If she can’t do it

My colleague is a star. She has gotten stellar reviews and enviable performance bonuses. Her kids leap years up the benchmark tests sometimes. She believes in data-driven instruction. She crafts meticulous lesson plans, preparing materials designed to help her students meet targets. She fights for her students. She is among the very best.

That said, we were discussing group work this morning. Neither of us is against appropriate group work, but the fact that this fashion has become an expected part of daily routine concerns us both. Group work for the sake of group work can have significant drawbacks.

Numbers factor heavily into any group work picture. A teacher can only be in one place at one time and, when she is working with group 1, groups 2, 3, and 4 are on their own. In theory, students are helping each other, but in real life a fair amount of discussion may skew towards boyfriends, video games, and other facets of every day life. A teacher can control for this chit-chat by moving around, but roaming interferes with her ability to deliver instruction to the groups.

To quote my colleague: “In a class with 30 kids and one teacher, it’s a joke.”

I know that. At least, the use of daily groups is a joke in an academically-challenged district with large class sizes. Forget the theory. Many of these group-work studies were done with a teacher, a teaching assistant, and additional outside observers. If we really want to evaluate the effectiveness of group-work, we need to covertly watch regular classes with 30 some kids and one teacher.

(My concern with my suggestion: Watchers may end up blaming teachers for essentially untenable and unmanageable situations. Teachers always seem to get the blame. Some of these administrators and legislators ought to try keeping thirty 13-year-olds on task and working when they are put in small, tight clusters scattered around the classroom.)

Eduhonesty: It’s time to stand up for whole-group instruction.

What do they dream?

When I was young, I took tests in my sleep sometimes. I often woke up doing homework. I am pretty sure I solved many math problems during the night. I would go to bed confused, wake up and, suddenly, I knew my answer. Voila!

I play computer games in my sleep now. I am sure my students do too. Days’ activities follow us into the night.

We need to make sure we assign enough homework.  It’s difficult to compete with the interactive fun of the phone. Some of our students appear to be hard-wired to their personal electronics today.

Many of our students are probably playing Clash of Clans all night, whether they are asleep or awake. I would like a little algebra to enter the mix. Or plate tectonics. Or a few cotton gins. There’s controversy over homework, but research indicates that at least an hour a day benefits our students. That hour should be a regular feature of the average student’s day.

We have to try to take back the night.

Harry Potter weekend

ABC has been running a Harry Potter weekend. Harry was meeting Gilderoy Lockhart when I got up this morning. It is past 10 now. Darkness has fallen and Harry has Voldemort on the run. Well, the guy’s getting nervous anyway. His minions just burned down the Weasley’s house.

I have watched Daniel Radcliffe grow up today and I am feeling nostalgic. I miss the days of Harry Potter. I miss having a series of books that led to midnight, book-buying events filled with wand-carrying children and bookstore owners in witches hats. For one thing, the world of HarryimagePotter had real charm for all it’s dark moments.

I can’t say the same for subsequent series that have been big hits with kids. The worlds of the Hunger Games and Divergent are bleak, and, much as I enjoyed Twilight, Edward and Bella’s vampire romance reached many more girls than boys, while reinforcing a number of unfortunate stereotypes. In the end, true love conquered all and common sense once again went down for the count. Who cares if he’s a vampire? Who cares if you might die?

Would somebody out there please start on the next Harry Potter? Don’t get me wrong. I followed Katniss through the Hunger Games. I know the details of Bella and Edward’s romance.

But we could use a little more genuine magic out here.

Fighting for the DeLoreans

He was a student in my class ten years ago. He was at the top of my class and at the top of a number of his other classes. I remember him in part because once he declared to me, “I’m smart.”

He was smart. He was also the product of a school district that was struggling to produce strong test numbers. As a result, his test scores were not at all exceptional. Those scores were good for his district, but he remained in the middle of the Illinois pack. Ten years ago, those scores were not the focus of DeLorean’s life, though. They were an annual event at which he did pretty well, at least compared to the other kids in his classes, an event that was still  pretty much background noise in 2005. Despite having only somewhat above average Illinois test scores, DeLorean could feel smart. He could base his self assessment on his position within his classes.

The DeLoreans of today are not nearly so lucky.  They are taking more tests and they are taking them more often. As the year goes on, they will have their test scores rubbed in their faces over and over again. They will be told exactly what they received. They may be asked to set targets for improvement for the next set of tests. They will be given more than ample opportunity to examine their position compared to other students taking the test, both in class and across the state.

I recognize a few advantages to battering our students with numbers. Some students do benefit from learning their status. Some students try harder when they are given clear targets to hit. But I am sure that others are giving up the fight all over America.

At the very least, they are losing that sense of specialness the DeLorean carried with him throughout his school day. When the major focus of your school year becomes the numbers you produce and those numbers put you in the 60th percentile somewhere — which may be a great result in some of our lower-scoring school districts — then suddenly a boy or girl who used to feel at the top get a reality check, a reality check that places that kid below one third of all other state test takers.

The question that hardly ever seems to hit the radar is this: What are the effects of all these test numbers on kids, especially kids in our lower-scoring school districts?

We used to send the state standardized test and other scores to parents in an envelope. We never discussed those results in class. Parents got to decide what they told their kids and how much they told their kids. This year, though, my principal had us share our benchmark test score results with students. We then had students set targets for improvement for the next set of benchmark tests. As I said, I believe this approach benefited a number of kids.

However, others ended up feeling stupid. I feel stupid even writing this down, but I need to observe that feeling stupid is demotivating. I also need to observe that all kids are different. Setting the bar high makes some kids work harder. Others simply walk off the field.

Summer vacations DO rock

I am sure some readers of my previous post said, “Wait a minute! You’re a teacher! ”

Yes, I am on the school schedule and I do get an unusual amount of vacation time. I work almost every hour of every day during long periods of the school year, but I enjoy summer, winter, and spring breaks. I also get federal holidays, or at least almost all of them, although I usually work at home during those federal holidays, relieved to stay in my pajamas and catch up on my data-related paperwork.

A great perk of teaching, the school schedule allows for parenting and vacation time. Education contracts support maternity leaves. Our contracts understand that mothers may need to be home with sick children. Those contracts even understand that fathers may need to be home with sick children. (Obviously, frequent absences are disruptive to students’ educations, so absences are generally discouraged. Teachers don’t get time off during the school year, except for reasons such as bereavement, jury duty, and professional development, with a couple of “personal days” as part of the standard contract. We use personal and sick days to manage our own sick kids.)

For accuracy’s sake, I’d like to observe that the teaching year is not always the party it’s cracked up to be. All my young colleagues are teaching summer school right now, or taking classes to add endorsements or certifications to their state approvals, or looking for work. They may be doing all three at once. They also have various district workshops scheduled during the middle of this summer and, while these are not required, the district will be taking note of those who attend and do not attend.

I lucked out, though. I married a financial analyst, so I did not have to worry about the rent or mortgage when I took summer off. I stayed home with the kids when they were growing up. I took classes for fun, not to add to my income. I’ve always taken classes for fun and I have a ridiculous number of endorsements. At this point, I joke that I’m qualified to teach almost everything except  Etruscan pottery.

I have been chronicling struggles in the current educational system. We have reached a point where good intentions are producing a baffling amount of sheer craziness, but I will say that teaching can be a great mom or dad job for many people. Teachers may end up living in smaller houses, but they are likely to snag the best seats on the field at their kids’ soccer and softball games.

Superteams in the broader context

My last post edges toward whiny at times. “We all have meetings,” I am sure many readers are thinking. We all do. Almost all professional positions today come with a load of baggage, including those many meetings.

I’m going to stand on my whining, though. I perceive a larger problem in my culture at the moment. When the number of hours that Americans worked passed the number of hours the Japanese worked, giving the United States the longest work week in the world, we should not have behaved as passively as we did. We have built this work week, added responsibility by added responsibility. Why?

I had an interesting conversation with a cabbie in Toronto a couple of days ago. The cabbie was telling me about his work in Canada. He gets two weeks vacation a year. He missed Germany. In Germany he got three weeks vacation and his workday ended after eight hours. In Canada, he often has to work overtime. He is paid for those overtime hours, but he lamented the loss of a much better work regime from his past. “I come to Canada to be with my family, but I never have time to see my family,” he said.

Yet he gets more time with that family than many Americans get with their own families. To meet my full data requirements, my full meeting requirements, and my various other professional responsibilities – on top of getting ready to actually teach my classes- I would have worked every hour of every day. I was triaging, throwing out the “least useful” expectations in my bucket of a to-do list, “least useful” as defined by me, which was not necessarily “least useful” as described by the administration. I skipped data in favor of class preparation, for example, an extremely poor political move that no young teacher could afford to make. But I had not written my tests or chosen my curriculum and my students were always failing those tests. I didn’t need that data. I’d like to think administration was smart enough to understand that if my data was a sea of red for the first half the year, it continued to be a sea of red, given that no one was making any real accommodations for my students lack of English or for the fact that they were years behind the materials I was obliged to present. I was making the best accommodations I could, but since I had to give the same test that all the regular teachers were giving at the same time, my bilingual students were only surviving due to Saturday tutoring, for the most part, along with explicit effort to teach directly to the test.

Unions have been getting a bad rap lately, but I have changed my personal view on unions. I think America needs to unionize again, as we did in the time of the 14-hour day. Many of us again are working that 14-hour day. It’s not healthy, it’s not smart, and I don’t understand why we have let ourselves be led into this place.

Eduhonesty: Maybe we are like the frogs. Degree by degree, the temperature in the pot has been rising. If you throw a frog into a pot of hot water, the frog will immediately try to jump out, but if the water temperature rises gradually, the poor thing will just hunker down inside the pot, waiting to be cooked.

Degree by degree, we have been cooking ourselves. Maybe we should try to take a flying leap out of the pot instead.


Going through an old notebook, I stumble on the superteam notes. A superteam is a team of teams. This notebook is a few years old. Last year, our superteam meetings were called building meetings. We all got together Wednesday afternoons and stayed late to have a meeting of the many people going to the many meetings. I had meetings all five days of the week. On Wednesdays, I usually had three separate meetings.

Eduhonesty: I am a natural talker and mostly I don’t mind meetings, but I will observe that the minimum I spent in meetings on a given week was usually about four hours. My meetings ran over five hours some weeks. On those weeks, I spent over one-seventh of my “official” school week in meetings. I sure hope we were having “super” team meetings given the amount of time we were NOT using to get ready to teach. We spent a great deal of time on theory and content for lesson planning, but very little time remained to actually get ready for class.

Eduhonesty: In fairness, I taught two different subjects and bilingual classes so I definitely had more meetings than the average bear. I think teachers of one subject may have been getting by with only a little over three hours worth of meetings sometimes. This confluence of meetings represents one more reason, though, why I might steer a colleague away from working with disadvantaged populations. I have had special-education colleagues tell me they spent over half their day in meetings regularly.  With all due respect for necessary records and paperwork, at the point where meetings need special names, we might start wondering if the proliferation of meetings is getting out of hand.




The SLO I skipped

An SLO is a “student learning objective,” yet another test that a teacher gives at the start of the year and then repeats at the end of the semester or end of the year to document that student learning has taken place. In some states now, the SLO has become part of teacher evaluations. A woman in Hawaii just lost her job because of her refusal to get involved in SLO testing. I have to say, I did not do my SLO this year. I knew I was going and, more importantly, I object to the whole concept. Too much rides on getting the right class. When I did my first SLO last year, I picked a group of college-bound juniors and seniors, instead of the bilingual students in all my other classes. I never finished the paperwork on that test because I transferred to another school in the district in the middle of the year, but sometimes I wish I had finished because I aced that SLO test. I had the right class. They were the cream of my high school and this was their first consumer math class. My students started knowing very little of the subject material and I had a whole semester to fill in what they regarded as useful knowledge. I had what I regard as a nearly perfect set up — and SLO’s are all about set up.

Multiple problems exist with SLO tests. If I teach nothing but that test all year I will succeed with my SLO. In terms of breadth of education, I may have taught damn near nothing except that test, however. The students in my classes are also critical to my potential success. In this time of SLO testing, I would never enter bilingual education. I have advised colleagues to exit bilingual education. How do I get the best score on my SLO test and therefore evaluation? I pick the strongest test takers available to me. All other factors being equal, my best bet will be to work with a group of college-bound students with a strong grasp of the fundamentals of the English language.

Eduhonesty: I am operating out of a suitcase right now, using my phone for posts. I promise I will fill in some details and documentation later. I just read the story about the woman in Hawaii yesterday, though, and I thought this might be a timely post. Our country’s leaders need to be clear that many very capable teachers may abandon our neediest schools if evaluations continue to be based on student performance. Wealthier districts not only pay better, they also deliver higher test scores most of the time. If I were starting over right now, I’d choose to work in a much different set of schools, schools where the children need me far less then they do in the district I just left.

My thoughts on Arne Duncan sending his kids to a private school

Arne Duncan went to the University of Chicago Lab School. Incidentally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s children attend the UCLS and the Obama daughters also attended before enrolling in the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. If the U.S. Secretary of Education wants to keep his kids out of the Chicago Public Schools, I understand that perfectly.

My kids went to school the best public district I could find for them. I might have considered a couple of high-quality alternatives, but great schools were non-negotiable when I went house hunting. I recommend that to my students when we talk about schools. I tell them, “You are better off in a much smaller house in a place with great schools. You want your kids to get the best education possible.”

Eduhonesty: In my view, Arne gets a pass on avoiding the schools he once led. I would send my own kids to the University of Chicago Lab School in his position.  I will observe that many leaders creating educational policy for America’s school districts don’t have much, if any, experience working in America’s problem schools. Too many of our leaders are steeped in theory and lacking in experience where it counts. Anyone deciding American education policy ought to have time as a teacher and/or administrator in a Title I school.

Pushing up the numbers

This snippet came from an article about Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education, who is planning to send his kids to private schools in Chicago. (By Shontee Pant, Staff writer at csmonitor.com,  )

From 1995 to 2005, the City of Chicago saw a 9.2 percent increase in the graduation rate to 51 percent of students entering high school graduating. In 2013, the percentage had increased to 65 percent. That same year, the average high school graduation rate across the United States was 81 percent.

The flip side of the above will be that 35% of the students in Chicago did not graduate. From http://cps.edu/About_CPS/At-a-glance/Pages/Stats_and_facts.aspx,

Student enrollment

Preschool: 22,873

Kindergarten: 28,978

Elementary (1-8): 232,825

Secondary (9-12): 112,007

That’s over 39,000 who won’t make it out of high school in this one major urban area. The numbers are far worse in Detroit.

Eduhonesty: The Chicago graduation numbers suggest a real improvement. In the sense that high school graduation has historically increased earning power, Chicago’s students unquestionably have a win here. We are getting better at keeping kids inside the school system. That 39,000 tells us we are a long ways from out of the tunnel, though.