It’s Not That Simple….

IMG_2565Senator Charles Shumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi have published their collective ideas supporting public education.  Their 5-point proposal can be found in this USA Today article. I read their ideas with great interest, particularly as recent Democratic administration proposals have not been very supportive of Public Schools and the 90% of students who attend them. Take a look at the often high stakes test-reliant and misguided education policies like Every Child Succeeds or Race To The Top.

I often find it illuminating to read comments attached to news articles, even when my own views are in disagreement with the commentary. I like to try to understand what people who don’t live and breathe edu-issues think.

I try to stay above the fray and not get pulled into debates with anonymous readers. However, today, I couldn’t help myself.  One comment at the end of the Shumer/Pelosi op-ed was predictably that teachers should be judged on the basis of student test scores.

As a former educator, and one who proctored high-stakes testing many, many times, I can’t disagree more.  There are far too many outside factors that can – and do – influence a student’s performance on a standardized test, and quite a number of these influences are out of the classroom teacher’s control to mediate. Education is not the simple act of pouring knowledge into children.

So I broke my own rule this morning and responded to the comment. And this is what I wrote:

…., but I disagree with this. I was an elementary educator and unafraid to take on some of the most difficult to educate throughout my career. In the city in which I worked, that meant students who were learning English as they learned grade level skills and concepts, behaviorally and emotionally challenging students and those children who came from traumatic home situations. Tying my performance as an educator simply to test scores would not tell the whole story of whether or not I was an effective teacher. It would only tell whether or not my non-native English language speakers, special education, and economically diverse students could master a standardized test. Teacher effectiveness and evaluations need to include some holistic assessments and consideration of how academic growth can be influenced by outside factors.

A single measurement is not any way to assess whether or not a teacher is effective. Nor is it a way to measure whether a teacher deserves a merit pay bonus (spoiler alert: I think those merit bonuses kill the collaboration needed to fully support and educate a child).

Tying a student’s performance on a high-stakes assessment does not tell the story of whether or not a teacher is effective.

When More (Time On Task) is Less (Effective)

2013fielddaybSome years ago, I enrolled in an Italian language class at Boston Language Institute. The class met for 3 hours – no break – several times each week. The instructor only spoke my “new” language, Italian, for the entirety of the three hours. We had some written materials, some listening resources, but mainly we were expected to immerse ourselves in Italian. If this sounds like what happens in a classroom, I would agree.

The first thing I learned from this experience was how utterly frustrating it is for a learner to function outside of his or her native language. But one of the larger experiences for me was the chance to experience what it must feel like for a student to attempt to sustain concentration and focus for extended stretches of time without a break.

By Hour 2 of my 3-hour class, I felt hopeless and defeated. I could no longer take another idea into my brain. I left the class with a dull and aching head and lots of questions as to what the goal of that instruction was. If this was my experience with sustained time-on-task learning as an adult, it wasn’t hard to imagine the same sense of frustration and defeat applying to the young learners in my classroom.

Regardless of whether or not the student is learning in a non-native language, as many of my former students were, extended periods of concentration does not necessarily yield higher academic achievement. Whether adult or child, the brain needs what the brain needs. And in learning new things, the brain needs some time off to make connections and absorb learning.

Since the inception of education reform, standardized curriculum, and high-stakes testing, educators have been pressured to prove that students are learning. The proof has, to date, been in the form of high stakes testing. Students, teachers, and schools who do not achieve arbitrary scores indicating that the prescribed curriculum has been mastered are called out. The trickle down response to test scores that are less than stellar has been toward reducing or eliminating children’s recess time.

Why? Because when test scores look bad, the first response is that the students need “more time” to learn the material. That time has to come from somewhere, so shaving minutes away from recess is the first response. To me, this sounds a lot like what I did as an unprepared college student studying for a final in Western Civilization: cramming.

Reducing or eliminating students’ active time does not mean better test results. The brain needs some time to process and absorb new learning. Kids who fidget less, focus more.

So what our kids need is similar to what my experience as a student proved for me: more recess. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a statement from a recent Time Magazine article from October 23, 2017:

… a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found positive associations between recess and academic performance. “There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores,” the report said.

More time-on-task does not equate to more learning.

 

Teacher

2014-11-25-lincoln-024I started reading Meditations from the Mat this weekend. The writings are daily practices in mindful meditation written by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison and had come highly recommended by a group of yogis I’ve encountered in an online group.

In explaining his own yoga journey, from a weekend retreat at Kripalu to yoga teacher training, Rolf Gates relayed a story about an encounter with Baron Baptiste, renowned yoga teacher and author.

…”Are you a teacher?” I said I was, but the words didn’t ring true. I taught classes, but I was not a teacher.

For a while I puzzled over how that could be true; if one taught, one must be a teacher, right?

As Rolf explained, the act of teaching is the act of drawing out. In yoga, that means drawing out what the student may already know about breath, alignments, and postures.

In education today, do we have the flexibility to draw out of our students what they already know and can connect to? Can we lead them to knowledge without having to force it in before the students are ready for it?

Standards in a general sense, are good end-goals for education and educators. Where standards and standards-based education go awry is when those end points are unreasonable or developmentally inappropriate or, in some cases, designed to foster failure. The purpose of early childhood education should not be a dress rehearsal for intermediate grade level standardized testing. Yet it sometimes is.

As an example, I have heard from participants in the graduate level literacy class I led tell of kindergarten students writing or keyboarding.  This is wrong. Forcing young learners toward skills that are outside what is developmentally appropriate for them is a disservice to them.

Teachers want to teach, to draw out, what their students know to make connections. We want learning to be relevant, to spark curiosity and to stay with our students. We want to teach.

 

Is STEM the only thing?

2016-Sep-10_FiddleBanjo2016_1362Is STEM the only thing? I’m asking for a friend.

It occurs to me that in the rush to turn out worker bees for business sectors, the focus in education is more than a little skewed in favor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yes, these are all important studies and part of a well-rounded balanced education. However, I am questioning that the focus on STEM has over-shadowed other content and curricula that, in my biased opinion, should be equally important.

Because I see education in terms of an avenue toward a pursuit, observing the march of the bureaucrats toward the next great crisis in education is equally frustrating and alarming. Our educational goal should be to “hook” students into becoming life-long students, to foster curiosity and questioning and the drive to know more.

And maybe that pathway toward becoming lifetime learners is through a STEM discipline, and perhaps it is not.

As a student, my personal pathway into learning was through something quite different. I was a more-than-adequate reader, not a particularly skilled writer, and a horribly incompetent math student.  What fired me up to become more disciplined about learning and more successful as a student, was a love and pursuit of music. The irony of this statement is that, as an adult, music has taken a backseat to the very disciplines that catch all the attention today – technology and mathematics.

To me, it is more important to teach students to think critically, to process logically and, yes, even scientifically. Science, math, and technology are important and great ways to get to those problem-solving and thinking skills. But other disciplines can be a means to this end – and toward the goal of fostering and enduring desire to learn – too. And for the student whose interest in learning lies in arts and humanities, exclusion of such pursuits leave them flat.

So while our education policy makers direct a refocus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I hope there might also be a similar pursuit of arts and humanities. Because, in my opinion, there is a need to balance educational pursuits across all disciplines.

Are we over-coaching developing readers?

2014-11-25-lincoln-024One of the texts I’ve reviewed for a course I’m leading this summer is Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ Who’s doing the work: How to say less so readers can do more

What do you, as teacher, do when a student is stuck in their reading? Do you go into wait-time mode or try to move things along with hints or suggestions of strategies? And if you do either of these, what is the student’s response or reaction?

Sometimes when we think we are moving responsibility for learning to our students, the shift is not as significant as we think. Case in point: when a student successfully uses a decoding strategy to uncover a challenging word, does the student look to you, the teacher, for affirmation.  Surely that’s something I was guilty of doing.

However, when students come to rely on that affirmation and teacher praise as an indication of whether or not the word was called correctly, that is scaffolding that has over-served its usefulness in steering students toward a gradual release of responsibility.  We set the students up for dependency, not independency.

In real reading – the kind that students engage in on their own either in school or later in life as adult readers – what happens when a decoding challenge the meaning of the print breaks down? Will a teacher always be there to nod a yes or to give hints?

The end game for reading instruction is to enable a reader to develop so that he or she knows that to do when confronted with reading challenges.  Instead of leading a student through the use of a specific strategy (get your mouth ready, think about what makes sense), what if the prompts from a teacher were more open-ended:

What do you notice?

What can you try?

There are undoubtedly times when explicitly teaching strategies for decoding and comprehension are not only appropriate, they are essential. How else would a reader learn about them? But once the strategy has been introduced, practiced and become part of a reader’s repertoire, shouldn’t we, as coaches, allow the reader to decide what to do?

Over coaching developing readers is something I became aware of as an active and as a retired teacher.  More open-ended questions and less controlled coaching not applies to reading. Think of the implications for problem-solving in math.

So I ask: are we empowering our students to truly be independent? Or, as Yaris and Burkins point out, are we creating learners who are dependent upon our affirmation and approval? Are we allowing students to be independent learners?

Return to Sender

Leafmatter5

Educators, if you received a free and unsolicited book in the mail, would you read it? That’s what a conservative “climate realist” group by the name of Heartland Institute wants you to do. In fact, it would be really swell if teachers would do a little more than just read their free book(s). If you would also start teaching some of their conceptions and beliefs, that would be great.

Here’s an introduction to this Heartland Institute courtesy of Dean Reynolds’ report on April 22 CBS News.  There among the reported 97% of scientists who believe global warming is real, is non-scientist Joseph Bast claiming that global warming is not only part of the cycle of life on Planet Earth, but actually desirable for us humans (see video link above).

Bast, CEO and President of Heartland Institute, is admittedly not a scientist; what he claims to be is a “climate realist”. Here are some of the ideas Heartland Institute champions:

  • Second hand smoke, smoking, and lung cancer have no connections
  • Global warming is not a “thing” – it is more like a cycle of nature and “cold weather kills more people than warm weather does.” (refer to clip at 1:15 mark)
  • In Education, the group supports the increasing charter schools, providing education tax credits for private school students, vouchers and the group supported the parent “trigger” reform started in California.
  • Health care saving accounts and a “free market” health care system, and (finally)
  • Hydraulic fracking

Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, Heartland Institute is engaged in a concerted effort to influence science educators in Grades K-12. As such, this group has committed to mailing 25,000 copies of a free book (Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming authored by Craig Idso, PhD; Robert M. Carter, PhD; and S. Fred Singer, PhD) and DVD every two weeks until every single K-12 Science teacher in the United States has a copy (reported total 200,000 copies). Lennie Jarrett, who manages Heartland Institute’s Center for Transforming Education, includes a cover letter (please read it here).

Now everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if one is going to flood schools with science materials, shouldn’t those materials be…. scientific? As in something that is based upon proven and replicable fact and not on opinion? Bast and Heartland Institute hope that science educators will have some doubts about that. After all, 3% of the scientific community don’t agree on the cause(s) for climate change.

From time to time, entities offer curriculum and materials to schools and educators for free or reduced costs. The utilities companies used to send Lenny Lightbulb coloring books to elementary school teachers who requested them. Apple Computers became prevalent technology in schools because Apple targeted the education market and offered deep discounts.

 

As a teacher, presenting opposing opinions on issues should be part of the educational process. When proven and science-based facts are replaced by flimsy opinions of “think tanks” with a political agenda, that is not science. Here’s a second viewpoint detailing why the Heartland Institutes’ effort is alarming written by NY Times Op-Ed writer, Curt Stager.

That’s a gift that should be returned to sender.

Lost Things

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone

IMG_1929_edited-1I was thinking about Joni Mitchell’s lyrics to Big Yellow Taxi this morning because, I think a lot of what has disappeared in classrooms has happened so gradually that even educators don’t realize the value of what has gone missing.

During last Friday’s middle segment on Beat The Press, Adam Riley asked if the panel believed viewers could tell the difference between fact and opinion. Here’s the link to the segment which is definitely worth the five minutes viewing time.

If as an adult, knowing the difference between fact and opinion is an important skill, do educators have opportunities to explicitly teach students to distinguish between opinion and news/facts? I would suggest that in this era of time-on-task we do not. I think teaching and practicing critical thinking has been replaced by test preparation and test strategy sessions.

As a high school student, one of the courses I took to fulfill the English requirements was a course called Propaganda and Prejudice.  We started out examining marketing materials and ended up dissecting political discourse to better understand opinions and how facts can be manipulated to prove a point. Those lessons of examination and questioning have stayed with me my entire adult life.

As a teacher of elementary students in 1987, one of the PBS programs that we employed to encourage students to think deeply about issues was called (I think) Think About It. Think About It was a 15-minute, current events based program for middle-elementary and junior high students and broadcast each week on the local PBS airwaves. We watched it together every Friday afternoon. Students were enjoined to dive deeply into a current issue and engage in opinion writing or discourse based on facts they could uncover throughout the upcoming week. I underscore based on facts, because, as the panel from Beat The Press points out, our current conversations seem mainly based on beliefs and perception and not necessarily on researched or proven fact.

Why these anecdotes are important is the action of thinking about whether or not a statement is true or verifiable or even plausible seems to be a missing skill. In our divisive political conversation, proveable facts are in very short supply and thinking about whether a statement is reasonable or truthful is often even more scarce. Case in point would be the Comet Pizza shootings in DC.

When the focus is on test preparation and standardized testing, something has to go. Honestly, until I started to think about the question posed by the Beat The Press panel and wonder more about why our grown up and adult students don’t necessarily discern between fact and opinion, I didn’t realize the full extent to which teaching critical thought has been omitted. Is one of those “things” educators let go in favor of prepping students for test success explicit teaching and practice with critical thinking?

I wonder, if result of 20 years of education “reform” and focus on standardized high stakes testing, is a cohort of adults who cannot critically question and discern opinion from fact?