Talking to the miscreants

They tap. They make random noises. They whistle. They try to push your buttons, mostly because they don’t understand the material. In this time of crazed test-mania, we have progressively more of those kids, I believe, because we are required to teach to a test that may be years above the operating level of some students.

It’s important to remember that those kids mostly want attention. They want not to feel lost and expelled from the academic loop. They want to be heard. They want that teacher from earlier years who seemed to be in their corner.

Eduhonesty: There’s no fix for the crazed test-mania right now — short of the zombie apocalypse — but we can find a few minutes to talk to the lost kids, even maybe convince them to try some after school tutoring. We can let them know we care. That stops some of the random tapping and noise.

Here is the challenge for American education: How will we reengage these students who we effectively expelled from the learning process when we handed them the book they could not read to get ready for the test they could not pass?

Noneducators may be sitting out there thinking, “Why would anyone do such a thing to a kid?” They need to understand the teachers did not have any choice — even though many initially went to administration to express their concerns. I’ll add more on this later.

The Common Core and More!

And more and more and more!

The majority of the professional development offered this year is skewing towards the Common Core. A great number of sessions and workshops are about nothing else. References to the new Common Core standards are everywhere in classes taught to educators.

This may not be true in wealthier districts that are not frantic about their scores. I can’t speak to that. I would not be surprised to discover I am talking about a universal phenomenon, though, since districts are judged by their test scores and government intervention has decreed that the tests are going to change to match the new curriculum.

Eduhonesty: In a nutshell, we now endlessly talk about what to teach and hardly ever dwell on how to teach.

One of the worst consequences of this nonstop legislation by mostly noneducators lays in the cost to students. One hidden cost of the Common Core: When I started education, professional development often focused on classroom management and the preparation of effective lessons. This last couple of years has been mostly about aligning the old standards and lessons with the new Common Core standards as we prepare for a new set of different tests. Do we need to align our curricula to the Common Core? If we want to keep our scores up, I imagine the answer is yes.

Is this best for America’s teachers and students?

No! Not even remotely. Especially the new teachers need classroom management strategies much more than they need to learn how to align their sometimes-nonexistent lessons to a new set of pie-in-the-sky standards that often have little to do with their students’ actual learning levels. The opportunity cost from this latest experiment has become staggering.

Not enough nothing

“One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and
always a clever thing to say.”

~ Will Durant (1885 – 1981)

Eduhonesty: If only Departments of Education across this country shared Durant’s wisdom.

It’s not that we should do nothing for our students — but maybe we should stop making huge masterplans for them. Let their teachers decide what they need. Their teachers are likely to know. Those masterplans often have nothing to do with actual student needs. They require teachers to teach prescribed content, often not the content that they need and almost never the content they want.

Going to Mexico or to Iowa

“Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.”

Christmas is drawing near and my classes are emptying. All across America, classes are emptying. It’s very common for parents to pull kids out to go back to Mexico for Christmas break and an extra week or two (or even more!) on either side of vacation. It’s possible to catch up the missing math and English but it hardly ever happens. The math especially disappears, never to be recovered.

Eduhonesty: We let them go too easily. We ought to be sending regular letters reminding parents of the academic cost of these long vacations, repeat reminders before plane reservations are made.

“It’s just a few days,” parents will say.

Many students can spare those days, too. The problem is that we don’t always know which students can successfully sacrifice that snippet of education. We also send a message with those extended vacations: You can take extra time off to play when it suits you. This is poor preparation for the adult world, where such efforts often end with demands to clear out your desk and leave the building for good.

For parents: Sometimes there’s no choice and children have to miss school. But a week of missing math can make a kid’s whole year miserable if it’s the wrong week. Lost points from that week can pull a grade down, turning an “A” into a “B” or a “C” into a “D.” In the worst case, a student may end up repeating a course when lost points resulted in an “F” in the endgame. Overall, vacations that take children out of school should be avoided.

Class clowns

“Humor is just another defense against the universe.”

~ Mel Brooks (1926 – )

When the clowns are driving us nuts in the classroom and the world beyond, it helps to remember this quote. Humor deflects the possible insults from peers that come from being unable to understand the math.

A glimpse into part of the problem with a bloated educational bureaucracy

From an email:

Innovation and Improvement Launches Rising Star Survey for School Districts

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has worked intentionally and strategically over the past five years to realize a One State, One Plan goal. Rising Star is intended to support districts and schools in creating one plan by:
a) integrating work across initiatives,
b) linking research to selected objectives, and
c) leveraging resources (time, people, materials and money) in support of the one plan.
The objective was to offer Illinois districts and schools an easily navigated and streamlined central planning tool to achieve this goal.

ISBE, with support from the Midwest Comprehensive Center at American Institutes for Research, is administering this survey of Illinois school and district leaders in order to better understand how Rising Star is helpful at the local level and how it might be improved. Please provide your feedback about Rising Star and how it supports your continuous improvement processes: …

Etc.

Eduhonesty: No wonder Illinois is close to broke!

Aside from that, “One State, One Plan” hardly sounds like a good idea. Individual school districts across the state are vastly different in their students mixes and academic results.

Here’s the real problem, though. This sort of plan requires school districts to put in an enormous amount of time on plans only tangentially related to instruction. I have spent weeks out of the classroom trying to help implement Rising Star in my school district. My students were not the better for my absences. I’m not sure anyone was.

I’m afraid I may sound too negative. It’s not that I don’t think fixes are needed. But I think those fixes ought to take place at the local level. The problems at Manley High School in Chicago barely resemble the problems at Springfield High School in Springfield, Illinois. Some problems are universal across school systems, but many are particular to individual schools.

Our student population is diversifying. Working to standardize education in the face of this diversification has little chance of success.

The Danielson Thanksgiving Framework

First, an explanation is needed. I would like to refer readers to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/who-is-charlotte-danielso_b_3415034.html for an article on this new teacher evaluation system that is sweeping the nation.

Who Is Charlotte Danielson and Why Does She Decide How Teachers Are Evaluated?
Posted: 06/10/2013 3:03 pm

A New York Times editorial endorsed the state imposed teacher evaluation system for New York City as “an important and necessary step toward carrying out the rigorous new Common Core education reforms.” The system is based on the Danielson Framework for Teaching developed by Charlotte Danielson and marketed by the Danielson Group of Princeton, New Jersey.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the city’s teachers union, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also announced that they are generally pleased with the plan. According to the Mayor, “Good teachers will become better ones and ineffective teachers can be removed from the classroom.” He applauded State Commissioner John King for “putting our students first and creating a system that will allow our schools to continue improving.”

Unfortunately, nobody, not the Times, the New York State Education Department, the New York City Department of Education, nor the teachers’ union have demonstrated any positive correlation between teacher assessments based on the Danielson rubrics, good teaching, and the implementation of new higher academic standards for students under Common Core.

Bottom line is that 40% of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student test scores on standardized and local exams and 60% on in-class observations. In this post I am most concerned with the legitimacy of the proposed system of observations that are based on snap-shots, fifteen minute visits to partial lessons, conducted by supervisors potentially with limited or no classroom experience in the subject being observed, followed by submission of a multiple-choice rubric that will be evaluated online by an algorithm that decides whether the lesson was satisfactory or not.

Sigh. You’d have to be in the trenches to understand how threatening this framework can be when you work in a poor school district that has traditionally had low scores. You also don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that your best chance to succeed in teaching is to work in a district with a tradition of higher scores. I expect this rubric will lead many capable young teachers to move to districts higher up the socioeconomic ladder simply because students who plan to go to college will yield much higher results on the Danielson rubric, leading to better reviews.

That said, here’s a delightful, paraphrased version of the rubric for a teacher’s evaluation that captures the essence of the rubric’s problem: It’s results are more heavily based on the behavior of students than the effort and performance of teachers.

The Danielson Guide to the Highly Effective Thanksgiving (I can’t find the original source. This turkey is all over the internet.)

Unsatisfactory: You don’t know how to cook a turkey. You serve a chicken instead. Half your family doesn’t show because they are unmotivated by your invitation, which was issued at the last minute via facebook. The other half turn on the football game and fall asleep. Your aunt tells your uncle where to stick the drumstick and a brawl erupts. Food is served on paper plates in front of the TV. You watch the game, and root for the Redskins.

Needs Improvement: You set the alarm, but don’t get up and the turkey is undercooked. 3 children are laughing while you say grace. 4 of your nephews refuse to watch the game with the rest of the family because you have failed to offer differentiated game choices. Conversation during dinner is marked by family members mumbling under their breath at your Aunt Rose, who confuses the Mayflower with the Titanic after her third Martini. Only the drunk guests thank you on the way out. Your team loses the game.

Proficient: The turkey is heated to the right temperature. All the guests, whom you have invited by formal written correspondence, arrive on time with their assigned dish to pass. Your nephew sneaks near the desert dish, but quickly walks away when you mention that it is being saved until after dinner. You share a meal in which all family members speak respectfully in turn as they share their thoughts on the meaning of Thanksgiving. All foods served at the table can be traced historically to the time of the Pilgrims. You watch the game as a family, cheer in unison for your team. They win.

Distinguished: The turkey, which has been growing free range in your back yard, comes in your house and jumps in the oven. The guests, who wrote to ask you please be invited to your house, show early with foods to fit all dietary and cultural needs. You watch the game on tape, but only as an video prompt for your family discussion of man’s inhumanity to man. Your family plays six degrees of Sir Francis Bacon and is thus able to resolve, once and for all, the issue of whether Oswald acted alone.

Eduhonesty: If I were looking for a synonym for Danielson Framework, I doubt I could find a  better one than turkey.

Talking to former students

I am often struck by what and how much former students remember. This post is for the new teachers out there: Those quiet students who never talk in class? You might be stunned to know how much they value the time you spend helping them, how much that simple morning hello means to some of them.

The Common Core and Thomas Sowell

I’m repeating a quote here, a quote that seems applicable to many areas of education today:

“Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.”
― Thomas Sowell

Eduhonesty: So far, this expresses my view of the Common Core perfectly.

P.S. Sowell is an African-American economist who has authored of dozens of books. When I left off, he was a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. I recommend looking up his works.

Where are the independent thinkers? An extreme irony:

Due to the Common Core curriculum, school districts are furiously trying to teach critical thinking to America’s students. I’d like to observe the following: As the country lurches in lockstep toward this goal, independent thinkers in educational administration seem to be vanishing. Is the Common Core curriculum the best plan for American education? A case can be made for and against this new focus on critical thinking, but almost nobody in educational administration is making the case against the goal — at least publicly.

Let’s start with the fact that those countries who are outscoring us on international tests are NOT doing anything like the Common Core. No one has put anything like the Common Core into widespread practice. This is a huge experiment with an already educationally-lagging population as test fodder. I submit we might be much better off studying Finland carefully and then doing what they do, since the Finnish approach seems to work very well.

Eduhonesty: Where are the voices saying what I just said? Many teachers are sounding off, but a dearth of administrators seem have joined the chorus. Is it because, in the upper echelons of American educational administration, there aren’t many critical thinkers? Maybe these pundits want to emphasize critical thinking because in some distant, vaguely aware portion of their collective consciousness, they realize they don’t seem to be able or willing to think critically.