Archive for March, 2009

What Doesn’t Work

Mar 27 2009 Published by under borderland,politics,teacher research

For several years I have looked forward to the day when education policy would move beyond the utopian delusion that all students will would be proficient by 2014, a day that still appears to be a long way off. There’s a new website set up for teachers, to help “…all students read and do math and science at grade level by the year 2014.” Doing What Works is supposed to be a practical companion to the What Works Clearinghouse research repository, but they apparently didn’t get the memo that proficiency for all by 2014, or by any other year, is an oxymoron:

… by ignoring the inevitable and natural variation amongst individuals, the conceptual basis of NCLB is deeply flawed; no goal can simultaneously be challenging to and achievable by all students across the entire achievement distribution. A standard can either be a minimal standard which presents no challenge to typical and advanced students, or it can be a challenging standard which is unachievable by most below-average students. No standard can serve both purposes "“ this is why we call ‘proficiency for all’ an oxymoron – but this is what NCLB requires. (Rothstein, ‘Proficiency for All’ – An Oxymoron, 2006)

Policy-driven "œwhat works" education research is what Jacqueline Edmondson calls ‘functionalist’ research,’ aimed at maintaining the present "œreality of schools." It ignores economic and other forms of systemic disadvantage, treating them as inevitable conditions that require creative technical solutions. The harm in this approach to closing the ‘achievement gap,’ says Edmondson, is that "œstudent difficulties appear to be individual shortcomings rather than social concerns." The limited focus of functionalist research does not admit questions about ideology, narrowing lines of inquiry to those which can be understood only in terms of the status quo. She advocates for teachers to engage in critical policy study, something I’m going to begin looking at more directly, here.

My interest in this is both practical and ideological. Other than vague references to ‘innovation’, teaching practices get no more than a hand-wave from anyone pushing a policy agenda these days. The promoters of data-driven “laboratories of innovation” have no plans for making anything new or different happen in the classroom, except what can be easily measured with standardized tests. They needn’t bother, either, as long as politicians and newspapers keep the pressure on "“ blaming teachers and repeating slogans like, "œAll children can learn" until people are ready to believe that even severely disabled kids must be tested:

McKean: “He learned how to feed himself at school. With a spoon. And he learned how to drink out of a cup. He learned how to push his own wheelchair. His head control has gotten extremely better, because his head is a little bit bigger than an average sized kid.

Jackson has a form of hydrocephalus. It’s a neurological disorder that has caused some severe developmental disabilities. Jackson also has intestinal problems. He has to wear a diaper.

Jackson can turn pages in a book. He can say “yes” and “no,” and in sign language he can say about eight things. He’s still learning. But his mom doesn’t expect reading and math to be part of his education.

So she was annoyed to learn that last year, Jackson had to take a standardized reading and math test. He was in fourth grade.

In it’s current politicized form, school reform has little to do with learning or teaching, and more to do with bureaucratic power and control . Critical thinking and innovation in the classroom can, and should, include activity besides what might work in our present – broken – policy environment.

6 responses so far

It’s Like Winning the Lottery

Mar 24 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Alaska has a merit pay system for teachers, but teachers don’t think much of it. In fact, one local school staff here even turned down the money in 2007. It’s the school my own kids attended.

As it happens, many Houston teachers – the same ones Obama mentioned in his speech – feel the same, says HISD teacher, Laura Taylor:

Obama gave two examples of school districts already doing this, one being the district that I teach in, Houston Independent School District (HISD). The largest school district in Texas, HISD has been at the forefront of using standardized test scores to determine bonuses.

Given this, you might expect merit pay and standardized testing to be universally effective and accepted within HISD. In reality, they are anything but.

In this economy, it’s difficult for any person to turn down extra money. Yet a survey done by HISD right after bonuses were awarded in January found that only 45 percent of teachers and other school employees liked the system.

Every year, it seems, the HISD administration rolls out yet another version of ASPIRE, the program that determines these bonuses. And every year, confusion and frustration reigns among teachers.

Though the district pours in money for professional development to explain the program, the merit pay “awards” still feel arbitrary to many teachers. As Houston Federation for Teachers President Gayle Fallon told the Houston Chronicle, “They’re still comparing it to winning the lottery.”

Part of what makes the system so controversial is the tremendous amount of bonus money that goes to principals and administrators.

For the most recent round of bonuses, School Superintendant Abelardo Saavedra gave himself the largest, paying himself $77,500 out of a possible $80,000, in addition to his annual salary of $327,010. The next highest paid were executive principals, many earning bonuses of well over $10,000. Teachers who did earn a bonus got nowhere near that amount. And more than 2,100 eligible employees earned nothing.

She has more to say about what motivates teachers, and the unintended consequences of the bonus pay policy.

The system here in Alaska works differently than theirs. Ours is a share-and-share-alike system, with all the personnel in a building sharing the bonus money. Certified staff get up to $5,000, and classified staff members get up to $2500, but nobody can tell you what the formula is for determining who wins. I’ve never heard whether admins get anything.

Still, as the parent of students at the “winning” school, a school that is located near the university and has the highest percentage of families with PHD’s, I thought the parents were being overlooked at the time. And as a staff member of a Title I school that posted dramatic double-digit test score gains for our African American students that same year, there was some unspoken resentment. So we applauded the teachers who refused to accept the money.

These plans are arbitrary and divisive. It is money down a rat hole. Just like another, bigger rat hole we’ve been throwing money at more recently. If we’re going to have a differentiated pay system, it needs to be more intelligently implemented.

4 responses so far

From the Department of Poetic Justice

Mar 16 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics

It’s been fun, in a mildly twisted sense, reading the responses deconstructing the president’s disappointing education speech. Who do we suppose he was talking to when he said

…if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.

Tom Eley responds: “While he finds the ‘courage’ to bully public school teachers, Obama has no difficulty in rewarding the failure of the financial executives who have triggered the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

No surprises there, according to George Schmidt. Except that now it looks like the Obama administration is bracing for a backlash, and they’re “worried that it might complicate their agenda.” That’s going to be a problem for as long as it takes them to figure out where to drop the hammer.

Fred Klonsky says we should take names, and publish them. That would be a place to start, at least.

2 responses so far

Free and Voluntary Reading

Mar 05 2009 Published by under education,literacy,teacher research

I’m trying something different this year. I’m not assigning novels and telling everyone which pages to read, having class discussions about the themes, providing background knowledge, making vocabulary lists, or asking “comprehension” questions that I mark for a grade.

This year, everyone in the class reads what they want to read, and they read without interruption for 30-40 minutes each day. They tell me about their books when I go around the room asking how it’s going. I write down what we talk about. They read short passages quietly to me. They write in journals about their books. They meet with partners or in small groups, and they give oral “book reports” written on sticky notes. They make book recommendations to each other. They read at home and before school without being told to, and they tell me they love to read. I even saw one of my students reading a book walking down the hall the other day. It’s going viral.

In the beginning of the year I only had a few real readers in the class. One girl told me she couldn’t read. It wasn’t true; she just hadn’t found the right books. Most hadn’t read anything during the summer break, many chose too-easy books to read in class at first, and some wanted to see the nurse or go to the bathroom every day when it was time to read. But I wouldn’t let them; they had to read. Now, everyone settles right down, and it’s stone quiet the whole time.

For a very long time, it seemed to me that teaching Reading (capital R) was using too much valuable class time when the kids could have been actually reading. They were spending their time filling in blanks and looking up answers to questions nobody cared about. Assigned readings were either too hard, too easy, or too boring. There was no love in it, and reading was mostly a chore. I decided to test Stephen Krashen’s research-based 88 Generalizations about Free and Voluntary Reading, and it’s exciting to see these kids reading and talking about books because they want to, and not because they have to.

Free reading doesn’t take any fancy instructional materials. No anthologies, workbooks, transparencies, or teacher’s manuals. But it helps to have a library. It also helps to have computers, routers, and some professional time to learn about reading theory. None of that is cheap.

With the stimulus package dollars coming our way, curriculum coordinators and teachers should take a look at Richard Allington’s Proven Programs, Profits, and Practice, and maybe save some money for things that will make a difference. Allington describes how, over the last decade, education policies have limited the options schools have to spend federal dollars, limiting choices to only “proven scientifically-based programs,” assuming such programs exist.

One of the problems with “scientifically-based” education programs is that “what works” always depends on local variables. As Allington said elsewhere, “…nothing worked everywhere and everything worked somewhere.”

Allington has a list of Ten Research-Based, Low-Profit Potential Practices:

  • Writing, Sound Stretching, and Phonemic Awareness: Phonemic segmentation can be effectively taught through exploring “invented” spelling in primary grade writing lessons as kids figure out how to spell words.
  • Word Walls: High frequency words posted on the wall help kids with spelling and word recognition.
  • Just Plain Writing: Don’t overlook the writing-reading relationship.
  • Extended Independent Reading: Like I said.
  • Discussion After Reading: This, too.
  • Reading Aloud to Children: Reading to kids develops vocabulary, enhances reading motivation, offers a forum for comprehension strategy instruction, and builds background knowledge. It probably does more than that, but do we need any more reasons?
  • Appropriate Texts, Readers Theater, and Other Fluency-Enhancing Devices: Give kids books to read that they can actually read, and let them have fun with them.
  • Choice Words: Knowing what to say and when to say it is an art. It can’t be scripted.
  • Motivation: Choice of reading and writing topics, access to interesting texts, and a positive atmosphere are all under-celebrated and research-validated practices.
  • Teacher Expertise: It’s that life-long learner thing.

Allington argues that because there is no way to effectively market these research-based practices, they don’t get as much attention as they should. From what I’ve seen, market-based instructional practices are watered down, cheesy substitutes for real teaching. Quoting Linda Darling-Hammond: “Standardized practice is malpractice when viewed from a perspective of professional accountability. Professional teachers should be allowed to focus on doing the right things rather than doing things right.”

When we do the right things, the people who stand to profit most are the kids.

35 responses so far