Archive for June, 2011

A typical classroom library (probably 3rd grad...

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At first glance the above topics are dissimilar; however, all of the above occur within my Twitter stream during a twenty-minute period. Upon further examination, one would find that the people tweeting about these things are united in their goal to reform education without destroying the unique American school system. I can’t really do justice to trying to tie these disparate elements together, but I’m going to try anyway. Please forgive me if I fail to make sense.

WHAT DOES “REFORM” LOOK LIKE?

We have reached a critical point in the U.S. regarding how we educate our students. There are “reformers” of all colors and stripes who believe that their solutions are the only solutions. Most of these reformers won’t sit down and talk to each other because they do not want to budge regarding what they know to be “the solution” to whatever they suppose the problem in American education to be. The point the reformers seem to be missing is that willy-nilly reform efforts are unlikely to reform or transform the current educational system…in fact, these efforts are more likely to destroy the current system while leaving no real system at all behind–just a hodge-podge of hurried initiatives to improve our global position on another standardized measure.

 

While the various reformers don’t agree on the how, they are agreed on the what: we need to change how we “do education.” I can’t argue with that sentiment: times change and we must adapt to the times; however, I take issue that we are not moving in the proper direction. How often has it been said in business, “If you don’t have a plan, then you plan to fail?” It may be true as the headline of one of the related posts states, “Success in Educational Reform Requires Radical Change,” however, if we compare many of today’s schools with their counterparts of only a decade ago, hasn’t radical change already occurred? For example, a decade ago “Smart Boards” were unheard of and many families still had limited personal access to technology. Today the landscape is vastly different, as are the teachers who had not yet entered the classroom or who were just beginning their careers.

OF STANDARDIZED TESTS AND AUTO DMs

A tweet appeared in my stream regarding getting the subject of eliminating auto-DMs to trend. (For the uninitiated DM is an abbreviation for direct message). This tweep informed me that she knows many who are so aggravated by auto DMs that an auto DM is just cause to “unfollow.” Those who use auto DMs seem to be self-promoters from this writer’s perspective, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with self-promotion, I think the irritating factor with auto DMs is that they are entirely impersonal. Auto DMs remind me of the “signed” photographs that were once used extensively in political compaigns: they fooled a few of the people for a while, but they are not fooling anybody now. This leads to the topic of standardized tests. What are they measuring? Are they accurate snapshots? Can an impersonal standardized test truly reveal the quality of a given educator?

I am not an abolitionist when it comes to standardized tests. They have a place and can serve some valuable purpose within our educational system; however, they must not become the gold standard by which teacher effectiveness or student achievement are measured to the exclusion of all other measures. For example, many people (I am one of them) excel at taking standardized tests. I have taken some measures where I was asked to “respond as I would usually respond in a given situation.” Really? How much of a fool am I supposed to be? I am going to give the answer that the tester “expects” of a candidate for the position regardless of whether it is how I would normally respond!  Standardized tests measuring learning outcomes are no different: given four possible answers, two are likely to be off-base and can easily be eliminated by many test-takers; thus, increasing the probability that any given student has a 50% chance of answering any given question correctly. Is that a true and valid measure of either student learning or teacher effectiveness? One should hope not. Instead, ask the student to demonstrate application of a concept learned in the classroom. Surely it will be more time-consuming to measure; however, this would prove a more effective and reliable method of assessing actual ability and learning as well as effectiveness of instruction. Like auto DMs, standardized tests are cold and impersonal, and they shouldn’t be fooling most of us like those “personalized, signed” letters did for a brief while.

THE TONYS AND EDUCATION

How do the Tonys fit into any of this discussion? It’s simple: You can’t fake a live performance. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. If you miss a beat, you can’t just stand there like a deer in the headlights because the show must go on. You can’t do a re-take, you must simply carry forward. One well-known reformer and advocate of free and appropriate public education for all put it this way: “Keep live theater alive, everywhere!” Presently, we run the risk of taking away “live theater,” music programming; and other fine arts from American students because “reformers” can’t sit down together to make a plan; thus, they plan to fail; because ideological factions are more concerned about how students “perform” on an impersonal test than how well they can perform in public and develop into well-rounded citizens  with the same kind of varied experiences earlier generations have enjoyed. Finally, real, meaningful reform needs to take into consideration that both students and teachers are human, not automatons! There is no single “one-size-fits-all” solution when dealing with individuals, and until everyone understands that, many “reformations” will fail, but the show must go on!

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World illiteracy

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An April 2011 Policy Brief from The Alliance for Excellent Education, addresses the decline in literacy expectations during the past 50 years; the concurrent rise in text complexity at the post-secondary level; and steps to reverse the decline in expectations. In this age of accountability, it would behoove educators to familiarize themselves with the Common Core State Standards, and the policy brief: “Engineering Solutions to the National Crisis in Literacy: How to Make Good on the Promise of the Common Core State Standards,” published by the fore-mentioned Alliance for Excellent Education.

THE CRISIS

According to the Alliance (see above for details) “…the expectations for what students read in school and what they do with what they have read have continued to decline.” The Alliance states that the decline began around 1962 and the reason for this trend could be described as “teaching to the middle.” For those unfamiliar with that concept, “teaching to the middle” refers to the common practice of targeting the average student due to the wide range and diversity of student abilities and background knowledge. The report further states that students are prepared to do very little reading of informational texts. Irrespective of one’s view regarding post-secondary education, the reality is this: high school graduates today are less well-prepared for the demands of the workforce than were their counterparts of 50 years ago. It does not require an advanced degree to understand that poses a problem for employers and the economy in general. In this writer’s opinion, the “solution” to the above problem has been the enormous boom during the same period in college attendance. While this writer disagrees with the conclusion that more students need to attend college, he is in agreement with the authors of the brief that expectations must be raised and that the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by the majority of these United States provides an excellent opportunity to raise the bar.

THE OBSTACLES

The April policy brief cites the following as some of the obstacles to overcome: uneven expectations; necessity of literacy instruction following grade three; achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, and income; inadequate teacher development and support.

Let’s briefly address each concern. First, the move towards the Common Core Standards is a response to the wide variety of expectations from state to state. The adoption of the Common Core should serve to even out these expectations. An April 24, 2011 New York Times article states, “The standards, to go into effect in 2014, will replace a hodgepodge of state guidelines that have become the Achilles’ heel of the No Child Left Behind law” (Santos, Fernanda. A Trial Run for School Standards That Encourage Deeper Thought, N.Y., Region). Next, while it is recognized that the window of opportunity for addressing reading fluency (one part of the measure of literacy) is early and narrow–specifically grades pre-K-3–and many successful programs like the Minnesota Reading Corps have been developed to improve students’ success, literacy instruction must not end after third grade. The achievement gap has been widely discussed and can not adequately be addressed in this brief space. For more information, see: “Understanding Gaps” from the NAEP. Finally, with regard to teacher development and support, the policy brief states that most upper level teachers lack the skills to interact meaningfully with students through reading secondary texts. Moreover, more than two-thirds of teachers surveyed in the “Schools and Staffing Survey” commissioned by NAEP indicated not one day of training in supporting special education or ELL students; thus, much of what teachers do to “enhance literacy skills” is haphazard and ineffective.

THE SOLUTIONS

As above noted, one of the most important solutions to the concerns is to arrive at a common set of standards, and the Common Core Standards Initiative is a positive step in that direction. There is a fear that Common Core will lead further down the perilous road of “teaching to the test”; however, the promise of Common Core is that each of the states will be aiming for mastery of the same more rigorous standards. Another piece of the puzzle is to ensure that all students have access to teachers, opportunities, and research-based interventions and supports. That will require funding… a dubious word in these times, but perhaps the most critical element to solving this crisis: funding. Without funding for professional development; research; evaluation; and continuous improvement, it’s all just pie-in-the-sky.