score -- the next highest was, I think, 25%).  Once, when I was a senior, our debate team traveled to one of the suburban Minneapolis schools for a meet; we were in an English classroom and on the board was evidence that the class was studying British writers (writers I'd never studied) at a depth of analysis and understanding that had never occurred to me.  I went home and went to talk to my English teacher about the class (in my high school, my senior English class featured lessons on agreement of subject and verb, watching and writing about silent movies, and slowly reading books aloud in class).  I showed my English teacher the information I had copied from the board in that suburban Minneapolis classroom and asked if we couldn't study some of these writers or if he could at least give me a reading list of what I should read to be better prepared for the next year when I would be at the university with the suburban Minneapolis students who had experienced this depth of teaching.  His response was that the rest of the students in the class would not be able to do the work, and, no, he could not put together a reading list for me.

More recently, for the past many years that I was a school principal in a good MetroWest school district, I consistently noticed that students moving in from out of state were almost always behind our students and needed help to catch up.  There was often culture shock, as they absorbed the differences and tried to manage both the workload and the level of the work.  I have also visited other schools in Massachusetts and seen gaps between what their students were doing and what our students were doing. Books such as Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities have documented the disparities in a dramatic and powerful way.

So, I am aware that Ripley's analysis of the vast differences in educational experiences and quality of schools is accurate.  I also think that her recommendations relating to improving teacher education and creating a societal culture where everyone, including the kids, understands the importance of education are good.  I do wish she had looked at some of the top American schools, though, such as the Massachusetts schools with which I am familiar, because without that the book does end up giving a limited picture of U.S. schools, and I fear that the book will play into the hands of those who think the solution is additional high-stakes testing, more top-down mandates and micromanagement, and more undermining of public schools and public school teachers.

I think we can acknowledge the existence of the problem that Ripley identified -- that there are large differences in the quality of schools across our country, and that there are schools where student achievement is lower than it should be -- without coming to the conclusion that the problem is that teachers don't work hard enough or aren't good enough, and that the way to fix it is to remove teachers' job protections and pensions and generally make the teaching profession as unattractive as possible.  How about. . . focusing on teacher education programs and making sure that they are excellent, providing additional support to schools that need it, eliminating the provision in federal law allowing our neediest students to be taught by new recruits with 5 weeks of training, providing teachers and schools with support and the autonomy to do their jobs well, and improving working conditions for teachers?  I have frequently said that if I ever won the lottery (which I probably won't since I never play) I would love to use the money for an experiment -- find a school, any school, in need of help, NOT change the faculty, but provide them with small classes (preferably very small) and the time to plan and collaborate with each other (U.S. teachers spend much more time with students and have much less planning time than teachers in any of the high-performing nations) -- and I am willing to bet that you would just watch student achievement soar!

Now -- what do you think will be the logical result of current approaches -- removing teacher job protections, cutting budgets so that teachers have to provide their own supplies, increasing class sizes, making teachers' jobs depend on how students do on the standardized testing (or worse, on "student growth percentiles" -- watch for another post on this topic), or even, as the Massachusetts education department recently suggested, making their licenses depend on that?  Somehow, this list makes me think that the teaching profession will disappear, and that teaching will be done by kids just out of college, for a couple years while they're figuring out what they really want to do -- it does not make me think that teachers will somehow manage to work harder and/or that teaching will improve and lead students to higher achievement.  What on earth are they (politicians, corporate financiers, education department personnel) thinking??

For a particularly interesting article with solid, thoughtful suggestions, check out the November 2014 issue of Kappan -- suggesting (1) developing career ladders for educators, (2) increasing compensation to attract top talent, (3) changing how teachers' time is spent (fewer hours of class time & more time for preparation & collaboration), and (4) developing a professional model of peer-to-peer acccountability.  I hope that those "in charge" will wake up and change direction before our government policies destroy public education.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What Can We Do About Bullying?

With the beginning of the school year, once again articles are appearing about bullying, as well as advice and programs for schools designed to help schools handle bullying and make a difference with kids (or, as my more cynical side thinks, designed to make money for the consultants offering the advice/program).  However, as I've said many times, bullying is not a school problem -- that is, it is not caused by the school and is very difficult to deal with in schools in the absence of a wraparound, whole society effort to stop it.

Where do kids learn to bully?  I believe that they learn it from many different sources, including family, media, and other kids.  Television shows model put-downs as humor, a form of bullying, all the time.  Take some time to watch programs, and also commercials, through this lens, and you'll quickly see how much attention is given to put-downs, and that they are presented as humorous.  I remember one ad, for some kind of take-home chicken, I think, that showed a father coming home with the meal for his family.  The kids ran out, grabbed the food, ran back into the house with it, and ignored the father, who appeared to be sad and left out. The whole thing was supposed to be funny, and what message does it give about how to treat others when it shows someone being sad and excluded as humorous?  I also remember hearing a student telling another about asking a girl out and then saying "NOT!" when she responded positively.  The student telling the story thought it was funny, and I think we can remember where that model came from.   AND -- this might be the most difficult to say, but it's also clear that kids learn from observing their parents.  The parents who come into the school to demand that their child be placed in a particular classroom, or who confront a teacher about a child's grade, or who demand that a coach give their child more playing time, or who cut off other drivers on the road, or demand concessions from a clerk in a store -- all are clearly modeling for their kids that it's OK to bully others to get what you want.

So one reason that schools have such a difficult time dealing with bullying is that kids are having it modeled for them, and shown as appropriate, in so many different arenas.  Some kids are actually puzzled by the messages given to them by the school, because the messages are so different from what they are hearing elsewhere.  Also -- and very important from a school point of view -- is that kids also learn, and learn very early and very well, that "tattling" is worse than bullying.  All too frequently, a parent will call the school to let them know that his/her child is being bullied, but will ask that the school not take any action for fear of repercussions.  This scenario always frustrated me tremendously, because obviously this code of silence makes the environment safe for the bullies, while if the code were the reverse, and telling was the default, the environment would be safe for everyone else and not for the bullies.  Many people whom I have talked to about this feel that if kids didn't learn not to tattle parents and teachers would be driven crazy by all the "telling on" that would happen, but I feel strongly that by teaching kids not to "tell," we are sending messages that rules and expected behavior don't really count and that what's important is to protect those who hurt others. 

So what would I suggest to end bullying?  I would suggest a two-fold approach, but not just in schools -- if we could all join in two efforts, I think it would make a big difference, not just for kids but for everyone.  First, of course, adults need to stop bullying and treat each other respectfully, in driving, to store clerks, to those we work with, to teachers and administrators, to everyone, and model this for their kids.  Second, we need to stop teaching kids not to "tattle."  I would suggest that when a child comes to complain -- e.g., "She's throwing sand at us" -- instead of telling the child not to tattle, we confirm the child's feeling about the event --  "You're right -- she should not be doing that" -- and then say, "Can you handle it yourself or do you need my help?"  After that, there are three possibilities: (1) the child says he can handle it; (2) the parent can coach the child on how to handle it ("What if you tell her you don't like it and ask her to stop?  And if she doesn't, let me know and I'll help"); or (3) if the child really needs help, the parent can intervene in the situation.  That way, the child is learning appropriate assertiveness skills, as well as having it confirmed that another person should not be doing something hurtful and that it's appropriate to get help if the person ignores requests to stop.  Imagine for a minute that we all took this approach -- I think it would, over time, change our world to one in which people were more likely to treat each other with respect, and thus would be a better environment for all of us.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Testing Decisions Hurt Real Children

I thought I'd start this blog by repeating a post that I wrote and published on my previous blog last November, because it sets out the bottom line of why I care so deeply about working to stop the corporate-style "reform" being imposed on our public schools -- the actions being taken in the name of "reform" hurt real people -- real children and families.

The following is a post from last November regarding all the hoopla around MCAS scores and the way in which emphasis on standardized testing hurts children and families --

I was working today on analyzing our MCAS results from last spring and decided, just for the fun of it, to see how many of our students would have been considered to be "advanced" and "proficient" if the "cut scores" for the 4th and 5th grade tests were chosen in the same way as the cut scores for the 10th grade tests.  ("Cut scores" are the scores which indicate the division between two categories -- for example, between "proficient" and "needs improvement.")  The results were very interesting -- had our scores been calculated in the same manner as the 10th grade scores, 97% of our students, in both 4th and 5th grade, would have been considered "advanced and proficient" on the ELA tests, and 100% of 4th graders and 94% of 5th graders would have been considered "advanced and proficient" on the math tests.  Since that's not how the scores for the grades below 10th grade are calculated, though, our actual percentages, while good, were quite a bit below that.

Meanwhile, I was talking with teachers today who were worried about a particular student, who is stressed and anxious because of his parents' concern about his MCAS scores. We have many of those students, and many parents who are concerned about the scores.  In some cases, worry about these scores and worry about how their child is doing can cause parents to lose sight of many more important qualities that their child has -- perhaps she is creative, a great thinker, kind to others; perhaps he is a good practical problem-solver, skilled in getting along with others, with many passionate interests -- and focus so much on the scores that the child begins to feel that he/she isn't good enough and becomes stressed and anxious about school and about the tests.

This makes me angry.  Where the performance categories on the tests are set is a decision, possibly a political decision, but certainly a decision, by someone, for some purpose.  Perhaps the scores at the lower grades are set on the low end to encourage schools and students to strive for higher performance.  Perhaps they are set on the low end to create the perception that schools are failing.  Perhaps they are set on the low end because the people who set them genuinely believe that they know what 4th or 5th graders should be able to do.  Whatever the purpose, where the scores are set is a decision.  As stated by Lesley Professor William T. Stokes in his article entitled "Inside the MCAS: A Close Reading of the Fourth Grade Language Arts Test for Massachusetts,"

". . . The reader may wonder at the logic of this system.  Why, it might be asked, are the raw score groupings unequal in number?  The fact is that the conversion between raw scores and standard scores was decided by a committee of designers, consultants, and policy makers.  It was decided.  It was not a matter of necessity; there is nothing intrinsic to the test that requires this particular conversion. . .  The reason this matters is that performance levels are reported in all the media in relation to standard scores.  To obtain a score of 240 will place the student at the threshold of the "proficient" level.  Thus, it makes a very great difference whether a raw score of 35 or 40 or 47 gets the student to that threshold. . .  It is not my purpose here to examine the political and institutional processes that governed these decisions, so I'll leave these issues for another discussion.  My concern now is to help parents and teachers understand the relationship between the reported performance of their youngsters and media presentations of disappointing results.  Suffice to say that if the decision had been made to convert a raw score of 35 to a standard score of 240, then more than half of all fourth graders in Massachusetts would have been judged to be "proficient" or "advanced" -- and the public response to the tests would have been very different indeed. . ."

And, as I noted earlier, if the 10th grade cut score levels were applied to the 4th and 5th grade tests, then 97% of our students, in both 4th and 5th grade, would have been considered "advanced and proficient" on the ELA tests, and 100% of 4th graders and 94% of 5th graders would have been considered "advanced and proficient" on the math tests.  For whatever reasons, the decision was made not to do that. 

There may or may not be well-intentioned reasons for that decision in the political or institutional realm.  But the decision hurts real children and families, and that makes me angry.