Am I a geek or a nerd?

So I took a year off; everyone deserves a break!!
January 22, 2012, 11:11 pm
Filed under: education law | Tags: , ,

A break, sure. Resigning, moving back to NY, having a baby, surviving said baby’s colic, selling two houses, buying one house, and trying to lose 70 pounds of baby weight (what, doesn’t everyone gain that much?!) make up my 12 months of edu-blogging non-blogging. For the record, I’m 10 pounds away.

While I’m no longer working full-time with one county as a Social Studies Consultant, I have been contracted by AtotheB and Oakland County to continue work on the MC3 curriculum; primarily writing US History and editing grades 5,6 and 7. I’d love to think that the end is in sight for this project, after four years of writing, but our complete overhaul of middle school as well as lack of unit and course ending assessments means I could probably milk this cow for several years or until Oakland Schools decided to stop paying for curriculum in Social Studies. I won’t hold my breath.

Now that I’m back in NY and likely to try to work in a real office with actual people in a nearby school district I figured it was time to brush up on NY’s Race To The Top brew ha ha regarding teacher evaluations, assessments, and Cuomo’s promises/threats of withholding funds (see my previous post on RTTT here and evaluation here and here). So I started where any Social Studies geek/nerd would start; the law itself. I went straight to the horse’s mouth and discovered that the horse has marbles in his mouth…Education Law 3012-c is not a scintillating read (are any laws?) and leaves me with several questions.

Here’s my basic interpretation:

1. Teachers and Principals will be evaluated and categorized in to the incredibly descriptive and clear Highly Effective, Effective, Developing and Ineffective. AKA Awesome; Pretty Good; You’ve Got Potential Kid; and Sucks.

2. Some teachers (grades 4-8 ELA and Math or common branch subjects) will participate in this beginning in the 2011-12 school year (so now) while others (everyone else) will be held to this law beginning in the 2012-13 school year.

3. Prior to the development of  value added measurements,  20% of the teacher eval will be based on student growth as measured on an approved assessment and 20% will be based on local selected measures of student growth. Basically, a kid’s score last year is compared to his score this year. (I’m going to reserve my question as to how one compares growth when the content assessed isn’t the same…)

4. When value added measurements are in place, the numbers are 25% and 15%.

5. If you suck, you get an improvement plan.

Anyone following this or teaching in NY can tell you the laundry list of questions/concerns with these things while at the same time agreeing that something other than the current drive by evals is needed. I’m not sure I’m looking forward to this.

What Administrators Don’t Know
January 13, 2011, 11:39 am
Filed under: curriculum, professional development | Tags:

I’ve spent the last two days meeting with different groups of elementary, middle school and high school principals about what to look for in social studies teaching and how to help their teachers based on our observations of them.

I started these meetings the same way I’ve started lots of my teacher meetings; with a blank k-12 sequence for social studies. The participants are asked to jot down the content or course title for each grade of social studies. I didn’t always do this. AtotheB and I first tried this at a NCSS workshop, figuring that since it was a national conference it was a quick way to see similarities and differences in social studies among the participating schools/states. Turns out almost no one in that NCSS workshop could tell us what is taught in all 12 grades of social studies, even in states that require it through graduation. I started to wonder if our teachers could do it. They couldn’t either.

Finding this out was eye-opening. We stress ideas of progressions of learning and continuous growth of our students and our teachers (and these were teachers who were actively trying to improve–they paid to attend NCSS and our local workshops!!) don’t know where their students are coming from or where they are heading to! Most could name the course immediately preceding and immediately following the one they teach. Or if a teacher had been assigned to a variety of grade levels through their career we found a good sense of progressions. Or if you had kids in particular grades you likely know what they are learning. In general, though, teachers seemed to know only their own course and grade level.

So I pulled this blank document out and fully expected the building principals to know what we are required to teach at each grade level they supervise. Really, I thought this would just be the lead in to the news that while admin knows this, teachers don’t. Imagine my surprise when principals couldnt’ do this either. Most could summarize the grades in their building (some couldnt’ even do that) but not one could complete the prior or subsequent grades.

So what did I do? I pulled up the stuff we use with teachers, showing progressions of learning from grades k-8. I had them compare the Foundational Expectations listed in our high school documents (the stuff that’s supposed to be review of middle school learning) to what the state actually requires in middle school (hint: it doesn’t match up very well). We discussed the importance of having teacher meet as multi-grade level teams to examine instruction and assessment data. They examined the implications of teachers writing curriculum without the benefit of knowing what students had learned in the past 5 years or what they would be expected to learn in the next 5.

What will they do with this information? I have no idea. I expected them to know how important it is to understand the sequence of content/skills but was stunned to see that while they recognize its importance they didn’t actually do anything to make it happen. I wish I was continuing to consult in this county, I wish that I hadn’t learned this about the admin while nearing the end of my contract, I wish that I could attack this problem in my remaining time here. Is 48 hours enough?

Teachers aren’t experts!
January 3, 2011, 2:35 pm
Filed under: curriculum

They aren’t. It’s not a judgement or criticism, it’s a fact. Most teachers are not experts in the subject matter they are teaching. Four years of liberal arts and two more for a master’s degree qualifies you to be a teacher, but doesn’t bring you close to being an expert. Certainly, some teachers have greater knowledge of subject matter particulars than others, but on the whole, they aren’t experts. I taught US History for 10 years; the amount I don’t know could fill the Grand Canyon.  So why are teachers asked to write curriculum standards? Or to evaluate the soundness of textbooks?

Take for example, Virginia. Teachers serve on state level committees to review and approve texts for use in Virginia classrooms. Unfortunately, few teachers have the knowledge and expertise to review texts to ensure they are factually accurate and generally sound. They aren’t given the time to fact check each statement, nor do they have the broad scope of knowledge to determine if the texts are creating a clear and accurate picture.  What you end up with is this:

In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917).

Historians brought in after the Washington Post reported this found pages of errors in one particular book, some of them simply factual errors of date, but others significant enough to alter a student’s perception of history.  As a follow-up, the Post published a history quiz that included some errors from the text in question. Unfortunately, the quiz doesn’t function in all browsers and when it does function it reports in accurate scores, but more interesting to me is the trend found in the comments; that facts are boring and don’t matter and shouldn’t be the subject of tests.

Many commenters were dead on with their criticism of tests that ask these sorts of questions and of teachers who focus solely on the ‘boring’ dates. But they missed the point of the quiz and the related stories: schools are using materials with glaringly factual errors! No one is suggesting that students should memorize the list of dates, or that teachers should focus on this limited set of facts. However, if the main resource for students (and the text is the main resource for most) has factual errors, how can we ask students to defend their interpretations of historical events accurately, use facts to support assertions made in analysis, or even double-check their work?

The adoption of this book is not the fault of the teachers; they were charged with a task they are unqualified to complete. Sure, they can tell you how useful something might be in their classroom, if kids can read the material as presented, and if it fits into their requirements, but they don’t know everything. The real culprits are those who failed to require a content expert to review materials.

As time-consuming as vetting is, those of us working on the Michigan Citizenship Collaborative Curriculum understand the value of both the expert and teacher opinion. Every thing we produce is first reviewed by a university level content expert for content accuracy and then reviewed by the teachers who might use it in their classrooms. What we find is that sometimes we’ve screwed up the facts (ex. in simplifying the economic concept of scarcity for fourth graders, we used incorrect examples) and sometimes we’ve screwed up the expectation of grade (ex. third grade teachers letting us know that most student could not read the included material). It takes a long time. It can be humiliating. It can force us back to the drawing board. But it means that our teachers have high quality and accurate material with which to teach Social Studies in a way that doesn’t focus on dates and places but on trends and ideas.

What have we done!?
December 2, 2010, 11:44 am
Filed under: assessment

This past Sunday’s New York Times opinion pages included letters children wrote to the first lady, Michelle Obama.  Some of these letters inspired confidence in our schools and our kids; like the 12-year-old from Flint, Michigan who wrote about hydrogen fusion, the 7-year-old that wants to be the first female president, the 9-year-old who wants tobacco and alcohol out of her neighborhood, or the 11-year-old who wants both an easier way to immigrate and a statue of himself!

 Then there are the standard ‘what’s it like to be famous’ and some very sad letters from kids whose parents are divorcing, or are unemployed, or just plain poor.

But the letter that gutted me, that completely convinced me that we are doing are kids a disservice with testing, came from a 2nd grader.  He starts by requesting more scary books for his classroom and a backpack to carry all the books he needs for school. He also wants a fish. But then, this:

I want to be a teacher when I grow up because I want to teach other kids things they like learning, like how to take a test. Next year I will be going to third grade. In the third grade I am going to learn very fast because I will practice the tests very fast, but sometimes I get answer wrong. I know I can do better than that.

Oh my.

First, I’m so glad he loves school and is motivated to do well. However, he thinks teaching and school is about learning to take tests. He clearly has been told that next year he will be taking some big tests; what second grader thinks about tests that are a year away? What second grader should be?

I’m not saying no tests. I’m saying I think we’ve lost the focus. The tests are supposed to show us what we know and don’t know and allow us to work from there, but it sounds like tests have become the goal themselves. What is that kids want to learn, should learn? I’m pretty sure it’s not how to take a test, despite what 7-year-old Juan from San Francisco might have been lead to believe.

If PD isn’t effective, is a Master’s Degree?
November 23, 2010, 1:35 pm
Filed under: Nerd, professional development | Tags: , ,

According  to an article in the Huffington Post earlier this week, it isn’t. I don’t think anyone is surprised by this; just because I went to school longer doesn’t automatically make me better at my job. Reading the comments section, filled with responses from teachers, I’m left thinking maybe all those master’s degree’s mean nothing. Comments that claim the studies (there are more than one) wrong, that common sense would say more education is good, that ‘you can’t tell me what works until you’re a teacher too,’ that accuse everyone of trying to take something away from teachers.

But the point of the article is that districts pay teachers with graduate level course work more than those without. Even if you went to grad school for your teaching certificate and had no undergrad training in education, you get paid more than the teacher whose bachelor’s degree is in education. These teachers are not paid more because they are better, they are paid more because they went to school longer. The argument can be made that in many fields candidates with advanced degrees are more desirable and while that is true, if the candidate stinks at the job he may not make more; he may even get fired.

Look, I was a teacher too and I still work in a public school system under a contract that pays me more because of my degree and gives me more money every year simply because I’m here. I get it. Its cushy system. But if we want to be taken seriously and treated as professionals then its time we start acting like it. We should be demanding more evaluation from our employers and pay that goes with those evaluations, not just pay because we lived another year. We should want a system that rewards the best, advanced degree or not. And we should really stop complaining about our pay, most teachers earn more than the average American and work less days per year. I know, summer’s aren’t really off, and we don’t get vacation days when we want them, but not many people get to completely check out from work for even 2 weeks during the year; I don’ t know a single teacher who doesn’t give themselves at least that much time off every summer.

Public school systems are looking for ways cut costs because they have to. In many districts, personnel is more than 80% of the expenditure every year. Where else can they look? I don’t want a pay cut either, but I sure don’t want the guy who doesn’t do his job very well to get rewarded at the same rate that I am if my employer knows that I’m better at my job.

How Do I Know I’m Doing My Job Well?
November 12, 2010, 2:26 pm
Filed under: assessment, Geek | Tags: , , ,

I’m a Social Studies Consultant for an intermediate school district in Michigan. That means I provide professional development services to our local school districts. Most people still don’t know what that means. What do I do all day? How do I know I’m doing it well? That I have trouble answering that concerns me.


Education Week has recently been working on a series on Professional Development for teachers and its effectiveness, generally finding that not only is effectiveness not often measured, but that there are very few standards for what constitutes PD. EW suggests that PD needs to be targeted toward student weaknesses and how teachers can attend to those weaknesses. I agree, but I think there is more to PD as well.

Some of  my job includes attending to specific requests of districts. I assume when a department head or administrator asks me to assist their teachers with something specific it is because there is a known shortcoming. Mostly this is true, but sometimes it isn’t, and as I don’t work with one building, one department, or one district I’m often at a loss to determine what teachers really need. For example, many administrators called me to assist with Social Studies data analysis of last year’s state exams but clearly were not aware that we should not and could not do this. Should not because the exams were slated to address different standards this years, so knowing how we performed on standards no longer in place wouldn’t assist us in preparing students for the next assessment. Could not because the state no longer releases specific social studies items; we can’t see more than the content strand of each question. Without specific question language the percentages and scores provided by the state are as deep as we can go. Now had they asked me to help teachers create assessments and then analyze that data we would have been on our way to some good PD.

Another portion of my job is creating PD opportunities based on what I know many teachers and districts are struggling with. For example, I know that county-wide our students struggle with supporting their assertions in writing. I’ve put together workshop series to address this idea specifically in Social Studies. Do I know if it works? No. I don’t get to observe teachers and I’m fairly confident that the people doing the observing don’t know what PD teachers have attended. I also don’t know if the teacher who attend are those who most need this PD.

A third part of what I do is awareness. When the state adopted new content standards I did some PD about how to read them and adapt to them. I’ve since been part of a project to create a comprehensive k-12 SS curriculum based on these new standards; there has been a tremendous amount of PD for teachers to learn the progressions of learning, the units of instruction, and the various ways to implement lessons. None of this is specifically targeting weaknesses among our teachers, but it is necessary information for them to do their jobs.

On one hand I would like to know that any PD I conduct results in improved instruction and student performance, I’m also aware that some PD doesn’t manifest itself this way. Learning about changes in state requirements, for example, has less to do with improving student performance and more to do with learning the minimum requirements of your job. If I were locked into provided only services that could be measured by student test results I wouldn’t be providing very broad or rich PD.

How Long Does It Take to Grade a Test?
November 11, 2010, 8:38 am
Filed under: assessment | Tags: , , , ,

In Michigan it takes several months

The bulk of MEAP testing is multiple choice with student responses recorded on bubble sheets. I have never understood why it takes two months to get these scores or why the scores released at two months are not for public consumption. Having scored exams in NYS, I know that a single teacher (me, for example) can run 800 electronic score sheets by hand (we didn’t have a fancy self fed machine…) in an hour or two. At the end, a summary sheet that indicates the percent of students who selected each answer is produced. I understand that Michigan does not allow in-house scoring, that the tests need to be packaged and sent back to the state, and that we are testing ALL students in selected grades, but is the state really working with a single machine? Does it have just one person scoring these? Does it have the very old scoring machines that don’t have a way to transfer data to a computer for sorting?

I’ll live with this. But now the added wait for scoring of written assessments. According to the letter linked above, they must be scored and then the state and SBE will determine cut scores. In my understanding of test development, the writing assessments should have been pilot tested on a variety of students, analyzed for validity and reliabililty and cut scores assigned determined prior to scoring the exams. Again, I’ll compare my NYS experience. Each year’s cut scores were different; I could never say precisely to a student  that he must answer 30 of 50 MC correctly and get a 4/5 on each essay to pass before the test arrived at my building, but once we scored (remember, an hour for bubbles, and then 3 days for 1600 essays each read twice) we knew immediately our students results. No waiting for the whole state to be scored and then figure out passing…

I’m sure there is a rationale to this. Thoughts out there?

As an added irritant, none of the items will be released. Schools get general scores, and percentages of student performances on various strands in the tested subjects, but teachers will never know exactly what each student they teach struggled with. They will never know if their students didn’t know a particular core concept or simply didn’t know some non-content vocabulary. If data analysis is one tool for school improvement, and state tests are the measuring stick for that improvement, how can schools know where to apply their efforts if they never see the actual measure? It’s like running a race without any knowledge of how long the race is…how do you pace yourself, determine what nutrition you need, which shoes to wear, how much water to drink.

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