Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mission accomplished

Remember how the kids at some of our local elementary schools were eating lunch entirely bundled up in snow pants and parkas, because otherwise they wouldn’t have enough time for recess afterward? When parents complained, at least one principal came up with a solution.

A longer lunch? More time for recess?

No, just tell the kids they can’t wear their winter clothes at lunch -- thus making them lose time from their recess while they get dressed. Problem solved!

Monday, January 24, 2011

“A seven hour sentence in a grim workplace”

From an email from a recently-retired teacher (not in Iowa City):

I loved being a teacher (first grade, mostly) and I believe that I was a very good teacher. But it became increasingly painful to see what was/is happening in schools. There is an intense focus and reliance on “data-driven instruction” which in itself doesn’t need to be bad, as it can improve one’s teaching. But if you were to spend even one hour talking with talented, caring teachers, you would hear stories that would horrify you. In the “Race to the Top,” in a relentless pursuit of better test scores and more “effective” schools, we are ignoring the souls of children and teachers and principals -- you name it. The children are captive in our classrooms, 7 hours a day. If one does not purposefully try to put joy and creativity, and empathy and enthusiasm for life and learning into the school day (ignoring directives which require every classroom activity to address specific test standards and objectives), the classroom becomes a seven hour sentence in a grim workplace, for both teachers and students. You will hear stories -- No time for the briefest of morning meetings, where teachers greet kids and let them know that it is a treat to have them there. No time for a song. No activities with crayons! You’ll hear stories that tell of pep rallies during state-wide testing periods, where it is communicated to kids, both directly and indirectly, that their reason for being is to achieve high scores. Principals and teachers feeling intense pressure to perform, and very tidily passing that pressure on to seven and seventeen year-olds. (Ask teachers about kids who throw up on test days, or who rip up the test booklets before the test starts, a pre-emptive maneuver to avoid being the failure that feel they will be if they actually attempt the test.)

. . .

I think it is a sin of omission -- we are doing a remarkable job of developing effective teaching strategies and teaching kids to be effective test takers. We are doing a horrible job of recognizing and addressing the humanity in our classrooms and our schools.

. . .

If it makes you feel any better, I think that it is far worse for poor kids in city schools. Urban schools are MANIC about test scores, and gestapo-ish about what teachers may and may not do. And this in an environment where school is often THE ONLY place where kids hear messages about learning. I keep thinking that we may get kids to have better test scores, but in the process we get people who HATE school and think that they also hate learning, because we have provided them with such a distorted version of it.

. . .

I’ve gotta say, that despite what is out there, I feel pretty good about what went on in my classroom. I know I tried, and succeeded at times, to get joy and humor in my classroom EVERY DAY, and to model excitement about learning, AND talked about some big ideas in life, at least at a first grade level. I NEVER gave stickers for ANYTHING. When there were behavior issues in the room, (and there were every year) I tried to manage them by having clear expectations and classroom routines (about things like moving through the room and school, entering and leaving the room, managing materials) and, most importantly by establishing relationships with kids and their families. Your kids do not need reward certificates for ANYTHING.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

“Repetition, monotony, and discipline”

A lowly employee of a standardized testing company describes his experience. A few excerpts:

The work is mind numbing, so scorers have to invent ways to entertain themselves. The most common method seems to be staring blankly at the wall or into space for minutes at a time. But at work this year, I discovered that no one would notice if I just read news articles while scoring tests. So every night, while scoring from home, I would surf the Internet and cut and paste loads of articles—reports on Indian Maoists, scientific speculation on whether animals can be gay, critiques of standardized testing—into what typically came to be an eighty-page, single-spaced Word document. Then I would print it out and read it the next day while I was working at the scoring center. This was the only way to avoid going insane. I still managed to score at the average rate for the room and perform according to “quality” standards. While scoring from home, I routinely carry on three or four intense conversations on Gchat. This is the reality of test scoring.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

I remember reading, for twenty-three straight days, the responses of thousands of middle-schoolers to the question, “What is a goal of yours in life?” A plurality devoted several paragraphs to explain that their life’s goal was to talk less in class, listen to their teacher, and stop fooling around so much. It’s asking too much to hope for great literature on a standardized test. But, given that this is the process through which so many students are learning to write and to think, one would hope for more. These rote responses, in themselves, are a testament to the failure of our education system, its failure to actually connect with kids’ lives, to help them develop their humanity and their critical thinking skills, to do more than discipline them and prepare them to be obedient workers—or troops.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

An entire education policy that thrives on repetition, monotony, and discipline is being enacted, stunting creativity and curiosity under the guise of the false idol of accountability.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

If the Obama administration asked test scorers whether the solution to this country’s education system would be more standardized testing, I think most of them would laugh. I’ve never gotten the sense from my coworkers that they feel that what they’re doing is helping kids or the education process.
Read the whole post.


Fact of the day: Race to Nowhere, the documentary about “the high-stakes, high-pressure culture that has invaded our schools and our children’s lives,” is rated PG-13 -- because of “thematic material involving stress on adolescents.”

One teacher’s reaction: “So my students could live it every day and that’s okay, but they can’t watch it.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Scientific findings vs. pseudo-scientific conclusions

The most emailed article in New York Times this morning is about a study of the effectiveness of testing in helping students learn. “Several cognitive scientists and education experts said the results were striking,” the article notes. What’s most striking, though, is the contrast between what the researchers found and what the article concludes.

What the study found was:

[S]tudents who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.
Got that? One week later, the kids had a better memory of the content of what they read than if they had studied in a different way for that second test.

Now, according to the Times, this is earthshaking stuff.

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques. . . .

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” . . .

“[W]hen we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access” to that information, Dr. Bjork said. “What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.” . . .

The Purdue study supports findings of a recent spate of research showing learning benefits from testing, including benefits when students get questions wrong. . . .

Dr. Kornell said that “even though in the short term it may seem like a waste of time,” retrieval practice appears to “make things stick in a way that may not be used in the classroom.

“It’s going to last for the rest of their schooling, and potentially for the rest of their lives.”
(Emphases mine.)

Now, to this wet-blanket reader, a few questions leap to mind. The first one is: Why was one week chosen as the relevant period? How much of this effect is still apparent a month later? How about eighteen years later? Another is: Is retention of content really the goal of our reading comprehension instruction? Is education really just the search for effective memory strategies? Another is: What educational values will be sacrificed if we make raising test scores our supreme goal? And what unintended consequences will ensue if teachers and schools are penalized for failing to get the kids’ test scores up? And so on.

Empirical evidence is useless unless we first settle on our goals, which requires a discussion of values. But in so much of what passes for educational science, the evidence drives the goal, instead of the other way around. Testing improves one-week retention of content; therefore we must test! Exaggerating scientific findings, examining them in isolation, and accepting conclusions uncritically only compounds that basic error. If the Times article is any indication of how empirical evidence gets used in our school policy discussions, our educational system is failing even more than we thought.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How to comment

I’ve tried to make commenting as easy as possible. Here’s how to do it:

To comment, just click on the title of the post you want to comment on, or on the line at the bottom that says how many comments there are. Then scroll down to the comment box and type your comment. When you’re done, go to the "Comment as" drop-down menu at the bottom of the comment form. Here, you have some options. The simplest one is to click on "Name/URL." Then just enter whatever screen name you want to use. You don’t need to enter any URL unless you want to link to your own site.

I’d prefer that people not use the “Anonymous” option, because it can get too hard to tell the various anonymous commenters apart in any given thread.

Then click “Post Comment.” You may then have to fill in a word verification box to make sure you’re not spam. Do that, then click “Post Comment” again. You’re done.

Your comment won’t appear right away. On this site, comments are moderated, which means they don’t appear until the site editor (that’s me) reads them. I’m pretty good about getting comments up quickly, but sometimes it might take a day or even two.

Thanks for commenting!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is more better?

Our school administrators seem to think that piling more instructional minutes on the kids -- maybe even extending the school day -- will make their standardized test scores go up. I think that kind of single-minded focus on raising test scores ultimately harms the kids and dumbs down their education. But even if I did believe in raising test scores at all costs, I wouldn’t leap to the simplistic conclusion that more time sitting in class will produce higher scores -- an idea that treats kids as more like machines than like people.

I recently exchanged emails with Pasi Sahlberg, who has written widely about the Finnish educational system. Finnish kids’ standardized test scores are among the highest in the world, even though the kids don’t start school until age seven, and spend less time in class. Sahlberg explains:

As recently as 25 years ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. There also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States.

Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.
(Read the whole article.)

My fifth-grade daughter here in Iowa City gets forty minutes a day for recess and lunch combined, all in one break in the middle of the day. She has an hour of math instruction every day (as does my six-year-old first-grader!), plus an additional half-hour of math once a week. I asked Sahlberg how that schedule compares with that of a typical ten-year-old in Finland. His response:

In Finland the law stipulates that one lesson in school is 60 minutes of which 15 minutes have to be for recess. This means that a 10-year-old who typically has about 5 lessons a day has 60 minutes for recess plus some additional for lunch. You are not much wrong if you say that these pupils have about 75 mins daily for recess and lunch. Mathematics is normally taught about three lessons a week at that age.
So our ten-year-olds get two-and-a-half times as much math instruction as Finnish ten-year-olds get, and about half as much recess and lunch.

But if we could just add more instructional minutes, maybe we could catch up, right?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What’s the plan?

As I wrote in my last post, I wish our school board members would tell us whether they think No Child Left Behind’s policy of pursuing higher standardized test scores at any cost is bad for our kids. That policy is the central feature of American education today, and drives many of our district’s practices. So I think the board members, and the board collectively, should have a position on it -- preferably one strongly condemning it.

But at the very least, I’d sure like to know their plan for dealing with No Child Left Behind over the next few years. Several of our schools have already been designated “schools in need of assistance” (“SINA schools”). The district is required to accommodate parents who want to transfer their children out of a SINA school; my kids’ school took in so many transfers that it had to add a temporary building to have enough classroom space. Enrollment at the SINA schools has dwindled so much that one school board member has questioned how those schools can “survive.” Yet the number of SINA schools can only increase. Under No Child Left Behind, all schools are expected to achieve one-hundred percent proficiency on math and reading test scores by 2014 -- a mere three years from now. Even some of the best public schools in the country -- for example, the New Trier schools in suburban Chicago -- have failed to meet the No Child Left Behind standards. There isn’t a school in our district that is likely to achieve one-hundred percent proficiency by 2014, or ever.

As the number of SINA schools grows, and the number of non-SINA schools shrinks, how does our district plan to accommodate the parents who want to transfer from the former to the latter? Will the district just move students out of established buildings at the SINA schools and into temporary trailers at the non-SINA schools? And that will increase test scores how, exactly?

And what is the district’s plan for dealing with those ever-escalating testing benchmarks? Is it just to do whatever it takes to get those scores up? Will they find new ways to pile more “instructional minutes” on the kids? Lunch can’t get much shorter, so will they continue to cut back on recess time? Or is it art, music, and gym that will go? Will six-year-olds get an hour-and-a-half of math every morning, instead of the hour they currently get? Will the kids have to stay at school even later into the afternoon? Will we send them back to school in July, instead of mid-August as we do now? And what new disciplinary techniques will the district introduce to keep the students “on task”? Will the kids receive even more instruction on the importance of being quiet and obedient? Will first-graders be expected to sit still for even longer periods of time?

What will happen to the teachers and principals at the schools that fail to meet the benchmarks? Will they ultimately all be fired? If so, who will replace them? Is there any reason to think the replacements will squeeze more testing points out of the kids? Is there any reason to think talented and dedicated people will continue to choose to work in such a system?

I suspect that the plainly unrealistic nature of the one-hundred-percent proficiency requirement enables our school officials to think that if they simply lay low, No Child Left Behind will eventually be amended and they will be saved from having to confront these questions. But in fact, the Obama administration’s plans for amending the law have been derailed by the election of a Republican Congress. And there’s no reason to think that any amendments to the law will change its basic policy of pursuing increased standardized test scores at any cost, and penalizing schools that fail to meet test score targets.

So what’s the plan?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Is our school board responsible for what goes on in our schools?

Suppose you were elected mayor of your town. But suppose that once you took office, you found that state laws required you to enact policies that you otherwise would not have chosen -- policies that might even be harmful to the people who elected you. What would you do?

Our school board members might recognize that hypothetical. They are elected by the people of our school district. But, once in office, they find themselves cogs in a machine that they did not create. The state of Iowa, under the threat of losing federal funding, has passed laws requiring its school districts to pursue certain policies -- specifically, to pursue a program of raising the kids’ standardized test scores at all costs, regardless of the long-term educational consequences, regardless of whether it kills the kids’ enthusiasm for learning, regardless of whether it impairs the development of critical thinking, regardless of whether it teaches authoritarian values, regardless of whether it results in cuts in the arts and the humanities, regardless of whether it means treating the kids less humanely, and regardless of whether it results in kids’ cramming down their lunches in less than fifteen minutes while bundled up in snow pants and parkas. If the district doesn’t comply with the state’s requirements, the state can revoke its accreditation, merge the district with a neighboring district, or even put the district into receivership, like a bankrupt company.

If you’re a board member, what’s the right thing to do in that situation?

One approach would be to close your eyes to the effect of the state-mandated policies. You have to obey state law anyway, so why bother even asking whether the law harms your constituents? Just do as you’re told, and then try to use whatever freedom you have left over to make things as tolerable for your constituents as you can. In the meantime, you could pray that the law might change before you have to do anything worse. I call this the “board member as state employee” approach.

Another approach would be to think hard about what’s best for the kids, and about whether the state-mandated policies are serving or harming them. If you concluded that a state-mandated policy was actually harming the kids or impairing their education, you could work to find ways to circumvent, avoid, or undermine that policy. You could involve the community in a discussion about the effects of the policy, and about what the community should do in response. You could make a big stink about why the policy is wrong, and you could pass a resolution calling on the state to change the policy, and you could organize opposition to the policy, and you could lobby for change. You could drag your feet in implementing the policy, and make the state force you, kicking and screaming, into executing the policy. You could make it hard for the state to get its way, even if that meant risking penalties. You could proceed on the theory that if everyone fought the policy that vigorously, the state would be more likely to change it. I call this the “board member as elected representative” approach.

It may be that our board members have thought hard about No Child Left Behind and decided that raising standardized test scores at all costs really is good educational policy. I wish I knew. All I ever hear is people passing the buck. Teachers answer to the principal; principals answer to the superintendent; the superintendent answers to the school board; the school board has to comply with state law; the state has to follow federal law or lose the federal money -- so really, if you have a complaint about how your local school is treating your kids, you need to address it to Barack Obama and the five-hundred-and-thirty-five members of Congress.

That’s baloney. Sure, Congress and the President have a lot to answer for when it comes to the current state of our schools. But our elected school board members aren’t just helpless functionaries who have to meekly obey any order that comes down from above. They owe it to us to tell us whether they think No Child Left Behind is bad for our kids, and if so, how they think the district should respond. When are they going to start acting less like state employees and more like elected representatives?