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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Chancellor Rhee's Rock and Hard Place

When it comes right down to it, a lot of education stakeholders have an interest in preserving the status quo. Witness turf wars like the acrimonious debate about charter schools where one camp actually accuses the other of willfully intending to destroy public schools. All kinds of band-aid approaches have been tried and abandoned. Fads have come and gone. The window of opportunity for educating young children is quite small, and routinely squandered by partisan reformers. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 58% of Americans do not like Democrats and 68% do not like Republicans. Obviously partisanship is a lose-lose proposition. So is framing every issue as an either-or dichotomy.

The public constantly seeks to attach a label even to nonpartisan educators. Those whose views are clearly not partisan, usually because they regularly and alternately offend one side or the other, get painted as wishy-washy wimps. I know because critical emails I receive fall into one of three categories: You Closet Liberal, You Closet Conservative, or You Fence-Sitter. Rarely are my positions critiqued on their merits, pro or con.

Education issues are systemic, and systemic overhaul requires someone with knowledge of the interrelationships between system components. Chancellor Michelle Rhee may not have many years experience as a teacher, but she has as much as many principals and administrators. In the partisanship climate of education today, whoever is serious about education will make bitter enemies in one camp or another. Guaranteed. They, like Rhee, will be damned if they do and damned if they don't. They will likely make many mistakes along the way. It is difficult to be your best self in the adversarial climate of education reform. Entrenched interests fight tooth and nail.

I have my own Rhee-like experience. More than ten years ago, in a county where there were serious problems with special education, the county superintendent of education approached me. He wanted to appoint me the county administrator of special education. I described my plan for reforming the county's special education programs. He loved it. Then I warned him to expect a political firestorm because what I was proposing would upset a lot of complacent and comfortable apple carts. I might not only rock a few boats, but capsize them. Unlike Rhee's boss when she similarly warned him, my prospective boss backed down. With an election coming up the next year, he decided he did not want to imperil the chances of his hand-picked successor. His designated successor won the election and decided he did not want to upset apple carts either.

Effective education reform requires a comprehensive overhaul of the system on a foundation of relational trust. Rhee pretty much admits she did not develop sufficient levels of relational trust. Ten years ago, if that superintendent had appointed me, I might have made the same mistake in my good-intentioned zeal to get things done yesterday with a minimum of schmoozing. I do agree with Rhee's critics that reform should not be something done to teachers. Teachers should be leading reform, but their efforts, and even their access, is blocked every day by administrators and researchers with minimal, even zero substantial, in-the-trenches responsibility for the academic achievement of students.

Reform is dangerous stuff. Teachers who drive small-scale reform in individual schools often become targets of not only the students and administrators, but even other teachers. Most schools have one or more teachers who are too busy being under-appreciated great teachers to be politically active. Some of them do not even have the time to write the multiple essays, arrange video-taping of their classes, and take time off to attend interviews in order to compete to be named Teacher of the Year. Teachers of the Year cannot simply be excellent teachers day in and day out, and be recognized. I admire Chancellor Rhee for stepping into fray. In the current political climate, it is not possible to be both serious about reform and harmonious with all stakeholders.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Effective ELL Science Intervention

My son read this article and said I was ahead of my time yet again. Fifteen years ago, I spent an important chunk of my career as the middle school science teacher in an international school whose students were 49% ELL. Although none, not one of the ELLs, spoke Spanish, they spoke many other languages, mostly East Asian languages. I quickly realized the old, time-tested sequence of “read the textbook, do a few labs, test the material” would not work. I created several interventions, all of which leveraged the native speaking skills of peers.

First, I started every unit with a series of labs, an intervention similar to having "students initially observe the process of osmosis with a tea bag and water" as the opener to a lesson about osmosis. Each lab team consisted of one native speaker and one ELL. The effect was that students gained experiential understanding of new vocabulary or schema before they encountered the vocabulary in printed form. Schema is the set of experience that informs comprehension. It is the frame of reference. For example, I would venture to guess that if you do not possess the schema of engineer, this sentence is gobbledygook, "A duct-less split can produce the exact amount of energy needed to temper an envelope.”* Developing schema is crucial to first language acquisition and just as important in second language acquisition.

Second, I adapted a primary school literacy program for use in my science class. The program came from Johns Hopkins University with the acronym CIRC (Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition). I used my science text as a "basal reader" to create "Treasure Hunts" and other CIRC-based materials. Every student, even the native speakers, used these materials.

(The original design of CIRC provided templates for teachers to adapt their own school-adopted texts. It was later found that teachers lacked the will or the ability to create their own adaptations, so CIRC was reincarnated as the now-famous Success For All program. Today, teachers complain about expensive, scripted curriculum, but they did not take advantage of inexpensive, non-scripted curriculum when they had the chance. The creators of CIRC had no original intention of usurping teacher autonomy).

Third, I had students read their text aloud in class CIRC-style. Each lab team sat with their chairs next to each other and facing opposite directions so that the right ear of one student was close to the right ear of the partner. Each native speaker read one paragraph to their ELL partner, and then the ELL student read the same paragraph to their native speaking partner. The native speaking partner would supply words or correct pronunciation as needed. The team then repeated the process with the second and subsequent paragraphs. Thus, no student was a passive listener. At any moment, half of the students were reading aloud, and half were actively listening, either as ELLs preparing to read the same paragraph, or as native-speakers assisting their ELL partners.

Researchers say that the most valuable education research comes from teachers testing strategies in their own classrooms and reflecting on the results. However, when teachers report their own classroom research, it is often denigrated as being merely anecdotal or lacking sufficient sample size. Whatever. I am going to go ahead and report my results.

I gave the same unit tests to all students, native speakers and ELL students alike. Every single ELL student passed the tests, sometimes exceeding their own expectations. Even more remarkable, the native speakers' achievement skyrocketed. I was appalled to find that in the past I had denied native speaking students such high levels of achievement. The interventions worked so well with the first unit that they became my standard operating procedure ever after.

* Example from Marilee Sprenger, "Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core"