Am I a geek or a nerd?

standards schmandards, or why teachers and leadership matter more

I have a colleague (a super crazy bright kind of colleague) who is currently doing some work with a School Improvement Grant recipient district. The district turn around agent has asked to her to review the social studies curriculum with teachers, observe these teachers implementing the curriculum, and provide PD to help teachers meet the standards outlined by the curriculum.


The teachers have been a bit hostile toward her and the process, and told her to observe them first period if she really wanted to see what’s what. (She would describe the teachers are mixed bag of dedicated high fliers and folks who couldn’t hired elsewhere.)


So she did. And she shared the pictures with me. Of course, I’m not sharing them here, but I will describe what she saw and heard. The bell rang for first period in the class she selected to observe. Four students were present. She took a picture. After several minutes she went into the hallway. Dozens and dozens of students in the hallways, mingling with the security staff, talking at their lockers, none moving toward a classroom and no one asking them to. She took several more pictures. Back in the classroom, students begin to arrive. All have a yellow pass in their hands. This pass is from the office, it shows that you checked in late and the teachers must admit you and provide your missed work. She asked a student about the pass. The student said you just tell the office staff you need one and they give you one. No hassle, no guff, no repercussions.


What’s a curriculum specialist to do? Well, she wrote up her daily report and included pictures and quotes and sent it to the principal and the superintendent. She also pointed out that all the PD on curriculum wasn’t going to do a damn thing if students didn’t attend class. I’ll give you one guess what the principal said.


“who authorized you to take pictures”




This is just more proof of what the Brookings Institution found in their recent report about standards:

States have had curricular standards for schools within their own borders for many years. Data on the effects of those standards are analyzed to produce three findings. 1) The quality of state standards, as indicated by the well-known ratings from the Fordham Foundation, is not related to state achievement. 2) The rigor of state standards, as measured by how high states place the cut point for students to be deemed proficient, is also unrelated to achievement… 3) The ability of standards to reduce variation in achievement, in other words to reduce differences in achievement, is also weak.


Having standards means nothing if teachers don’t teach to them and students aren’t present or able to master them. Consider my relationship with my triathlon coach. Since having a baby we are starting from scratch with my training and I’m not even a little bit close to being the athlete I was. I tried to train without a coach; I’d spent years training, you’d think I’d have learned something. But my efforts were poorly planned and poorly executed as I tried to reach a standard I’d previously held. My coach understands that I can’t hit those targets right now; she gives me an attainable plan and we measure improvement based on where I started during this round, not on where I was 2 years ago (Team USA anyone?).  But I need to show up. I have to complete the workouts. All the standards in the world won’t matter if the student isn’t present or prepared.


The superintendent has a much bigger hurdle than curriculum and PD for teachers; he needs to change the culture of the schools (and possibly his high school principal).


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.

School Improvement?
June 14, 2010, 10:57 am
Filed under: Geek | Tags: , ,

I’m going to try to explain what I think I learned about some of our school improvement process this morning in our staff meeting (besides the fact that staff meetings sometimes seem like they are something we do because we’ve always done them…). 

If I have this straight, the Michigan Department of Education will be identifying schools in need of improvement based on those that are in the bottom five percent of achievement based on MME/ACT scores. Those schools at the bottom will be told in August/September and will have 30 days to write an  improvement plan and submit it to the state. The state (and I’m not sure exactly who ‘the state’ will have representing it) will then either accept or reject your plan. In order for your plan to be accepted there are one of four paths the school must take; each path includes removing the school principal and replacing that person with someone who has experience in leadership and school improvement.  Schools will be notified sometime in late fall if their plan has been accepted. So when do they fire their principal? January? June? No answers to that one.

If the plan is rejected the school becomes part of the state reform school district, and again, your principal is gone. When is still the question. There are several buzzy superintendents who actually don’t mind this part–high schools are much more expensive to run than k-8 buildings and while it takes FTEs/money away, its seriously reduces their headaches.

In all cases there will be a weekly progress monitor on side to determine if the school has the means and ability to accomplish whatever plan it has set forth/the state has created for it. If they progress monitor decides that the schools running their own plans do not have the ability to create improvement, the ISDs will then be able to manage the schools. While our county schools may not be unhappy about that (we have a pretty positive relationship) there are lots of other counties where that is going to go over like a lead balloon.

But back to the principal thing and my main concern/point/bug in my butt: when will they be replaced and with who? Its been stated that there were not practitioners present when the state created these guidelines that essentially make all principals in failing schools lame ducks, if not for the whole year then at least for half. And certainly the Assistant Principals who have often been assumed to take the helm are not going to be interested in taking their turn in front of the firing squad. Where will these experienced administrators come from? One can only assume from other districts and we don’t have a wealth of people who’ve had success turning around a school who are jumping up to try it again. In truth, we don’t even have a few people who have actually improved a school…

I’m not saying I think our current batch of leaders in failing schools should keep on doing whatever it is they are doing, but I’m not sure we are going to get better replacements either. I don’t have an answer, but I do feel that more bureaucratic hoop jumping allowing elected officials to claim they are taking action isnt’ an answer either.

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