Looking through the cracks

To retain or not retain — that is the question. Should we flunk our underperformers? If we do, should we hold them back? Or send them on the next grade with a hope, a prayer and — if we listen to the research — extra tutoring? Academic studies favor social promotion, usually adding the caveat that the socially promoted should receive extra tutoring when they enter the next grade. Unfortunately, that tutoring may not happen or may be wholly insufficient: Two extra hours of instruction per week cannot begin to cover the losses from years of failure and near-failure. I’m not sure 10 hours a week could hit that target, but ten hours might be plausible for quick learners.

This post is only peripherally about retention, though. I want to briefly visit another topic. So Napoleon has failed or nearly failed his classes, quite likely not for the first time. At least one possible rescue ought to go on the table immediately, one that inexplicably may not be raised for discussion.

For parents and teachers: If Napoleon failed or has been skirting failure, please consider special education. When a parent demands that a child be tested for special education, the district must comply. Absent that demand, sometimes testing never happens. For one thing, the barriers to entering special education keep getting higher. I don’t want to start addressing those issues — they’re huge — but the amount of proof required to move a student into special education may shut the process down before it starts, especially as districts keep adding responsibilities to the teaching day. My 27 days of meetings this year take a lot of time away from possible parent calls or social worker discussions.

One of my students just entered special education. Her mom had mentioned she thought the girl needed extra help and I thought so, too. I talked to special education teachers. They told me the same thing they have been telling me for the last few years: Tell the parent to insist that her child needs to be tested. The amount of documentation a teacher requires to get that ball rolling is so daunting now that I suspect only parent interventions are likely to work in some districts. She’s not my only student who I think needs help. I have one more mission before year’s end, if I can put it together in the time that’s left.

For some kids, special education may be their only chance to graduate from high school and possibly move on to higher education. My colleague down the hall has been educated and trained specifically to work with academically and behaviorally-disadvantaged students. She has classes with eight or fewer children in them and a paraprofessional to help her. She can sit down and focus on one child, providing intensive instruction, while other children work with the paraprofessional. For any kid who is struggling to pass, year after year, my colleague’s class offers a chance to succeed.

Eduhonesty: Economic forces are in play here, something teachers and parents don’t always understand. Districts have a big incentive to keep children in the regular classroom. That special education teacher costs as much or more than her regular education counterpart, probably more since special education endorsements require quite a few college credits — this varies by area — and greater numbers of college credits usually lead to higher pay. Depending on law and contracts, one regular teacher can teach the same number of students as three special education teachers. Putting a child into special education thus represents a financial commitment that poor districts, especially, may prefer to avoid.

I need to observe that educators and administrators tend to be ethical people, dedicated to providing the best education possible to their students. While an obvious financial incentive exists to keep students out of special education, parties to the process are extremely unlikely to falsify testing data. Still, financial factors may lead to data interpretations designed to keep students in regular classrooms. A few years back, I had a student tested for special education. The man who tested her determined that her I.Q. was 78 — 3 digits too high to qualify for special education. She needed a 75 to qualify. But while psychometricians generally regard IQ tests as having high statistical reliability, the fact is that the standard error of measurement for IQ tests is commonly considered to be about three points — the very difference that might have gotten my student into special education. That test can easily be three points off. They didn’t let my girl into special education. (Bilingual education saved this former student, but that’s another story. She did graduate. She may be stranded in a Spanglish world, and she can’t spell or do math for beans, but she diligently attended school, receiving enough credits to walk the stage.)

Am I rambling here? To go straight to my point, many of our failing kids will benefit from special education; however, parents and teachers may need to force the issue. Parents — don’t trust the schools to tell you if your child needs special education. If you suspect learning handicaps, demand that your district test your child. Teachers — the mantra of this time has become, “All children can succeed!” This cheery sound bite sounds appealing but fictions often do. Not all children can succeed in regular classrooms. If they could, we would never have created special education in the first place.

Lost and struggling students deserve to get the help they need. These small classes with individualized attention allow some students to learn when regular classes do not. My colleague down the hall has dedicated her life to teaching reading to students who need extra help to put the letters together. Parents and teachers sometimes hesitate to seek special education placements for fear of labeling a child slow, but special education often proves the best possible world for at least some of our boys and girls.

Leonard Cohen put it perfectly in his song, Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

It’s all about light, the light of learning. We are here to help our children learn to love learning. We do that best when we don’t force them to go faster and farther than they are ready to travel. We do that best when we hand them books they can read with a teacher who understands the pacing and parameters they require. We do that best when we accept and love them for who they are.

Tracking today’s time

MAP is over for now. I think I am going to count the minutes from my Student Learning Objective or “SLO” tests, though.

What is a Student Learning Objective (SLO)? SLOs are content-specific, learning objectives aligned to curricular standards. As part of the SLO process, today I was obliged to give all my classes tests which cover the material we are going to teach this quarter. Most of the material on these tests has not yet been taught. I reassured students repeatedly that today’s tests would not be part of their grades. I recommended they try to remember questions when possible, since the tests would be repeated as their final exams at the end of the quarter. I reiterated that I was not going to hold them responsible for not knowing vocabulary and concepts they had never seen before.

One major purpose of SLOs is to provide evidence of a teacher’s instructional success. If all teachers in a department give the same exam, teacher results can be compared at the end of the quarter. Comparisons are normally averages, the mean improvement of students in given classes. SLOs are losers for some subsets of teachers. Special education teachers, for example, have student groups who normally do not attain the same overall averages for improvement as their regular education counterparts. SLOs can also be losers for teachers who do not draw strong class groups from the regular population. Any teacher knows that some classes are academically stronger than other classes. Picking the right class or classes may be critical to the SLO process when not all classes are included in the data.

TIP to new teachers: Pick your strongest class! Don’t let anyone tell you that your lowest class “has the most room for improvement.” Your lowest class is your lowest class for a reason. If that class had regularly been pegging a full year’s academic progress or more overall, they would not be your lowest class. Your best bet to show improvement will come from those kids who have already surged to the front of the pack. Learning comes more easily to these kids. That’s why they are already outscoring their peers.

Eduhonesty: I’ve gone sideways here. I wanted to explain why the SLO minutes are being included in my count of standardized testing minutes. While today’s tests were not national tests, they represent a full day of testing in which I gave my students tests filled with information they had never seen before, tests that were not part of their grade. I am doing this so that the administration can make comparisons of progress at the end of the quarter.

Total minutes spent giving SLOs today: 225 minutes or 3.75 hours. The true time loss would be a bit more, since tests preclude making progress on other material. Students who finish do reinforcement work or help with class projects while we wait for slower students to get done. No new material was presented today. In fact, no lecture happened at all, although a fair amount of individual tutoring occurred here and there during testing.

Standardized testing and test prep time for the week so far: 9.92 hours

To add another component to my time management study here: Total meeting time for today ran 150 minutes, or 2 1/2 hours. Meeting time for the last two days (some of which I missed due to testing) ran 135 minutes. Total meeting time for the week so far then adds up to 4.75 hours.

Be a good one

Whatever you are, be a good one. –Lincoln

The above phrase resonated with me.

As we diversify classes while simultaneously homogenizing curriculum, I believe it becomes harder and harder to be a good teacher. My current science topic is based in abstractions of physics. I don’t know that I can find a way to make the true content intelligible to all my students, especially those from special education backgrounds. I persevere because all teachers are supposed to simultaneously be teaching this content. But given that some of my lowest kids are a full six years below their grade-based reading level, I don’t see how this is going to work.

I also don’t see how these students are going to manage to be good students, no matter what their intentions.

An educational researcher named Piaget had a term for these students: Concrete operational thinkers. They don’t manage abstractions well. They struggle with concepts that can only be indirectly seen or demonstrated.

Eduhonesty: I will try to teach basic physics to my guys. The opportunity cost of teaching physics will be all the early math and English we can’t go over — and desperately need to go over — because we are required to teach physics concepts to a group of students who can’t convert a decimal to a fraction without a partner to guide them.

I wish Abe were President. He might have understood that education should be tailored to the individual student, not to a national agenda that fits only some students well. It’s as if we are issuing everybody the exact same pair of shoes. If you are lucky, the shoe fits. If not — well, keep trying to stuff your foot into that thing, because in this one-size-fits-all time, that shoe is all you are going to get.

Fuzzy research

“The great tragedy of Science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

~ Thomas H. Huxley (1825 – 1895) (From bob@LakesideAdvisors.com)

Eduhonesty: If we want evidence that education is no science, all we have to do is notice the number of administrative hypotheses that cannot be slain by ugly facts. The hypothesis did not pan out? The teacher must have done the experiment badly. The children did not improve? The instruction must have lacked rigor. The scores are stagnant? The teacher must have failed to scaffold and differentiate for the different levels of learning in the classroom.

If the teacher points out that almost no student in the classroom can actually read the book the district purchased, he or she may get a lecture on the need for increasing rigor.

Nowadays when I hear the word “rigor,” my mind silently tacks on “mortis.” (Latin: rigor “stiffness”, mortis “of death”) One of the recognizable signs of pie-in-the-sky curricula: Death of learning caused by inappropriate new strategies that incorporate irrational expectations, eliminating the pedagogical flexibility needed to help many students learn.

(If your students are newly arrived in the U.S. and are unwilling to converse because they are sensitive to their language deficits, obligatory activities that require verbal sharing aren’t the best — or even a particularly rational — demand.)

Sad quote from a special education teacher

“I used to love my job. I used to get up and it was exciting.” But she has been losing control of that job rapidly since No Child Left Behind. She is told what to teach now, whether or not her students are suited to that material, material chosen by an outsider who does not know those students. Her problem is simple: She knows she could do a much better job if she were left alone.

Scary Estimate by a Sped Teacher

Walking to the gym beside a new special education teacher, she tossed off this observation:

“I spend about 60% of my time doing paperwork and 40% giving instruction. I hoped there’d be less of that here (than in her old school) but it seems to be the same.”

We commiserated over government paperwork demands, a real burden in bilingual education as well.

Eduhonesty: At a certain level, those government paperwork demands begin to impact instruction. Time spent preparing mountains of paperwork cannot be given to planning future instruction. After a long day of paperwork, many teachers just grab an appropriate or semi-appropriate lesson off the internet, minimizing preparation for the next day since the present day is pretty much gone.