Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Providing equal access - #edchat 6/29/2010

Tonight's #edchat asked the question "How do we ensure those without privilege have equal access to quality education?".  Interestingly, we dealt with a very similar, but more specific topic on 5/4/2010 - "How can we ensure that all students have equal access to technology?".  What's interesting is that one of the main threads running through tonight's discussion was specifically about technology.

Some of the comments that I reasonate with are:
Russ Goerend - "Access to the Internet = access to quality education"
Tim Furman - "access to books would go a long to help an impoverished child"
Mary Beth Hertz - "Equal access means that all students have the opportunity to learn from a teacher who is a lifelong learner and dedicated to his or her students"
I'm sure there were others, but I had to cut out early due to guests arriving at my home.  Looking back over the archive, I found this statement that probably best sums up my feelings.
Ms. Bethea "As long as the underlying system is broken, there will always be inequality in education regardless of access."
If we can fix the system, we will address the other comments and so many others. I going to try an avoid sounding like a broken record in this post.  Instead I'll point you to my vision for how school school should look in order to speak directly to these issues.

First of all, I think "equal access" goes beyond access to technology.  I take tonight's question at face value - how do we ensure equal access quality education, which is a much bigger issue.  I do think access to technology helps.  Access to technology and the web opens up access to a wide array of resources not available otherwise.  As I said earlier tonight, we can rearrange our budgets so that money being spent on textbooks can be spent on technology.  If the technology is integrated throughout the school, throughout the day, lack of access at home is not as big a factor as it once was.  Proper internet access opens the doors to open sourcing education.

Some of tonight's discussion dealt with the socioeconomic factors that are associated with access.  Being an idealist, I want to assume that the teachers of John Doe Impoverished Neighborhood School are just as good as the ones at Charles Moneybags Suburban Gated Community School.  I want to ideally assume that teachers will receive (and seek on their own) the necessary professional development to help them be quality teachers.  So don't comment on either of these issues.  They are for another time.  This is about a broken system.

By the way, I've taught at both schools and it is certainly is "easier" at the latter.  However, that can only go far in terms of providing excuse in unequal access.  As Will Richardson said earlier last week, you may not have caused the problem but now you own so do something about it.  We cannot control the environment from which our students come, at least not in a free state.  But there are lots of things we can do to deal with that environment - free and reduced lunch, parent outreach, parent engagement, before/after school programs, etc.

In order for any of this work, we have to change the system.  We can't just tweak it.  It needs serious overhaul.  I'm not saying that all textbooks are bad.  I am saying we need to seriously take at look at the money we are spending on those books.  What would be the net effect of using technology to provide the same (or better I would argue) access?  We have to look seriously at things like testing.  We must stop playing the role of cash cow for testing services and developers.  We must fight the conventional (yet contrary to what people actually in the know and in the trenches say) wisdom regarding the validity of these tests.  

We have to change what we measure and how we measure it.  If equal access means something different from equal treatment, why are we using the same metric for everyone?  Throw out promotion schedules and report cards.  Provide access to a guaranteed success at accomplishing learning goals without a stigma regarding how long it takes.  Providing equal access is not that hard.  But it requires changing the system, and that's really not that hard either.

Curriculum - Part 2 of "Does it really matter?"

Please, please, please comment on this post if you disagree or agree in any way.  This post is a work in progress as I process my thoughts on important issues like curriculum.  As I mentioned in part of "Does it really matter?" I am teaching earth science this summer.  I hate to admit this, but I can't think of a single good reason for kids to take this class.  When I examine the standard course of study (SCOS), there is not a single item that will ever be used again in their lives unless they enter a very specific career.

So on the first day, I'm looking at the class of students who are repeating the course and I'm trying to find an answer to the unasked question, "When am I EVER going to use this?"  There is always the standard answer of you will develop thinking skills that will used in other areas of your but honestly, that's a load of manure.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm all about learning something for the sake of learning it.  I love talking rocks, minerals, soil, weather, plate tectonics, etc. and how all these things are intricately linked together in systemic ways.  I teach with enthusiasm and passion about how cool all the connections are.  I look for real world, current events to illustrate each concept.  And students enjoy my class. . . . because I'm entertaining.

I know it is a bit idealistic to ask repeaters, especially those with historic problems in school, to suddenly become passionate about all this.  I don't expect them too.  I see my four and half this summer as an attempt to plant a seed, light a spark, redirect the ship only a single degree in order to avoid disaster . . .

All of this leads me to some serious thoughts about the place of curriculum.  Why have we dictated the courses a student must pass in order to earn a high school diploma?  What is the process whereby we determined A, B, and C must be mastered in order to move from middle to high school?

Here in NC, our State Board of Education has adopted a new set of guidelines for freshmen who entered high school this past year.  It's called the "Future Ready Core".  Besides requiring earth/environmental science, students must pass algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and a fourth math that is tailored to their post high school paths.  Excuse me for a moment, but as a math teacher, why would I require a future plumber or diesel mechanic (who make very good money by the way and are still much in need) need algebra 2?  What math do they they take next in the sequence?

I realize that my post is losing its coherency to singular topic because I'm beginning to move into rant mode.  So I'll wrap it up with a few questions that will perhaps frame it all for me.
- What is the purpose of school?
- Which is more important, content or skills?
- Why are trying to force everyone onto a college track?
- If high school is supposed to preparation for real life, shouldn't there be a little more freedom in the requirements?

Again, I state my plea.  Please comment because I'm really wondering if it matters.

Does it really matter?

Teaching summer school this year has caused me to ask that question over and over again.  I have twelve 9th graders who need to pass my class, earth science, so they can be tenth graders next year.  They've all had it before.  A few I know because they went to my middle school.  One of these students is here because of chronic absenteeism - just like in middle school.  Another is here because she attended SIX different high schools in one year!  That student has even more problems going on in her personal life that make earth science the last thing on her list of important things.  More than a few are really here because they were discipline problems in the classroom.  They weren't paying attention.  They disrupted others.  They missed class time.  And when they semester ended and they were on the bubble - the bubble was popped from underneath them.  Perhaps what bothers me the most are the two or three who are behind at least three grade levels in their reading and writing skills.  Were they passed along?  Were they written off?  Why are they potential tenth graders and this hasn't been addressed?

So now, I have four and a half weeks to instill a love for something they probably hate.  Honestly, that doesn't matter.  My mission for the next four and half weeks is to help these kids be successful in life, whether they can repeat the theory of plate tectonics or not.  That's what matters.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Let's just do what we're already doing

This afternoon, Greg Couros asked this question on Twitter

If standardized tests are not the best for data for schools, what data can we use? I would love to hear your thoughts.                                                                                                                      

I've wondered this same thing many times myself.  I can even think of a few (very few) good reasons for standardized tests, but that's a hill I'll die on later.  My response to Greg was simply to use standards based grading and evaluate student portfolios.  Let me give you a real life example from right here in good ol' North Carolina where portfolios are used as the "unofficial" trump of all of our end of grade, standardized testing.

Here in NC, we administer end of grade (EOG) tests for third through eight grades.  Many of the mainstream, college prep courses in high school have end of course (EOC) tests as well.  We also have what are called "gateway" grades - third, fifth, and eighth.  If you do not pass your EOG's for this grade, you are given five hours of remediation and a retake.  Incidentally, my district has determined to really make sure students are ready and have made EVERY year a gateway year.  If after the retake you still do not pass, then you have the option to go through the waiver process.  A waiver committee hears the case presented by the teacher and sometimes the parent on why the student should have the EOG standard waived so that he or she can advance to next grade.

I have prepared waiver portfolios for my own students.  I have served on waiver committees for other teachers and schools.  Every grade and course has a standard course of study (SCOS) divided up into goals. Among other things the portfolio contains, the most important are sufficient samples of the student's work that demonstrate proficiency for the individual goals within the SCOS.  I do not have good solid stats on this, but from what anecdotal evidence I've been able to gather from my colleagues and my own experience, less than five percent, perhaps lower, of the students taken to waiver are actually denied.  In every case that I have personally experienced on either side of the waiver table, the decision to waive was justified as "Student has made adequate progress".

Here's what gets me.  Every teacher, EVERY teacher, hates the EOG.  Every teacher and committee member look for proficiency in individual goals.  If this is how it's going to go down anyway, then why don't we start there and save literally billions of dollars each year on tests?  If teachers are going to use standards based grading to justify a student's progress, why aren't they already using it on a regular basis throughout the year?

It is true most of the samples submitted show that a student got 80% of the questions right,so some changing still needs to happen there.  But why, in the name of all that makes sense, why the heck aren't we doing what we are already doing anyhow?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What every teacher needs

Tonight's #edchat dealt with the topic of what every first year teacher needed to know before stepping into the classroom.  The early discussion centered on more practical experience, more theory, "my program didn't prepare me", and "no program can adequately prepare you".  Suddenly the topic of needing a mentor came up and this dominated the discussion for the rest of the hour.  The discussion began to take two parallel paths - how a mentor can help a beginning teacher and how everyone should have a mentor.

It is that last path that motivates this post.  Every teacher should have a mentor. Or several.  Really expand your network and get a PLN.  Underlying this need is a prerequisite attitude that must come before having a mentor or PLN will be effective.  It is the attitude of having a teachable spirit, seasoned with a desire to continue to learn.  If this isn't present, your wasting a lot of people's time, including your own.

Here in North Carolina we have NCCAT.  It's free and was set up just for teachers.  It was established while I was in college.  I could not wait to go there when I became a real live teacher.  I was shocked at how all my colleagues, the much more experienced ones, pooh-poohed the idea.  I was dismayed at how most of my fellow teachers saw conferences as "vacation days" or even worse, not worth it because of having to make sub-plans.  Where was the desire to learn?

I know that for some the desire to learn is there but the pride and fear of appearing incompetent keep them away from new things.  So an ancillary (am I using that word correctly - I teach math and science, not English comp) attitude would have to be a willingness to fail or at least look incompetent.  I constantly seek the guidance of others, even those that don't like me or I don't like myself, if they know something I don't know.  I don't care what anyone thinks - I need to do my job the best I can.

I'm bummed that I'm going to miss out on mentor training this summer.  I would love to mentor a beginning teacher.  For now, I'll have to do it unofficially.  I'm hoping my principal will let me do a workshop for the faculty on developing a PLN this fall.  I'm sometimes amazed at how important this is to me.  It's not because I think I'm some expert.  I guess I've become a PLN evangelist because of how it changed my life.

Every teacher needs to learn and grow.  Every teacher needs a PLN.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Japanese Beetles

Yes, this post is about education, inspired by those annoying little bugs.  In the spring I become Matt Guthrie, Suburban Farmer.  This year I've finally planted the type of garden I've always wanted, although it's a little small. One day I'd like to have acres to farm, instead of just square feet.

Each year I battle a variety of pests.  Japanese beetles return every year to wreak havoc on my plants.  They have devastated several of my bean plants.  I bought a beetle trap and that has captured quite a few.  Problem is it has not captured all of them.  Every evening while I'm out watering, I still find quite a few ravaging the tender leaves of my crops.  I usually handle them one of two ways.  Sometimes I'll capture them by the handful then dump them into the trap.  Other times, if there is only one or two, I'll squish them on the spot and spread their remains on the leaves.  Like most creatures, japanese beetles don't like to be in the presence of their own dead.

Saturday night as I was dealing with the evening's infestation, I began to see parallels to our efforts in education.  So many times we find a sure fired way to solve the problems our students are facing.  It might be a remediation effort, a skills diagnostic assessment, an after school program, or a beetle trap.  It does a great job meeting the needs of  majority of our students.  When the program doesn't work for the minority, we have a couple of choices to make.  We can watch the minority struggle and just let the beetles not caught by the trap eat your plants, er, I mean write off those students as unreachable.  Or we can add a little more attention to the minority, combined with the efforts of the program and help these kids.  Think of it as catching the beetles and putting them into the trap by hand.

Sometimes the program has to be abandoned and a different approach taken.  Sometimes you have the seize the opportunity to squish an individual beetle or work deliberately in another fashion with a struggling student. 

What do you do when the specified method you have to use is a beetle trap the local school district will only pay for beetle traps?  Every system and school has it pet program or excitement about the latest idea.  Those are great and should be used.  But the reality is that it's all about the students.  You have to find a way or you'll go without beans.  Saving the crop of students is really what it's all about isn't it?

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Vision for Education

Prompted by Shelly Blake-Plock's post about revolution over at Teach Paperless, I've decided to try give shape to my vision for education.  Plus it will keep me from posting a War and Peace size comment on his blog.  If I ever get the opportunity to start my own school, it would look something like this: student centered, community driven, project/problem based, and 100% differentiated.

One key element is seeing this vision come to pass is the implementation of an apprenticeship model.  Grade levels where EVERY student has to move up at the end of a nine to ten month cycle do not exist.  Not to mention the fact that if a student isn't able to move up at the end of the cycle he has to wait another TWELVE months for the opportunity to move up again.  Instead of grade levels, students just move to the next topic or skill.

The activities (or lessons if you prefer) would center either on completion of a project or solving a problem that requires the use of the current skills and topics being studied.  People, like parents, with real live jobs relating to these issues can serve as mentors, guest speakers, and knowledge resources.  Students would be able to choose which problem or project they wish to complete based on their interests.

Gone also are the needs for standardized testing and the various abuses of the proficiency data relating to teacher and school evaluations.  Are students growing?  Are students moving forward?  If not, why?  What are the forces outside of school that either hinder or prevent movement?  If so, what are the important factors that need to be measured at the moment for that student?

How is such a vision community driven, beyond the use of guest speakers, etc.?  Community is built into the school.  Students help one another.  Collaboration is encouraged, in fact integrated into everything.  Projects and solving problems that benefit the community outside of school are the norm.  These projects don't have to meet curriculum goals either.  They can be done "just because".

Let's do it.