Tips For Teachers

Documenting Classroom Management

How to Write Effective Progress Reports

Building Relational Trust

"Making Lessons Sizzle"

Marsha Ratzel: Taking My Students on a Classroom Tour

Marsha Ratzel on Teaching Math

David Ginsburg: Coach G's Teaching Tips

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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Friday, December 27, 2013

The Power of Self-Control for Children

Last month I wrote that the most powerful predictor of academic achievement is actually classroom behavior, and that one of the most effective ways parents can support their child's success at school is to train them to behave at home beginning while they are still babies. It is not true that babies are too young to learn how to behave. Parents teach babies all sorts of poor behavior, usually by rewarding bad behavior with food in a misplaced effort to redirect or quiet the baby. Parents also teach young children poor behavior by accepting incomplete obedience.

For example, I was visiting in the home with a 2 ½ year old child. The child picked up a pair of scissors. The father ordered the child to hand him the scissors. Upon the third repetition of the command, the child put the scissors down on the table. The father wisely picked up the scissors, put them back in the child's hand and ordered the child to hand him the scissors. The father did not accept the child's incomplete obedience by rationalizing that at least the child did not have the scissors anymore. No, the father made a reasonable request and accepted nothing less than complete obedience. The child will take the same attitude into school. Children who are allowed incomplete obedience will also take the attitude they have learned into school. It should be easy to see which child is likely to be more successful in school.

I am not advising that parents be tyrants. I am advising that parent say what they mean and mean what they say. Another word for this is consistency. Recently, I discovered that Pulitzer prize author Charles Duhigg says essentially the same thing in his 2012 book,“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”

At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. In a 2005 study, for instance, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth-grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self-discipline.

An excellent synonym for willpower is self control. Another one is conscientiousness. It should not be necessary to point out that conscientious, self-controlled schoolchildren behave well in school. Nor should we be surprised that classroom behavior robustly predicts present and future success.

Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

Roy Baumeister, author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,”has studied self-control extensively and offers some excellent tips for helping your child increase self-control. One of the most intriguing things Dr. Baumeister found was that a dose of glucose instantly improves self-control.

Our work on self-control (or self-regulation) centers on the idea that self-control relies on a limited energy source. A single act of self-control consumes this energy source, and later acts of self-control are impaired as a result. Findings in our lab on sexual restraint, aggression, intellectual reasoning, emotional coping, and thought suppression support this pattern. Moreover, recent work suggests that part of the energy source of self-control is glucose. Attempts at self-control deplete glucose that is needed for later attempts at self-control.

Therefore, as incredible as it may sound, the first thing parents need to do is make sure that kids get a good breakfast before they go to school. Then, find ways to let children practice using a little will power every day. Practicing makes willpower stronger in every area of life. Practice has at least two positive effects. First, practice creates habits. Good habits, by definition, do not require willpower. One way is to help children build habits through daily routines. As just one example among many, do not have a school night bedtime different from a weekend bedtime. Bedtime should be the same every night. Second, habits become a default response requiring less willpower to implement.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Surprising Secret to Academic Achievement

Over the years parents have often asked me how they can support their child's academic performance at home. Until very recently, I gave all the standard answers. However, after pondering many years of observations, I have concluded that if I could pick ONE THING parents can do to support success, it would be to insist their children behave at home. I see scholastic problems developing at a very young age, even in the high chair. As just one example among innumerable similar examples, I know just such a family with a baby in a high chair. The parents say they want the child to sit down in the high chair while they feed him. The baby wants to stand up in the high chair and turn around. Although the parents tell the baby to sit down, they do not insist on compliance. In fact, they will follow the baby to the back of the chair and give him a spoonful of food. Naturally, the food reward reinforces the very behavior they would like to extinguish. It all starts from lack of consistency. When parents issue a directive, they must accept only complete compliance, not something less. Otherwise children take this same attitude into school where it becomes the number one source of academic difficulties, manifested by attempts to lower the teacher's bar and find shortcuts which substitute for real learning.

The hard truth no one wants to accept is that the most fundamental difference between high achievers and low-achievers (barring physical challenges) is classroom behavior. Every teacher knows the “good” kids tend to do well, and the disruptive kids do not. Our society does not countenance such a bald idea, so teachers couch it in terms like “does his best, “participates well," “cooperates with others,” etc. If researchers were brave enough to ask the right question, behavior would probably surpass every other variable in predicting academic achievement, even to the extent of overcoming the negative impacts of poverty. And do not worry. A loving insistence on compliance with parental directives is not “controlling”or“authoritarian,”nor will it stunt your child's creativity or critical thinking skills.

Nevertheless, beyond saying what you mean and meaning what you say, all the good advice still applies:

Adequate nutrition and sleep.

Provide a special place to do homework.

Set a regular time for homework and remove distractions.

Make sure homework is completed.

Make sure your child has a special place to record homework assignments.

Have plenty of reading material at home and encourage recreational reading.

Show that you value reading.

Turn off the TV.

Limit or eliminate video-game playing and cell phone use.

Help your child learn to use the internet properly.

Involve your child in day-to-day problem solving while shopping or completing household tasks.

Monitor after-school activities such as music lesson or sports teams. If the child is not doing the homework, reduce after-school activities. Perhaps ask the teacher to send a report home evey home every Friday.

Focus on the child's personal progress and improvement, not on test scores. Test scores that are too high are worthless. It means the test was too easy. Teacher, parent and student learn nothing useful from such a score. Better to level up the test than shoot for high scores which can make everyone feel good, but nothing more.

Double check with the teacher before hiring a tutor. Especially in math, tutors typically teach tricks for getting answers on homework, but do very little to help the child learn the concepts or acquire number sense. Teaching the child tricks can undermine the teacher's effort to provide a quality education.

Establish routines

Establish rules. Every home needs reasonable rules that children know and can depend on. Have your child help you to set rules, then make sure that you enforce the rules consistently.

Make it clear to your child that he has to take responsibility for what he does, both at home and at school. For example, don't automatically defend your child if his teacher tells you that he is often late to class or is disruptive when he is in class. Ask for his side of the story. If a charge is true, let him take the consequences.

Work with your child to develop a reasonable, consistent schedule of jobs to do around the house. List them on a calendar. Younger children can help set the table or put away their toys and clothes. Older children can help prepare meals and clean up afterwards.

Show your child how to break a job down into small steps, then to do the job one step at a time. This works for everything—getting dressed, cleaning a room or doing a big homework assignment.

Make your child responsible for getting ready to go to school each morning—getting up on time, making sure that he has everything he needs for the school day and so forth. If necessary, make a checklist to help him remember what he has to do.

Monitor what your child does after school, in the evenings and on weekends. If you can't be there when your child gets home, give her the responsibility of checking in with you by phone to discuss her plans.

PBS has some suggestions for parents.

No matter how hard you try, your child may struggle academically at some point in his school career. Here are some strategies to help you both cope when the going gets tough.

Let your kids get frustrated. When kids are having a hard time with homework or a school-related subject, they often explode with anger. And parents wonder “What did I do wrong?” “You didn’t necessarily do anything,” advises Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “Sometimes when kids feel misunderstood at school or frustrated by a subject, they get angry or provoke the parent — as a way of making you feel as helpless or angry as they feel. It’s almost like your child is saying, ‘would you hold my hopelessness for a while?’ Or ‘I need you to feel what I am going through, so I am going to make you angry.’”

Take a break. If your child says “I can’t do it!” and throws the pencil down, take a little break. Maybe she needs to rant and blow off a little steam. Come back in five minutes and start fresh. (Those five minutes could save you an hour of struggle.) This also gives a child a chance to “save face” and start over, without even discussing the previous difficulty or outburst.

Don’t always try to have a rational conversation. When kids get very upset about school, the upset may get in the way of their being rational. So wait it out instead of arguing or grilling children about the situation. Once they cool down, you might be able to talk it through.

Let your child make his own mistakes. It’s hard not to correct a child’s homework, but most teachers ask you not to take over unless your child asks for your help or the teacher requests it. Teachers generally want to know what the child understands, not what the parent understands about the material.

Put a time limit on the work. Most teachers will not expect younger kids to work longer than a half-hour on homework from any particular subject, but ask your teacher for a time limit. If your child struggles (while actively trying) and exceeds the limit, write the teacher a note explaining that was all that could get done.

Contact the school. If homework or a project is turning into a dreaded battle, talk with the school. Do not wait for your next conference. It is obviously time for some new insights and new strategies.

Help your child learn how to organize himself. This is a life-long skill that can be taught, but it can be challenging to do so. However you can help your child discover the organizational tricks that will work for him by sharing some of your own. “It’s very difficult to teach children to be organized if it is not in their nature (or yours),” says guidance counselor Linda Lendman, M.S.W. “Encourage your child to label everything. Develop strategies, like the ‘must-do list’ before you leave school (put math book in backpack). Schedule a weekly ‘clean out the backpack and clean off your desk’ time so papers don’t build up. Be patient, and try not to place blame.”

Recognize that school work will never be conflict-free. No one ever raised a child without a homework battle. “There is no conflict-free homework strategy for most kids,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “At times, kids will find it fun and fascinating. Other times, it may be something they just have to do, and you have to help them find the structure for getting it done.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Issue is NOT Algebra 2—The Issue is First-Grade Math

A novelist writing for Harpers believes students should not be required to study Algebra 2. The fact that students "are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, square-rooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritates them, that stop them in their tracks, that they can't understand." is not an argument against Algebra 2. It is an argument against the ineffective math foundations instruction occurring in the primary grades.

I mentor two first-year teachers. One just gave her second graders a page of double-digit subtraction with regrouping, and all of them scored 100%. She concluded her students already "understand" subtraction. I replied, "The only thing you learned from that is they all memorized the step-by-step blind procedure and can execute it. You have no idea if they actually understand the math." We often teach non-math shortcuts and call it math. As an article from the New Yorker points out, "These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether."

Our school system continually tells students who are successful with non-math that they are good at math, and then wonder why these same students struggle with real math. The situation is even worse for students who never mastered the blind procedures in the first place.

Our biggest problem is that our elementary math teachers understand only non-math themselves, as Liping Ma documented in her now famous book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics. A review of the literature shows that our elementary teachers lack what Ms. Ma calls “a profound understanding of mathematical foundations.” The first step needs to be the development of skilled math teachers at the critical elementary level.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

BTW High Regard Correlates with High Achievement

Peter Gow argues that the one feature we commonly dismiss with an airy “by the way” is the one feature all the school systems we admire share---high regard for the teaching profession.

"If you have an entire nation that regards education--and learning--as respectable, as an end in itself and whose practitioners are doing something not just noble and worthy but truly valued (and compensated to reflect that), it's not a big surprise when students in that society perform well in school; they're doing what their whole society--from parents to peers to adults in all stations and walks of life--believes is important, something that really matters. No wonder so many other nations out-score the great mass of American students, living as ours do in a society where anti-intellectualism is a long understood cultural trend."

I bolded this quote because it implies that education reform can never be more than band-aid fads until the whole society reforms. It has been one of my recurring themes.

Our society does not really believe our kids can achieve ( In fact, our society, at its depths, disdains high achievers, no matter high much we say we want to raise achievement. Tamara Fisher has documented the lack of regard, nay ridicule, high achievers suffer from their classmates.

The US could create uniformly high quality schools for ALL children if we wanted to. But we do not want to. The US could nationalize the tax base (as Japan did), but we will not because wealthy parents complain that they will not finance the education of poor kids. There are a number of other steps we could take, but each one becomes a silly partisan political football in the US. It took decades for society to create the education system we have whether we like it or not. Society must find the will---and NOW.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Relationship Between Memorized Facts and Online Research

In China, many people believe that the Tiananmen incident is a fabrication perpetrated by Western governments in order to discredit the Chinese government. Exhibit A: Last year the people of Hong Kong objected to the new history booklet, The China Model, for among other offenses, failing to mention either Tiananmen or the Cultural Revolution. The people suffer from a lack of access to information, so they do not know anything.

Those with free access to information suffer from inundation. It can be difficult to separate the valid from the specious, so they also end up knowing nothing. A case in point is the issue of illegal immigrants. Hardly anyone knows anything about it, and they will not sit still for real information. They would rather cherish their misinformation because it feeds their own political beliefs.*

Meanwhile, educators lament the tendency of students to conduct “research” using the internet, and draw completely erroneous conclusions because they lack online research skills.

The problem I see is that education often swings to extremes. In the past, there was an emphasis on memorizing facts: math facts, historical dates, science info, etc. The backlash maintained that students do not need to learn facts, that a proper education means teaching students how and where to find the facts the need. Facts-No Facts is yet another example of a polarizing false dichotomy that has resulted in the lamentable situation where many students are not learning facts, nor how to find facts. The most useful approach amalgamates the poles. Students need a treasury of pre-learned facts they can sift through to find relevant search terms for online research.

*For example, many people are certain that illegal immigrants can receive Social Security benefits even though they have paid nothing into the program and pay no income tax. Let's break that down into three parts:
1. Illegal immigrants can receive Social Security benefits---False. Anyone without a valid social security number cannot receive benefits. Such people do not even have a record on file with the Social Security Administration from which benefits could calculated.
2. Illegal immigrants have paid nothing into the US Social Security system---False. Nearly all illegal immigrants have jobs. That was the whole point of coming to the US illegally in the first place. Many work several jobs at a time. Their employers prepare W-2 forms using a false social security number usually provided by OMG, the employer. The employer also withholds the Social Security and Medicare contributions and sends the money to the IRS on a quarterly basis. Since the illegal immigrant can never collect Social Security Benefits, their contribution help fund the benefits of US citizens.
3. Illegal immigrants pay no income tax---False. The IRS uses your social security number as your IRS account number. If you do not have a valid social security number, the IRS will assign you an account number, called an ITIN. (However, be aware there are many reasons besides being illegal why a person might need an ITIN. Do not jump to conclusions). First, the illegal immigrant pays a flat tax of 7% comprised of FICA which they will never collect in the form of benefits. Second, they pay higher income taxes than most US citizens, because without a valid social security number, they do not qualify for many tax credits, the biggest one being the earned income credit (EIC). Third, they usually end up paying the IRS a hefty balance due because the same employer who gave them the false social security number also filled out the W-4 for them, and withheld only the most minimal income tax.

If you do not believe any of the foregoing, print it out, take it to the nearest neighborhood tax preparer, and ask them. Most have received ITIN training and prepared tax returns for illegal immigrants.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

When Caring Trumps Even Excellence

A teacher in Memphis describes her efforts to make a substantial difference in the lives of students who live in poverty. Surprisingly and appallingly, some respondents criticize and dismiss her efforts as “self-righteous” and riding a “high horse.” One suggested the teacher should “get down into the dirt,” completely unaware the teacher had previously taught in classrooms with actual dirt floors. The main point of the Memphis teacher still stands. An excellent teacher who cares can make all the difference. I would only amend her main point to say that the teacher does not even have to be all that excellent, as long as the teacher cares. I am the case in point.

I began my teaching career in a poor urban junior high, oh my, decades ago. That first year I was far from excellent and I credit those kids with training me to be an effective teacher. If Casie is an effective teacher, she should be able to wear that badge, not suffer naysayers attempting to dismiss her abilities and experience. The key truly is "When students recognize that a teacher is genuinely interested in their present and future, a desire to learn emerges."

Genuine care for my students was about all I had going for me that first year. Together we forged relationships. I learned how to teach; they learned to have hope and optimism. In the beginning, one boy said, "Why should I bother studying? My father is a janitor, and that is all I will ever be." At the end, he regained the ability to dream and work toward making his dream a reality. I give my students all the credit. All I did was give them the tools and the chance. Some were able to maneuver around their obstacles. For others, either the motivation was too little or the obstacles too great.

Now decades later, the obstacles of poverty and the injustices persist. However, there is no way I will denigrate my positive influence or my students' successes. Of course we must fight to eliminate injustice, but in the meantime we must meet our students where they are, and help them deal with their present circumstances and prepare them to make a brighter future.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Student Centered or Abdication?

Currently on the education forums there are some proponents of extreme student centered instruction. They insist all our education problems stem from the fact the we adults have the temerity to think we have the right, responsibility and authority to decide for kids what they need to learn. They insist if we adopt an extreme “student-centered” approach, the result will be a well-educated, critically-thinking populace. However, the extreme approach can degenerate the otherwise excellent idea of student-centered instruction into a rationale for transferring adult responsibility onto children.

At its core, student centered instruction focuses on the learning needs of students.

Student-centered teaching methods shift the focus of activity from the teacher to the learners. These methods include active learning, in which students solve problems, answer questions, formulate questions of their own, discuss, explain, debate, or brainstorm during class; cooperative learning, in which students work in teams on problems and projects under conditions that assure both positive interdependence and individual accountability; and inductive teaching and learning, in which students are first presented with challenges (questions or problems) and learn the course material in the context of addressing the challenges. Inductive methods include inquiry-based learning, case-based instruction, problem-based learning, project-based learning, discovery learning, and just-in-time teaching. Student-centered methods have repeatedly been shown to be superior to the traditional teacher-centered approach to instruction, a conclusion that applies whether the assessed outcome is short-term mastery, long-term retention, or depth of understanding of course material, acquisition of critical thinking or creative problem-solving skills, formation of positive attitudes toward the subject being taught, or level of confidence in knowledge or skills.

Student-centered means teachers listen carefully during instruction and throughout the day. They listen to find out what students are interested in, and they have the flexibility to modify lesson plans to take advantage of those teachable moments. Teachers listen in order to offer interesting and meaningful choices to students. At no point should student-centered instruction put kids completely in charge of their learning. Children simply are not qualified to decide what they need to learn. They do not have the requisite wisdom. Even college kids, who although since the Vietnam War are legally adults, do not have the wisdom. If they did, college math students would never complain, “We don't want to know why the math works. Just tell us how to get the answer.”

One proponent of extreme student centeredness maintains that because every child is unique, “the concept of a singular list of "what kids need to know" is an absurdity.” The conclusion does not follow from the premise. Maybe every child is unique, but the tasks they must be able to accomplish to get along in the world as adults are not unique. Would anyone seriously argue that kids do not need to know how to read, communicate effectively, add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, understand current events in light of past history, and make a living?

Where do we draw the line between what kids need to know and what is optional? And if we do not give kids a shot at all fields of knowledge (because we adults have abdicated responsibility), how will they ever discover their passion? The gospel of extreme student-centeredness is not feasible in the long term.

If given their head, too many kids would choose mediocrity. And what would the proponents of extreme student centeredness do about the poor choices of students? Do we write them off with a flippant platitude, “they made their bed; let them lie in it”? History tells us if students make bad choices, it is society (and taxpayers) who will bear the consequences. That is simply an unconscionable burden to put on a naive child.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Silly Charter School Debate

I am becoming more and more weary of silly education debates. A case in point is the ongoing criticism of most charter school studies.

First, jumping from a study confined to KIPP to charter schools in general is quite the over-generalization (sorry for the tautology).

Second, if the charter school outperforms their neighborhood traditional school, parents who can, will naturally choose the charter school. Silly to criticize parents for a perfectly rational decision.

Third, everyone agrees that parent involvement is key. To criticize a charter for requiring parental involvement is also silly. (My only beef is the over-rigidity of some charters. I once tried to enroll my children in a certain charter while I worked in a boarding school. The local traditional school did not want my high-achieving kids. Of course, I could have enrolled them anyway, but why would I want to force a school to take them. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. The charter required every parent to volunteer one day per week, which of course, I could not do. I offered a number of service alternatives, all of which were rejected. The school lost exactly the type of involved parent they hoped to attract).

Fourth, if charter schools use their freedom to act to pursue policies they hope will improve academic achievement, it is useless to criticize charter schools for their success in raising academic achievement.

Most criticism of charter schools boils down to, “if charter schools were just like traditional schools, they would be just like traditional schools.” Beyond silly. In the case of lottery-determined enrollment we should expect lottery winners to outperform lottery losers. After all, out-performance is precisely the hope that motivated parents to apply in the first place. To call the out-performance “contaminated,” a word with strong negative connotation, belies quite a negative bias. We should not put charters in a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't position. If a particular charter tries an experiment and fails, it is silly to criticize charters in general. If a particular charter succeeds, it is silly to dismiss their achievement as non-comparable.

We should applaud successful charters, especially those who operate in low SES areas. It is counterproductive to dismiss the strong performance of any particular charter school. It would be far better for traditional schools to make themselves worthy to be parents' school of choice as they were when I was a kid (gosh over half a century ago). Finally, if we teachers cannot conduct our public education discussions with more logic and less bias, how do we hope to be able to teach our students critical thinking? The problem is succinctly represented by a comment from a teacher in an EdWeek article about charter schools, "Obviously as a public school teacher, I do feel a bias against charter schools." Why should a public school obviously be biased against charter schools just because you are a public school teacher? If we are critical thinkers able to teach critical thinking to students, we should know how to evaluate a question on its merits, regardless of our own personal status. I challenge you to put aside everything the union is telling you, and do your own INDEPENDENT research, which is, of course, the hallmark of critical thinking.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Common Core—Cart Before Horse

“You know the Tasmanians, who never committed adultery are now extinct.” ----W. Somerset Maugham

Reading over most of the back and forth on common core feels like a massive waste of time. The subtext seems to be that we need common core to raise academic achievement. Those against common core point to poverty as the real issue, and lament handing out a lucrative opportunity to those poised to profit. Those for common core point out that high-achieving countries have common core. However, as we all know, correlation is not causation.

You might as well call for more chocolate in schools. After all, the higher a country's chocolate consumption, the more Nobel laureates it spawns per capita, according to a now famous study. I suggest that although it is true that high-performing countries have national standards, those standards are more a function of the political culture than a thoughtful education decision. The US education system was once upon a time world-class long before common core was a twinkle in someones' eye. I personally benefited from the education panic that ensued after Sputnik, when school districts all over the US implemented many wonderful curricular programs without bothering to worry about whether there were national standards.

The problem with common core is not the idea of a nationally agreed upon set of learning objectives. I have worked with so many predetermined sets of objectives, standards, curriculum, whatever, that long ago I learned quality teaching does not depend on them. So go ahead, approve and publish a common core. It will make no difference.

What irks me is that proponents seem to believe that teachers NEED a written set of standards in order to teach well. Or that administrators NEED a written set of standards to give orders to supposedly autonomous professional practitioners with professional judgment. The very push for common core is a national admission that either our teachers are not competent professionals (regardless of certification), or that we believe our teachers are not competent professionals.

Recent articles on Ed Week lend support to the notion that the real problem is not lack of standards, but teacher quality. One teacher writes that the standards improved her practice. Great, but she should not have needed the standards to chide her into implementing the improvements she writes about. She should have done it on her own long before.

And why do teachers “see interdisciplinary opportunities” in common core, as if they never saw them before? Good teachers make cross-curricular connections every day, like this teacher:

As an English teacher, I have taught units on Jacksonian Democracy, math vocabulary, map skills, Jane Goodall and her experience with apes, the Holocaust, the scientific revolution during the Victorian Era...I could go on and on. Each of these units tied to elements from my students' math, science, and social studies classes.
If common core will push mediocre teachers in the right direction, wonderful. Only let us not pretend that it is the common core that improved the teaching quality. The fact is common core is causing a number of teachers angst as they “grapple with” how to implement common core in an environment of little or no guidance. For example,
“In some states and districts, little or no guidance is being offered on the issue for teachers, leaving them to grapple with achieving the right balance of fiction and nonfiction on their own.

Are teachers really wringing their hands and waiting to be told how to put together a great program for their classroom? Apparently they are. They seem to need someone to rewrite the comprehension questions for their basal texts as if they cannot do it themselves.

Not long ago, we wrote about a project to revamp the teacher questions in the country's most popular basal readers. The idea, as you might recall, was to use the existing basal readers—since most districts and states can't cough up the cash for new ones just now—but rewrite the questions so they reflect the expectations of the Common Core State Standards. Many of the questions that the basals suggest for teachers, they noticed, don't actually require students to read the text passages. They solicit students' feelings, or their unsupported opinions. The aim of rewriting the questions was to make them "text dependent"—one of the biggest areas of emphasis in the English/language arts standards—so that students have to grapple with the text in order to supply a solid answer.
For heaven's sake, just simply be a great teacher, common core or no common core. If the questions in your basal text are poorly written, I hope you wrote your own questions long ago, common core or no common core. Good teachers already have. Personally, a road map for every year (we used to call it scope and sequence) is a good thing. I got so sick of my own children studying the Salem witch trials year in and year out. I make my own academic road map for every grade and every subject. I call it my year plan wherein I map the content I want to cover to a calendar. I may allot more time for one content area than another. I mean I do not mindlessly divide the number of book chapters by the number of school weeks. I actually think about content.

Sometimes I get tired of reinventing the wheel all the time. If the states adopt a multi-year plan (call it Common Core if you want), I would take it as my skeleton and modify it as I wish to provide my students with the best quality education I can provide. The US already has a sort of de facto common core. Just look at which textbooks have been widely adopted around the country. For many teachers, the curriculum IS the textbook the administration gives them. Standards generally beget curriculum, just as state standards have done. Depending on your viewpoint, this may or may not be a good thing. Curriculum begets textbook content. For many teachers, curriculum is nothing more than the table of contents in their textbook. Their curriculum was the table of contents before common core, and will be the table of contents after common core is adopted. I really do not expect there will be any changes in the classrooms. The table of contents have never had any power to encourage effective teaching.

Besides the prescriptive assumptions behind common core, a comment by one "MGN" succinctly stated the problem with standards

Standards, for the most part, are not the problem. The problems are a) confusing standards with curriculum; b) coercing states to adopt standards to get Federal funding; c) mandating high-stakes testing based on those standards; d) using test results to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, principals, schools, or districts; and most especially e) awarding high-value contracts for testing, test grading, or textbooks to anyone who directly or indirectly helped to create those standards.

So, Fine, go ahead and publish a common core. Just do not expect it to make a difference in the absence of a cadre of highly qualified teachers.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

College for All Destined to Disappoint

When comparing the education systems of different countries,simply comparing test scores such as PISA or NAEP (or whatever) gives insufficient information to draw conclusions or set policy, but not for the reasons commonly cited. It is not that Norway has a smaller population, or that Japan's system is centrally managed, or whether a society is “homogenous,” or the tested population is comprised of “the best students.” The first step to comparing and evaluating different education systems is to understand the goals of the system.

For example, the goals of the Japanese education system are crystal clear and common knowledge. The main goal is for students to pass the university entrance examination. Passing does not mean exceeding some predetermined cut-off score. It means avoiding elimination. If there are openings in a particular university for, say, 3000 freshman, and 3050 apply, the test eliminates the lowest 50 applicants. The test score of the 51st applicant may be abysmally low, but it will still be a “passing” score. More typically, there may be 3000 slots, but 30,000 applicants. Passing scores will need to be very high, often around 95% correct on a test much harder than any SAT.

In America, ask a hundred people what the goals of the education system are, and it is like playing Family Feud. There is no real consensus. Society cannot decide what outcomes education should produce. Looking to Japan (or Norway or anywhere) as a model is unhelpful in such an environment. Nevertheless, we should ask whether the system is meeting its own stated goals. In America, with such nebulous goals, the question is hard to answer.

With Japan, the question is easy to state. Do Japanese students in academic high schools pass university entrance exams? First, we must understand there are three mutually exclusive high school systems. The students of two of the systems, vocational, and commercial, have no intention of taking university entrance exams. The students of the third system, the academic high school, are in the academic high schools precisely because they want to go to college. The only measure of learning that counts in Japan is the national university entrance examination.

By this measure, the Japanese marvel that American think the Japanese system is so great. It is true that when certain non-randomizing conditions are controlled, the Japanese still excel Americans on international studies of student achievement. By their own intra-country standards, they worry that so few students succeed. In a typical case, one year 309 students graduated from the Japanese academic high school where I worked. Of these 309 students only 93 thought themselves ready for the entrance exams and applied. Of those 93 only five passed. 304 students chose to continue studying for the entrance exams, attend a less-selective private university, or go to work. Of those who continued to study, only seventeen eventually passed the entrance exam. Thus 287 (or 93%) had to settle for less ambitious life goals.

The results indicate that even though Japanese students are learning, the Japanese education system fails to meet its express goals. The conundrum is that success would actually be a societal disaster. If entrance exams were a matter of exceeding a cut-off score, the universities would be swamped. Secondly, if all these university students graduated, they would expect to attain jobs commensurate with their education. Society does not have enough such jobs. No society does. No matter what the ideals, no society can absorb the success such ideals desire. Not Japan and not America and not anywhere. America's ideal of college for all is destined to disappoint.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Success of Substitutes... the school administration's responsibility. Fact is, if first-year teachers have to sink or swim, the waters are even more dangerous for subs. However, administrators are not there with the life-saving buoy for their first years,and they are even less there for subs. So subs need to help themselves.