Time, time, time… see what’s become of us


I keep this calendar in my room, changing topics as the months go by. I have had months where the laminate on top was covered in words. If we want to understand why American students are falling behind much of the rest of the world, though, I think this month’s calendar provides a quick snapshot of part of the problem. The “Erased for PARCC” part resulted from a PARCC test requirement. We are not allowed to have any content words up in our room that might provide hints or clues to help answer PARCC questions. We had to remove or cover all wall decorations with any academic content.

All of the above content had to be covered or taken down.

PARCC did not eat up a full two whole weeks of instruction. Total time lost was technically three days, although taking three days off affects instruction before and after significantly. Since we used the last three days of the week for the test, we needed material of a short and uncomplicated nature before the test. I think we were adding up angles in triangles and seeking the value of random variables in math. Science was review, review, reviewing for future tests. The PARCC erasure contained a number of quizzes or tests. Teachers were also required to give a bubble test, an hour plus of mathematical misery, on the Monday after PARCC. Sad wails erupted through the room. “Another test?” WHY? We just got done!” Only they are never done.

Spring break did eat up a whole week of March. The fact that the quarter technically ended shortly before spring break also affected instruction since topics were determined, in part, based on whether or not we had time to finish them. More demanding topics were jettisoned because we did not have a long enough time block to do them justice.

Eduhonesty: March has been instruction light. Between the test and break, we will not get out of “seasons” this month. We are out of geometry. Ready or not, done or not, we have moved on to the agenda for the fourth quarter which is data and distributions. I would have liked to have spent more time on triangles; we never did get to the Pythagorean Theorem. Dammit.

Social science numbers applied to homework

A March 23, 2015, article in the APA’s Journal of Educational Psychology® reported that more than 70 minutes of homework may be too much for adolescents. The article interprets another journal article* and I’m inclined to let the original researchers off the hook for some of the silliness that followed, since I have not read the bulk of their findings. According to the original article, though, adolescents benefit from doing homework alone and regularly with an hour a day being about the optimal amount of homework. The researchers came from the University of Oviedo in Spain and “looked at the performance of 7,725 public, state-subsidized and private school students in the principality of Asturias in northern Spain. The students had a mean age of 13.78. Girls made up 47.2 percent of the sample.”* The sample size certainly seems adequate, although I’d caution against automatically applying results from Spain to American school children.

If I study flight patterns of houseflies, I can’t assume that my results apply to dragonflies. For example, Spanish primary students commonly have a long midday siesta as part of their school experience, between noon and three. They then resume school after this rest, finishing around 5:00 in the afternoon. Secondary schools may also have a midday break. For young adolescents, the school day usually runs from 8 to 3, or 8:30 to 2 and then 3:40 to 5:30. Actual hours vary by region and by academic program. These hours themselves may affect homework performance, making a Spain/U.S. comparison less trustworthy. The Spanish educational system differs from ours in other important ways. Formal support for vocational and technical education in Spain is much stronger than the gutted system that American schools now possess.

In any case, these Spanish students received questionnaires asking how often they did homework and how much time they spent on different subjects. The questionnaires also asked if they did their homework alone. Scores on standardized math and science tests were used to determine academic success.

According to the article in the APA’s Journal of Educational Psychology®, providing a synopsis of the original Spanish research, researchers found the following:

… students spent on average between one and two hours a day doing homework in all subjects. Students whose teacher systematically assigned homework scored nearly 50 points higher on the standardized test. Students who did their math homework on their own scored 54 points higher than those who asked for frequent or constant help. The curves were similar in science.

“Our data indicate that it is not necessary to assign huge quantities of homework, but it is important that assignment is systematic and regular, with the aim of instilling work habits and promoting autonomous, self-regulated learning,” said Javier Suarez-Alvarez, graduate student, co-lead author with Ruben Fernandez-Alonso, PhD, and Professor Jose Muniz. “The data suggest that spending 60 minutes a day doing homework is a reasonable and effective time.”

The total amount of homework assigned by teachers was a little more than 70 minutes per day on average, the researchers found. While some teachers assigned 90-100 minutes of homework per day, the researchers found that the students’ math and science results began to decline at that point. And while they found a small gain in results between 70 and 90 minutes, “that small gain requires two hours more homework per week, which is a large time investment for such small gains,” said Suarez-Alvarez. “For that reason, assigning more than 70 minutes of homework per day does not seem very efficient.”

As for working autonomously or with help, the researchers found that students who needed help and did 70 minutes of homework per day could expect to score in the 50th percentile on their test while autonomous students spending the same amount of homework time could expect to score in the 70th percentile. One possible explanation of this result is that self-regulated learning is strongly connected to academic performance and success, according to Suarez-Alvarez.

“The conclusion is that when it comes to homework, how is more important than how much,” said Suarez-Alvarez. “Once individual effort and autonomous working is considered, the time spent becomes irrelevant.”

Eduhonesty: I am not attempting to contradict the Suarez-Alvarez research. I do wish to call attention to what has happened to what is likely a sound piece of research. I stumbled on this piece on Yahoo yesterday. The synopsis in the APA’s March 23, 2015, Journal of Educational Psychology® is titled, “How Much Math, Science Homework is Too Much?” with a subtitle that reads, “More than 70 minutes is too much for adolescents, researchers find.” At this point, if I google “more than 70 minutes may be too much for adolescents,” a phrase taken from the article, I get a frightening load of simplifications and gobbledygook from people who appear to have read this article’s headline, but not necessarily the content. Reddit says, “Study finds that more than 70 minutes of homework a day is too much for adolescents…” Healthfinder.gov used the same article to report that “Too Much Homework May Hurt Teens’ Test Scores,” adding, “Study found more than 90 minutes a night linked to lower performance in math, science.” Numerous bloggers have leapt on the study — or rather, on snippets of its results, taken out of context.

This is why I hate to rely on social science numbers. I suspect the original research behind these reports was well-designed. The conclusions drawn from it, however, are dubious at best. Ruben Fernandez-Alonso and Javier Suarez-Alvarez never said homework should be limited to 60 minutes a night, even though their study has been used to promote this view. They never said 70 minutes a day is too much for adolescents. They never said that too much homework may hurt teens’ test scores,” either. What they said was that adding more homework gave diminishing returns at a certain point; between 70 and 90 minutes scores still went up but not by enough to justify the extra time spent on homework. Above 90 minutes of homework, scores began to decline, but the researchers did not conclude that the homework load caused poor test scores. I’ll submit that one possibility for this decline might be that students who needed greatly more time to complete their homework struggled with academics generally. Harriet Crawford picked this article up for the Daily Mail in Great Britain. The Daily Mail titled their article, “Yes, too much homework really can be bad for children: Results begin to drop if it takes longer than 90 minutes with an hour being the perfect time,” and added the following subtitles: 1) A study found homework should take just 60 minutes for pupils to benefit, 2) More than 90 minutes and a student’s results actually begin to drop and 3) New research also discovered children should not receive help at home. Most emphatically, that last subtitle is probably not what Fernandez-Alonso and Suarez-Alvarez intended parents to conclude from their research. The study showed doing homework independently was associated with higher test scores. One possible reason for this result would be that students who are capable of doing their homework independently have achieved a level of mastery necessary to score well on tests. Students who require more help still may lack that mastery. Forcing students to try to do homework they can’t understand without helping them won’t help anyone, though, I’m certain.

I suggest readers plug in the words “more than 70 minutes may be too much for adolescents” into Yahoo or Google just to look at the results. It’s interesting to see how many news outlets seem to be carrying exactly or almost exactly the same articles under different bylines. There’s a regrettable amount of shoddy, duplicative journalism out there.

* “Adolescents’ Homework Performance in Mathematics and Science: Personal Factors and Teaching Practices,” by Ruben Fernandez-Alonso and Javier Suarez-Alvarez, University of Oviedo, and Jose Muniz, University of Oviedo and Biomedical Research Network in Mental Health, Barcelona, Spain; Journal of Educational Psychology; online March 16, 2015. The interpretation of the original article was published in APA’s Journal of Educational Psychology®.

A sad job loss that is probably good luck in disguise

My colleague is one of the walking dead. (See the March 26th post.) Her zombie status has created much discussion among the living and the dead. She is a first year teacher and her score came in under the number the district had used to define proficient. Proficiency has been defined as 2.72 and above. My colleague received a 2.70.

These are social science numbers, the opinions of observers. In one professional development I attended, an auditorium of teachers was asked to determine Charlotte Danielson rubric numbers for teaching as they watched videos. I vividly remember one video that broke down with about 1/3 of the auditorium giving a “2” and 2/3 giving a “3” for the same video. A scattering of teachers bestowed a “4” on that video. These numbers are in the eye of the beholder. That missing 0.02 has zero statistical validity or reliability. But a first year teacher just lost her job based on that number. The Danielson group would never support using their numbers in this fashion; they will tell you that first year teachers naturally will have lower numbers. Teaching proficiency is learned on the job.

I worked with this teacher all year. She busily created new materials for her students. She adapted materials. She shared. She worked extremely hard.

Here is the saddest email I am likely to see all year, sent in the middle of spring break:

I know I should be relaxing, but of course I am thinking about work. I have 2 five hour long train rides this weekend, so I will have time to get something done…hopefully.

I know that you were starting the new vocabulary. I didn’t get to it last week, I was trying to get kids caught up on grades and such. If you know the vocabulary, send it to me? Please and thank you.

Also, what else are we covering? Possibly Monday we meet after our PLC? I just need to make sure I am prepared for an IEP meeting after school Monday.

Well I hope both of you are relaxing over break!!!!

My young colleague is more professional and forgiving than I am. I would give the administration that canned me over that nonsensical 0.02 about 0.02 minutes of my time over spring break. I don’t think I’d give them an adapted lesson plan, either, whether I adapted the materials (she will) or not. I trust my colleague to do her best for her students and I’ll be at those meetings she wants, helping her figure out what we are teaching next. I’ll also send her a recommendation and list of possible districts where she should put in applications. Our loss will be someone else’s gain.

In another world, first-year teachers get mentors. My colleague finally received that help more than halfway through the year, but that help came after the first of her two major evaluations. She received little help navigating the evaluation process regardless. My colleague made a mistake I have seen other young teachers make: She worked days, nights and week-ends to provide quality instruction for her kids while neglecting politics. Politics can take the best of teachers and administrators down.

Eduhonesty: That young woman worked so hard. She did a great job, too, which is why many district teachers are talking about this injustice. The guy across the hall was livid when we discussed the 0.02 fiasco. But I tried to calm those waters with an observation that I still believe: Losing this job may be one of the best things that will ever happen to my colleague. The job that our administrators were waving in front of her all year, amid threats about underperforming reflected in invented numbers — nobody in their right mind would want that job. With luck, she will be making much more money next year — in a much kinder and supportive environment.

Trying to sneak in under the radar

Oops! Somebody may have noticed what has been happening. The following is from an email:


Looking forward to quarter 4, I wanted to send a quick reminder that individual lesson plans should be submitted which reflect any modifications that are being made for students in your classes (SPED, ELL and/or GenEd). [That is, special education, English language learners or general education.]

Per the PLC Guide discussed at the beginning of the year: “If teachers in the PLC plan to teach content in a uniform manner, one lesson plan template can be turned in for multiple teachers. If varying strategies will be used from teacher to teacher, then each teacher must submit their own lesson plan template.” [No one has previously referred anyone to that Professional Learning Community guide for lesson plan advice. At the start of the year, we were told repeatedly we had better do what everybody else was doing because outsiders and administrators would be watching.]

Thank you in advance for all of your planning and preparation. Enjoy the rest of your break!

Signed by [A likeable academic coach who regularly pops into classrooms]

The absence of sensible differentiation has been a thread throughout posts for this year. That lack of differentiation has seemed indefensible to me. Apparently, somebody noticed that I was right. First, let me note that this is not a reminder. It’s closer to a change in policy or the recognition of an omission. Those “ifs” were never presented as options. We were told to teach the common lesson plan. But our overall lack of differentiation must have pinged on somebody’s radar. So now, we are allowed to differentiate provided we turn in our separate lesson plans. This represents a step in the right direction. It’s also an attempt to rewrite the past, though, so I am blogging it.

They still pass notes


Eduhonesty: I clearly wasn’t on my “A” game. My audience was hardly mesmerized. Still, I kept this note because a few issues are highlighted in my girls’ exchanges. I’ll start with technology. Could they take down notes on their phones? Yes, and I have let classes do this at the end of the period to record homework assignments. That open phone can’t be out during class, though. I have trouble not gaming and texting when my phone is out. Those temptations are too much for the average middle-school student. Furthermore, I believe in the value of taking notes, even if notes are seldom fun or sexy. They do require writing words, though, and in a time when adults conversate about how to documentate evidence, we desperately need to be writing down words. How do we learn English? We read and write English. The writing step cannot be skipped. Application has to follow observation. So the girls are stuck with my demand for notes.

Another issue might be the whole-group instruction taking place during this note-writing activity. Whole-group instruction has fallen so far out of fashion that I know an observer — and there have been so many observers this year — might castigate me for that one-size-fits-all set of notes. Except they all have to learn the same thing and they tend to distract each other in small groups. Will the groups I am not in or near be talking about Martin or his equivalent? I guarantee they will, at least when they think I am not looking. Martin’s important to them, more important than the various forms of symbiosis. I can make parasitism interesting enough to shut down the Martin talk, but in mutualism vs. Martin, Martin is likely to win by a knock-out.

And the fast food workers, too!

I’d like to return to what may be my favorite professional development quote of all time: “Anyone who feels you’re overwhelmed, you are in the right spot. That’s the nature of teaching.” (I recommend reading the previous post before reading this one.) The presenter from the Danielson group has natural rhetorical flair. She had her audience at that point, all eyes glued up front.

My students’ parents often feel overwhelmed. They share this when I call about classroom problems, explaining the difficulty of parenting while working two jobs. How do people live on minimum wage? They work two jobs and take as many hours as they can get, mostly as many as employers will allow without being required to provide benefits.

I’d like to share a thought: We are not the better for the gutting of America’s unions. Students knew more in the past, especially if breadth of knowledge is taken into account. Despite the dumbing down of state tests that has occurred over the last few decades — I’m sure a major contributor to the attempt to develop a national test like PARCC — the data demonstrates a decline in American academic strength. That strength occurred in a time of strong unions. The unions have not been the problem with American education, despite anecdotal stories about rare teachers who were protected from job loss unfairly.

Eduhonesty: I believe that test-score mania and social science numbers have become tools to use to break unions, despite a total dearth of evidence that unions were the cause of America’s test-score problems. America has become labor unfriendly in general. If Costco can pay its employees a living wage, I’ll submit that Walmart probably can too. Paying that wage would increase Walmart’s prices, but Walmart workers could then funnel more money into the economy generally. The provision of decent working conditions with an eventual retirement plan should not be regarded as some form of gouging.

I didn’t used to believe in unions. I do now. If the nature of teaching is to be overwhelmed, perhaps teachers need some protection. When I started in this profession, I had reliable planning periods. I don’t now. There’s a planning period on my schedule, but I’ve never been able to depend on that period. After most of a year of stress and complaints by teachers, an email went out saying that Friday meetings were to be eliminated so teachers could have one guaranteed planning period. But I am teaching two subjects. If I don’t meet on Friday, when does that second, required lesson plan get done? I sometimes subbed during my planning period until we finally hired building substitute teachers (I loved that day when I was supposed to meet with the Assistant Superintendent for the District, but he had to cancel because he was supposed to sub in my school. That probably got us our building subs.)

No job should be overwhelming by its nature, not without some attempt to fix the working conditions creating that state of emotional turmoil. Overwhelmed teachers cannot be good for students. Overwhelmed teachers are defecting from the profession in big numbers, too. The estimate that half leave the profession within the first five years may be accurate. (Then again, that number may be more social science hooey. Who really knows? I know I started in my district with a group of more than 10 other, new teachers, all of whom are gone.) Why do we allow these toxic working conditions?

Many Americans need to reconsider the idea of unions in my opinion. United, American workers once created a middle class. United, we created schools that the world envied. That middle class appears to be slipping away for many hard workers. Those schools have become objects of pity and even scorn by other countries. If we don’t stand together, what will happen to the workers and teachers in this country? Who will take care of us? Not those many employers who are calculatingly keeping millions of Americans below the threshold hours for benefits. Not those school districts who are broke and can save $30,000 by replacing experienced Maria with newly-graduated Juan. Throw in required governmental purges of educational staff, and the landscape’s looking increasingly bleak out here.

It’s time to support our unions again. It’s past time to help those workers who are working two jobs just to make the rent and buy enough food for the family. In the past, one argument against unions consisted of the idea that corporations and school districts would take care of their employees, paternally looking out for members of their organizational family. Surely no one trusts in that idea today. Where are the benefits of yesteryear? If a single one of my students’ parents is receiving those benefits, I’ve never heard about it. I’ve heard my share of sad stories, though, like the story from one mom working in the “backroom” for two years, trying her hardest to get a job “on the floor.” On the floor, they get benefits, but for many workers, that floor might as well be the moon.

I’ve got two separate posts melded into one here. Teachers are not factory workers or burger servers. The problems of teachers may overlap with those of unskilled workers, but the Venn Diagram showing that overlap diverges at many points. Still, I plan to keep this post as it is, since I think my general point applies cleanly to both groups: We need to organize. We need not to be ashamed or intimidated by the thought of organizing.

To quote one of my favorite historical figures, Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Speaking up for the overwhelmed

The presenter for the Charlotte Danielson Group, a tall, capable and engaging former principal, woke me up briefly at Danielson professional development (PD) meeting #57 (or so) as she reached out to her audience. I wrote down her words on a blue Post-It note.

“Anyone who feels you’re overwhelmed, you are in the right spot. That’s the nature of teaching,” she said.

Eduhonesty: Danielson’s presenter knows her material and she knows teaching. I found myself participating in a zero-interest PD, scrawling ideas on poster paper and talking to “elbow partners” and small group members about implementing Danielson’s framework. I wonder how that presenter would have behaved if she had known, as she coached us cheerily through that PD, that a number of attendees had just been purged from the district. She was speaking to the walking dead, people who had been told the day before that they no longer worked for the district, the result of a deal between the district and the state I have been told. I have not confirmed the latter, but I would not be surprised. We are a district at the end of No Child Left Behind failures, subject to sanctions that include even firing the whole teaching staff of the district.

The presenter was right about that overwhelmed part. I kept scanning the room, looking at lost and lonely faces, the teachers who were obediently killing time before they went off to look for new positions over Spring Break. Some faces were absent, of course. Not all the walking dead decided to sit through another bout of Danielson. In spare minutes, colleagues talked to me indignantly about their lost jobs. I’m not going to go into details at the moment, but I felt truly angry for some of my young colleagues, many of whom were feeling angry for their fallen comrades. Still, one advantage of age has to be a sense of perspective. In this context, losing a job may be a piece of extremely good luck. After all, this is the humane and sensitive district that fired a large chunk of its teaching staff right before a required PD about the evaluation system used to push those same staff members out, and then expected those non-renewed teachers to attend that evaluation PD, before sending them off to enjoy their spring break.

Overwhelmed? Oh, yeah.

And the scary part may be that the Danielson presenter could be right: This may simply be the nature of teaching in an academically-disadvantaged school district in these times.

Reading magic

“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the
man who can’t read them.”
~ Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

I was talking to a colleague last night. We discussed a topic that slips away in all the noise, the cacophony of voices trying to raise America’s test scores.

Al fin y al cabo, at the end of the day, educational success comes down to reading. Can you read? If you can’t, you can’t succeed. Period. If you can read, you may succeed. Behavioral issues can prevent readers from doing well in school. Even then, though, some of those readers come back from their educational graveyards, recovering from the 1.25 cumulative average on their high school report cards. Our success stories who go back to community colleges after a few years flipping burgers? They manage to clamber up the educational success ladder because, at the end of the day, they can read their text books and they finally understand the value in reading those books.

Eduhonesty: We are implementing so many interventions everywhere in our lower-scoring schools. The interventions we need have names like System 44 and Read 180. If a student can’t read by middle school, that student ought to be pulled out of all regular courses except mathematics and gym — they don’t get nearly enough exercise now — and put into classes designed to teach reading. If we give our students the gift of reading, they will be able to find all the content they want for themselves. If we give them content without reading skills, most of that content will fade into the mists of time, irretrievable once the teachers are gone.

One more day learning about our evaluation system

We have professional development tomorrow. We are supposed to spend the day learning about our evaluation system and the Charlotte Danielson Rubric. I need to charge my laptop so I can pretend to care. Almost all developments have been on this rubric for the last few years. I am also supposed to have read her book, but I lent the book to a colleague who has misplaced his copy. In some distant past, I imagine I read the required chapters. I’ll find out tomorrow.

Eduhonesty: Our halls are pockmarked with first year teachers in my school. We are a young faculty. I understand the rationale behind endless Danielson; the rubric assesses good teaching and hammering us with Danielson should result in teachers who learn to follow the rubric and thus become good teachers. But classroom management consists of myriad tiny details. It’s only peripherally an exercise in the big picture. The big picture won’t help me if my students aren’t in their seats and can never find their paper and pencils.

Again, I confront what I regard as the educational blind spot of our time. I am not saying more Danielson is bad. The Danielson Rubric has many good points. The problem with teaching, reteaching and then reteaching Danielson, before starting the year with yet more Danielson, is the opportunity cost. What else might we be teaching our new teachers? What is the problem with testing, testing and testing? Among multiple concerns, I’d put opportunity cost near the top. What could students be learning if we were instructing them rather than testing them?

Time allocation is the invisible elephant in the room with us, the elephant that nobody sees, probably because nobody has time to look. We are too busy trying to implement the many great plans of the too many administrators who are acting like the blind men as they scurry around the room with the elephant. To any readers who don’t know the parable of the blind men and the elephant, I recommend looking up this story. It’s a perfect parable for education in our time.