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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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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Do Education Schools Give Too Many A's?”

That is the question posed by a recent EdWeek article and answered in the affirmative by a recent study out of the University of Missouri which found that students majoring in education at public universities receive “significantly higher grades” than other majors at the same universities.

Several years ago a prominent local newspaper asked for and got a massive Excel file containing the grades all professors gave for an academic year at one of the state universities. As a courtesy, the university emailed the same Excel file to all the professors, and thus I acquired a copy. No student names were divulged; grades were aggregated by class, then section, and then sorted into grade categories without cross-referencing student majors. Nevertheless, it was very clear that education grades are one to two grade points higher than other course grades. Only rarely does an education professor hand out anything but an A. The main exceptions were the “Math for Elementary Teachers” classes, taught not by members of the education department, but by mathematics faculty. Frequently, as many as 50% of the students fail this gatekeeper class on the first attempt.

In this particular state university, students must pass “Math for Elementary Teachers” in order to apply to the College of Education. I have seen students repeat the class three and four times. One student, exultant that she had finally passed, confided to me that she passed only because the professor got bogged down in multiplication and never covered fractions, decimals and percents, the topics she failed the previous times. What grade does this student aspire to teach? Fifth, the grade that is all about fractions, decimals, and percents. And what did this student propose to do to overcome her evident math weakness? “I'll figure it out when the time comes,” she said. It made me wonder how many elementary teachers are trying to figure it out in classrooms all over the country.

Fact is, if they have not figured it out before they graduate, they probably never will. Targeted intervention has been a disappointment.

At the end of the second year of implementation, the PD program did not have a statistically significant impact on teacher knowledge.
Teachers cannot teach what they themselves do not know. Even more startling, the math teachers in the study were middle school teachers, not generalists like elementary teachers. Nevertheless, what makes the study somewhat generalizable to elementary teachers is that only 23 percent of the middle school teachers in the study majored in math or a math-related subject.

I am guessing the professor stuck on multiplication faced a dilemma. He was stuck because so many class members were struggling. Does he slow down in hopes of achieving mastery, or does he press on and cover the required material even though he knows he is probably guaranteeing failure? He actually has two dilemmas. If he presses on and fails the repeaters, some of them might abandon education. But the department wants the tuition money. Slowing down is a win-win for the professor and the department. The professor artificially passes students. They give him glowing evaluations and he gets to keep his job. The department is assured of receiving tuition dollars until students so passed graduate. However, it is an eventual lose-lose for the student and later as a teacher, the teacher's students.

High education grades are a puzzlement considering that education students typically have lower SAT and GRE scores. I recall a challenging professor in my grad student days. The class was educational statistics. My classmates complained bitterly and even circulated a petition to replace the professor with someone “easier.” One classmate said with a straight face, “If we wanted to work hard, we would have majored in something besides education.” I wrote a letter to the chancellor defending the professor and angering my classmates who insisted that we needed to present a united front. The professor lost his job anyway. The university decided there was no point in keeping a professor if students refused to sign up for his class in the future because of the scuttlebutt. Need I mention that the object lesson was not lost on the rest of the education professors.

At the end of our studies, my cohort held a thesis party where we drank tea, ate cookies and passed around our theses. I was shocked at the low quality of the theses and embarrassed that all these people would get the same degree as me for a lot less work. I worked hard on my research, and the data later became the basis for a widely adopted curriculum design. I had all A's for my course work, but so did the rest of my cohort. Big deal. I felt that their degrees, acquired so easily, devalued my degree. Only later did I discover the universal low status of education degrees.

Some of my classmates have since become education professors themselves. Some critics of the Missouri study think the reason education students get higher grades is because they are taught by experienced trained educators. Not. In 2009, I did a small exploratory study examining curricula vitae of education professors. More than half listed no significant teaching experience on their curriculum vitae.

At this point in my life, I have observed three education departments either as a student or as a professor. It seems to me the grade inflation is a kind of mutual symbiosis. Both the professors and the students have an unwritten understanding: students get As, professors get glowing student evaluations.

Me, I did not get the memo. (Well, maybe I did, but I ignored it.) The first time I taught a curriculum class, I gave the students, predominantly seniors, a list of all the assignments for the class and the due date of each. The next day half the students dropped because there was too much work. They signed up for classes with a lot less work. Come time for the midterm, an open book test, most of them brought no book to class. Based on their experience in other education classes, many had not bothered to purchase it. Of those who had brought the book, it was perfectly obvious they had never opened it, even though there had been assignments that (supposedly) required at least a little bit of information from the book.

I returned their midterms with no grades. I gave a lesson on writing essays, because according to them, no one had ever explained what “compare and contrast” means, or how to defend an opinion. They believed that an opinion piece could never be downgraded because “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” and “opinions cannot be wrong.” The idea that they were being graded on how well they defended their opinion was news to them. I was accused of being unfair for not telling them my grading criteria, as if defense of opinion was not a self-evident criterion. I gave them a second chance to write their midterms, but with the additional requirement that the tests must be typed, proofread, and properly cited. I gave them a week. Most simply typed up the exact same garbage I had returned the week before. At least they corrected the spelling.

Then there was the student who missed the final exam because she went to The Price Is Right. She acted surprised when she failed the class. She went to the chair and complained that I was destroying her dream to be a teacher.

I wondered what some of the other professors were doing, and when I became a university supervisor of student teachers, I found out. My charges uniformly expressed surprise at the superior quality of my feedback after observing their lessons. They often asked why their methods classes (especially math methods) did not teach them any of this stuff. I asked them what they had done in their methods class.

“We just played with manipulatives.”

“What did you think of that?”

“We loved it. It was fun.”

“What do you think now?”

“I think we should have not given our instructor such great evaluations. S(he) didn't teach us what we needed to know.”

One education professor, who had been the state Teacher of the Year (don't start me on what a bogus award that is), thought his science methods students should complete science fair projects and display them at the upcoming science fair. The professor's idea was that teachers should be more in touch with students by completing the same assignments.

Fair enough, however the education students produced no better displays than fourth graders, and in many cases, their work was much worse. Okay fine, but did their grades reflect the quality of the work? In what was probably a tactical error on the professor's part, he had posted grades and notes on the backs of the project boards where I read them. Each and every education student got an A. Each and every student got a nice comment, like, “You will make a wonderful teacher.”

Punitive student evaluations are only one problem. The professor who does not play ball will have other serious problems. In another class of mine, eight students failed. In utter shock, they went to the department chair who took it upon herself to forge my signature on grade change forms for them. When I confronted the chair, she said the students who failed were in a scholarship program to foster higher rates of university attendance among certain populations. If they did not maintain at least C averages, they would lose their scholarships, and the department would lose their tuition money. Naturally, the relationship between the chair and myself was never the same.

As another EdWeek article points out, “It is common knowledge that graduates of university-based teacher education programs find their student-teaching experiences more valuable than their other coursework.” Perhaps if the course work were more relevant, practical and rigorous, education students might feel they had gotten their money's worth, and our schools would have true professionals for whom administrators would not feel the need to buy scripted curriculum.

Do Education Schools Give Too Many A's? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Friday, June 24, 2011

These Wings Don't Fly

“Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.” ~ George Carlin

The pervasive either-or dichotomy syndrome debilitates constructive debate in nearly every arena of societal concern. Like Dr. Dolittle's push-me-pull-me, framing issues as a choice of only either this or that halts progress and hampers solution making. Education is no exception.
Either-or dichotomies are a convenient rhetorical device. Present one choice in positive language, the other in negative language, and let human emotion take over. Very few issues can be analyzed as simple either-or options, least of all, an issue as complex as education with its more than a score of stakeholders, each with their own competing interests.

The main problem with the either/or dichotomy syndrome is that it prevents people from considering alternatives. It pushes otherwise moderate people into wings: right/left, whole language/phonics, vouchers/traditional funding, and so many more. Often alternatives do not even occur to people standing fully in the wings. “Thinking outside the box” frequently means nothing more than having the ability to reject either/or frames. Once rejected, the mind is free to conceive of alternatives.

As it is, complicated issues in education are dumbed down to a "right" and a "left" side. People end up emotionally offensive or defensive. The false dichotomies serve only as diversions. Each side spends all its time depicting their side as the positive one and the opposing side as negative. Therefore, arguing about dichotomies is counterproductive. The task is not to take sides, but to reject the dichotomies themselves.

The choice is NOT between:
either pro-union or anti-union
either pro-standardized testing or anti-standardized testing
either publics schools or private schools
either pro-charter or anti-charter
either phonics or whole language
either whole class novel/basal reader or individual student choice
either direct instruction or constructivism
either individual answers or choral response
either pro-calculators or anti-calculators
either teacher-directed or student-directed
either competition or cooperation
either lecture or hands-on
either "an autonomous professional entrusted with crafting engaging but occasionally idiosyncratic lessons" or "a standardized, curriculum-centered enterprise,...our practice is in turn videotaped to evaluate our use of the prescribed methods."
either vibrant creativity or stifling rigidity
either rote memorization or googling information
either teachers as professionals or teachers as hired laborers
either complete autonomy or micromanagement
either teacher-facilitated or teacher-delivered
At the risk of being cliché, the sooner we start thinking outside box by rejecting either/or formulations, the better.