Monday, August 11, 2014

Whose job is it to advertise a school?

This post isn't really about charter schools, although it's going to seem like it at first.  It's about market forces--what they're supposed to be, and what they actually are. 

As I understand it, the thinking behind schools of choice are that parents will choose to send their students to the schools that best educate their children.  As parents put their children in schools, they will send their money to the best districts.  The worst districts will gradually die off as students move away from it, leaving them without enough money to fund them.

This doesn't quite go far enough, because traditional public schools have a deeply entrenched history of unions.  Unions have a warping effect on free-market forces, because they prevent money from flowing naturally.  They prevent the tough decisions being made, they stifle innovation, they engulf schools in red tape.  Enter charter schools(1), which I suppose could unionize if they chose, but in practice almost universally choose not to.  Enter right-to-work laws, meant to uproot unions from the bottom up (2).  In the name of improving education outcomes, and in no small measure, in the name of making it cheaper.

This line of thought, as best I understand it, begins in a neoclassical understanding of free markets.  (Among the many things that I'm not, the top two things on the list are an economist and a houdun priest.)  In the neoclassical model, the three base assumptions are that a.) people act rationally, b.) individuals act to maximize their ability to fulfill needs or wants and firms act to maximize profits, and c.) people act independently based on good information (3).  This is only a model; approximately nobody really believes that this is the way the world works all the time.  They just assume it works close enough to this to make it worth pretending.

I'd like to take a swing at applying each of these to the education world as it exists in Michigan.  Bear with me, and feel free to chime in.

The first assumption is that people act rationally.  Their decisions make sense as best they understand it.  They rarely act randomly or against their own interests.  In this model, parents and students will choose the best schools.  I have no beef with this particular assumption.  It stands in direct contradiction to the notion of community schools, but so do a lot of other things I believe in (like racial and economic diversity). 

The second assumption is much more interesting.  Individuals act to maximize their ability to fulfill their own needs or wants.  This suggests that, within the confines of acting rationally, parents and students will pick the schools that will get them into the best college.  Or the one that has the best educational outcomes, or the one where the parents don't hate the principal, or the one that has the best football team, or the one where their kids don't get picked on, or whatever it is they think they want.  This raises the questions of what it is parents want from schools.  What we're told parents want is good education outcomes.  As my flurry of questions suggests, though, it's more complicated than that. 

But the third assumption is the one that troubles me most.  In order to act rationally and maximize utility, consumers need good information.  What "good information" is, largely depends on what people want.  If what they want is a winning football team, it's easy--just look at the win/loss ratio of the football team.  If they want a football team that will make their kid a better football player, that's a tougher question, and requires a different kind of information and a greater sort of statistical analysis.  Now imagine they want a football team that will teach their kid the value of teamwork and dedication and tenacity, and that playing is more important than winning.  We almost don't have the questions for that, much less how to find the answers; all the data that we have runs counter to that line of inquiry.  The only way those consumers could find out if any given product is the one they want is to enroll their students in the program and see what happens.  The quality of information is less than optimal, and there's no clear way towards making it better.

This same sort of confusion exists in learning, only worse.  We don't really know what we expect from schools, except that we know we want our kids to be better upon leaving than they were when they entered.  They should also get better, faster than they would get on their own.  Other than that, the objective of schools is a little ambiguous.  Do we want to train good people or effective people?  If we have to choose, which do we prefer?  If we have to pick one, do we pick inquisitive, which could lead to rebelliousness, or obedient, which leads to being easily duped?  Critical thinking is my go-to skill; what does society want me to do when a student's critical thinking tells her that she shouldn't be sitting in school?  And the information that we do have--grades, standardized test scores, behavior grades on report cards, parent-teacher meetings, phone calls from the principals--don't really answer which schools do the best.  Schools that give the best grades might not have a difficult curriculum.  Schools that fail all their students probably have no idea what they're doing.  Schools that have a perfect bell curve are most suspect of all.  Standardized tests mostly assess a student's ability to take standardized tests.  Parent-teacher meetings can either become gab-fests, with no information of substance, or sessions of passing the buck.  So with a lack of information, and no good way of clarifying it, parents are unable to make good decisions. 

Enter the ad campaigns.

Since the invention of capitalism, we've been making life-altering decisions with not much information.  And the way we do it is by ads.  Ads can raise awareness of a new product and they can inform consumers of what products are the best.  In practice, however, they end up playing on emotion much more heavily than they do on information. And they're absolutely crucial to the way we decide what to buy.

And so we apply these same ideas to school.  We have no good information, no good way of finding out what the information is, and by the time we find out what we need to know, it's too late.  So we turn to advertising.  Parents need to send their students to schools, and the ones with options will do their best to get them into the best schools (4).  It is now incumbent upon schools to convince parents that they are the best.  Since we're all still guessing what parents want, that's kind of a neat trick. 

Now we get back to the present.  I work at a small district with a declining enrollment--not because we're the worst school--quite the opposite, in fact.  Our ACT scores are best in the state, we consistently have among the highest MEAP writing scores, our special ed test scores are almost knock-your-socks-off good, many of our students go on to prestigious colleges, and many more find satisfactory work in the skilled trades.  Since sports appear to be important to parents, it's worth noting that our football team has been in the state semifinals most years and has 11 state championships; our cross and track teams are outstanding; we can count on our women's basketball and volleyball teams being district champs.  To all appearances, we're exactly what everybody should be looking for in a school district. 

And yet. 

The population of the county is decreasing and getting older.  It's a problem for all of our county's district, as it is for many places in the state.  We're one of the least-well compensated school districts in the county, and in the 25th percentile in the state. 

Our latest step increase is tied to student enrollment.  This suggests that we have some responsibility in recruiting students.  It is my position and that of my colleagues that it is our job to teach students, and administrators' jobs to get students into our door.  And when our administration thinks otherwise, then what?

(1) We'll ignore the general practice of cronyism that we're experiencing with charter schools.

(2) We'll ignore the political ramifications of destroying the most powerful mobilizing force on the side of the Democrats.

(3) This is paraphrased from Wikipedia.

(4) We'll ignore the classist assumptions that all parents are able to make these choices.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

NEW FAVORITE RESOURCE *SQUEE*

In case I haven’t made it clear yet, I just love it when nerd-ism and good pedagogy come together. Today, they have come together in the form of Big Huge Lab’s Trading Card generator.  I found this as part of my T3 Making Technology School Readiness training (more about that eventually, if I can take the time from training to reflect on it).  The trading card generator lets you upload a picture, include some text, and select some presets (including some logo stuff), and it will generate a Magic: the Gathering-style playing card.  I’m having really nerdy ideas about how to use this faster than I can type them out.





Image: Don Quijote y Sancho Panza by Pablo Picasso, I don't remember where I got it.  Bad citation. Text from "El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha," by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. 

For content: Create a deck of cards for:
Characters in a story
Important people (Artist series, Author series, Musician series, Scientist series, Politician series).  Especially entertaining to pass one of these out per student per day during Hispanic Heritage Month, or on other special occasions.
Countries--pick the qualities in the description with some care

Student-created cards:
Have artsy students draw pictures of characters or other important elements.  Have write-ey students write out descriptions of characters.  Upload all of this to a common source.  Have students create custom decks for reference during stories.

In-class activities:
Have a blind draw or a trading session.  Give some kind of reward for completing sets.

Classroom management:
Use in parallel with, supplementing, or instead of a badge system.
Have students pose for pictures for common school or class tasks.  Issue cards when other students are doing the same thing.  (This is problematic for a bunch of reasons.)
Use the school or class currency to buy “booster packs.”
Student-created decks describing actions or characters or events, a la MtG.
Can I actually create a whole game mechanic, or steal a deck-building game mechanic, to staple on to this?

Really, this is going to be a thing quickly. I’m going to have to look into printing costs, or possibly into writing an app that lets students collect virtual cards.  Or possibly it’s one of the gamification things I get really excited about and then totally fizzles, as it takes too much time and nobody’s as excited about it as I am. 

On a tangentially related note, also as part of this training, I found out that Moodle has badges enabled, so now I have to get into that.  Our teacher websites are on a SchoolWires platform called Centricity 2; I wonder if they can do badges?

PD Big Huge Labs has a Badge generator!  Ooh!  Ooh!  That’s it; I’m taking the next week off.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

New developments in statewide standardized assessments

More of an observation than any actual analysis.

In a document published in April 2014 (Assessment Transitions Communication), the state announced that it had planned to start publishing interim assessments*.  In the same document, the state published the conclusion that the Smarter Balanced assessment was really the only way forward.  Since then, the legislature (not the MDE and not the Bureau of Assessments) has decided not to fund the Smarter Balanced assessment, at least not until they go through a bidding process.  I wonder if the interim assessments are going to go forward, because that really would have been useful.

*Interim assessments are defined as tests that students can take throughout the school year to measure their progress.  Not, as the name suggested to me, something they're doing until something better comes up.  Although they're doing that, too.

http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/Assessment_Transitions_Communication-April_2_2014_452589_7.pdf

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer news on Michigan schools

A little bit of posting links so I can find them again, and a little bit of analysis. 

First, new rules on teacher certification.  The last new rules made it easier to get re-certified: just don't skip the district-provided professional development you already have to go to, and you can re-up your professional certification every 5 years.  I don't remember what the rules for renewing a provisional certificate, or moving from a provisional to a professional certificate, were, 'cos last year I was too freaked out about getting my professional cert renewed.  (Turns out I needn't have worried.)

It looks like the new new rules, effective as of a week ago, make the process of using in-school PD more consistent with using college credits or SCECHs (state-approved, non-district provided PD). 

MEA's flow chart on new certification rules

Next, the state-wide summative assessment.  Until last year this was called the MEAP, and it was the sort of fill-in-the-bubble test which it turns out really only tested reading, no matter what subject name was at the top, but that was okay, because that's pretty much what the ACT does.  (We all know that the ACT is the last word in school efficacy.)  For the last 3 years or so, we have been moving towards the Smarter Balanced assessment, which is computer-based, still kind of multiple choice, and a whole lot harder.  (I for one think this is a good thing, but it has its skeptics, and they include some of the smartest people writing about schools in America.)  Also, unlike the MEAP, the Smarter Balanced assessment was going to take place in the spring, after we'd taught the students what was going to be on it, rather than in October, before they'd learned anything but where to put their backpacks at the beginning of the day.

Over the last year, a number of states have started to backpedal on using the Smarter Balanced assessment and the Common Core standards to which the assessment is tied.  This is a problem for two big reasons.  1.)  The reasons for slowing down have nothing do to with effective education, assessment, or accountability, and heaven knows this plan has plenty of those problems that need addressing.  They seem to be nearly entirely political, which is interesting because the reasons for changing from MEAP to Smarter Balanced also had nothing to do with education and were almost entirely political.  2.) Schools have spent the last 3 years getting ready to implement the Smarter Balanced assessment, and 5 years implementing the Common Core standards.  To change now, the year before everything is supposed to come to fruition, would make for an enormous waste of time and money, neither of which schools have in abundance to begin with.  

Michigan is one of the states backpedaling on the Smarter Balanced assessment.  The state government passed a school aid budget that did not include funding for the Smarter Balanced assessment, but did include money for the MEAP assessment.  This, predictably, caused a freak-out.  If you worked in an auto manufacturing plant and were told that the whole plant was going to be re-fitted, so that instead of making Ford Focuses you would now be making Hummers, and then come to find out you're still making Focuses after all, that's the kind of whiplash change we're talking about, only the re-fitting has taken 5 years and you still had to build Focuses the whole time. 

Today the State Superintendent's office issued a clarification memo, of sorts: It won't be the MEAP after all, we're just calling it the MEAP because that's what we used to call it.  It won't be Smarter Balanced, either, because there's no money for that.  We're going to make a new test, just for school year 2014-15, which we promise will be much better than the MEAP, and we'll get back to you on what we're going to do for SY 2015-16 later.  No word on who's going to design the test--my guess is they're going to take questions from old MEAP tests.  No word on who's going to publish the test--my guess is Pearson.  No word on if the test will undergo anything like the months of prep work and field testing across 45 states that Smarter Balanced has already gone through--my guess is no.

MDE's clarification on student assessment memo

Friday, June 27, 2014

Changes to the Michigan Merit Curriculum, WL edition

NB A link to the full law, as well as the excerpt of the relevant paragraph, are below. +

HISTORY: In 2007, Michigan passed a law called the Michigan Merit Curriculum.  Among other things, it required a minimum of 1 high school credit in static or performing arts, 1 credit per year (up to 4) in mathematics, including algebra 2, and 2 years of world languages other than English or equivalent experience.  The world language requirement would come into effect for the graduating class of 2016 (the students who start 11th grade in the fall), giving schools 3-6 years (depending on how close they wanted to cut it) to gear up that program.

REVISED LAW: On Tuesday, Gov. Snyder signed an update to the above law.  Its objective was to increase flexibility in high school scheduling, especially in regards to career and technical education.  It allows students to replace their algebra II class with a similarly rigorous CTE course.  It also allows students to fulfill up to one of their WLOE credits by taking extra art or CTE, up through the graduating class of 2020 (that's the class that just finished 6th grade and will begin 7th grade in the fall).

ANALYSIS: Replacing math with CTE  is cool, because there are lots of opportunities for using data and building mathematical models and interpolating and extrapolating and real-world trigonometric functions in careers and technical training.  We had a CTE course on robotics for a few years in St. Joe County; I'll bet they got their math on in THAT course. 

The replacement for WL is more nebulous. It allows students to swap out one of their years of WL for another "elective."  Art (including music) and CTE are valuable courses, and all too often we compete with each other for high-level students.  It's hard enough for juniors and seniors to take one of these things, because they're required to take English and math all four years (which I approve of), plus get all their other requisites in.  It's nearly impossible for them to take more than one.  This change does give them some flexibility to pursue individual interests, and that's a good thing.

The difficulty I'm having is in this: in the not-all-that-long-a-day, not-really-very-much-of-the-year, often-interrupted structure of the world language classroom, genuine acquisition takes a long time.  Only the original legislators know why they wanted 2 years of WL in the original bill, but the Michigan World Language Association, the state organization for language teachers, recommended two years as the minimum amout of time necessary for students to reach the Novice High level of competency*.  This is defined** as being able to fuction in common, everyday communication situations that presented no difficulties.   Cutting this requirement down to 1 year means students with no other language experience will have enough competency to recognize when the language is being spoken and feel bad that, after ONE WHOLE YEAR (probably like 140 hours, or two weeks of what you were exposed to when you were a baby learning English), they don't understand anything.

I'm not sure I have room to complain, really.  Students are still required to take a minimum of one year of a world language, which is more than was required before.  Many students will continue to choose to take the second year, since this is still a requisite for entry into most colleges.  The ones who don't, though, the ones who choose to take only one year...It's better than nothing, it will be good for them, I'll make it worth their time, and they'll leave being able to speak a little Spanish and understand a lot more.  Besides, 1 required year is where the entire arts department currently rests.  I guess I'm a little offended because this is so clearly schedule manipulation, based not at all on research in education or language acquisition, but on what state lawmakers view as the priority for our schools--making sure students have time in schools to learn skills that employers ought to be responsible for teaching them anyway,
 
+ http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2013-2014/billenrolled/House/htm/2013-HNB-4465.htm

(2) In addition to the requirements under subsection (1), the board of a school district or board of directors of a public school academy shall not award a high school diploma to a pupil unless the pupil has successfully completed during grades K to 12 at least 2 credits that are grade-appropriate in a language other than English or course work or other learning experiences that are substantially equivalent to 2 credits in a language other than English, based on guidelines developed by the department. For pupils who graduate from high school in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, or 2020 only, a pupil may partially or fully fulfill 1 credit of this requirement by completing a department-approved formal career and technical education program or curriculum or by completing visual or performing arts instruction that is in addition to the requirements under subsection (1)(a)(iv). 

*Michigan Department of Education (2007).  World Languages Standards and Benchmarks. p 5.

** American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (2012).  ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners. http://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/PerformanceDescriptorsLanguageLearners.pdf  Note that the link goes to the most recent version of the Performance Descriptors.  The main change has been to the level of detail of the descriptors, not in the scope of what a student should be able to do.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Reflections SY 2013-14

This has been a year of tremendous activity, and lots of the areas where I've been spending most of my time have nothing to do with teaching or learning.

First, to get it out of my head and onto someplace I'll be able to find it again, my colleague Beth asked me a few days ago what I know about layered curriculum.  She asked me because she wanted to look into it, and I have strong opinions about almost every new buzzword that comes up.  I don't know anything about layered curriculum.  The way Beth described it makes it sound very much like what I think standards-based curriculum is: you have a learning goal.  You identify some core of knowledge (vocabulary, usually) that you have to have in order for any higher learning to occur.  You identify the learning target, which is some higer thinking about the standard.  Then you identify the next step, the bigger objective, something that uses the knowledge in a new way.  Again, I'm filtering her description of layered curriculum through my prior knowledge, so it may be that I don't understand any of it.  I might look into it for next year, though.

This was my first year of all TPRS, all the time, with no other considerations.  I can attest to its power.  All of my students--ALL of my students--are doing much better on much harder assignments than they had before.  All except a few are comfortable answering 10 questions about any reading assignment I care to give them, within reason and with proper scaffolding.  The main keys I'm taking away from it are not so different than other sorts of curriculum design: know what's essential, know where your students are in the process, know what their next step is.  The main difference is in the primary method of instruction and the degree of expertise.  Once you've stripped down absolutely everything non-essential, you only have a few things that you have to know, and you need to know those to the point of automaticity.  Because what you're learning is not a set of facts or a process for
organizing information, but a whole new language, you need 75-80 comprehensible exposures to a new word in order to internalize it.  (I suspect that this has ramifications for content instruction, too.)  The hard part for an instructor is to make this not just interesting, so students don't disengage, but compelling, so they actually want to know what happens next, badly enough that they'll work through the ambiguities of the language.

 Working on that principle, it is much easier to stay in the target language for big swaths of class time than it used to be, and it's much clearer when to move on and when to back up.  Once I knew what I wanted the students to learn, I could use the materials that Blaine Ray's excellent on-line

I learned a lot of the limitations of the method, too, at least as I currently practice it.  There are a number of them, and I might go into some detail about them presently.  But it basically all boils down to 1.) a lack of preparation and 2.) a tendency to fall back on old ideas, although not in the way I expected.  As far as preparation, I'm definitely going to spend some time this summer mapping out exactly which vocabulary words and structures I want to teach, and in what order.  I envision a calendar, each with one phrase on it, and that will be the phrase we focus on that day.  Somewhere in my literature I remember seeing something that suggests 3 structures per 2 days is a good, ambitious, but attainable target.  I think I'll stick to 1 per day, though, at least at first.  This preparation is important for two reasons.  First, I found myself re-hashing sturctures my students had long since mastered, and not adding anything new.  I wasn't hurting anyone, we were still spending class time speaking Spanish, so it was still better than working on handouts.  But we weren't moving forward as efficiently as other sources suggest we should have been able to.  Second, I also found myself trying to circle every new structure in Blaine Ray's "New Mini-Stories for TPRS" and "Pobre Ana."  This meant that I wasn't circling any one structure enough times.  Knowing what I'm going to focus on that day will help me get in the repetitions that I need.  It also suggests a host of supplemental activities that I can have the students do to work more with a given structure; more about that once I've figured it out better. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Diane Ravitch and the Common Core

Diane Ravitch gave a speech criticizing the Common Core State Standards.  This isn't a surprise; it's sort of been her schtick since they started talking about them.  And the more I learn about them, the more I agree with her criticisms.

First, a starting position.  Writ large, I believe that all students can learn, and that a teacher's job is to help them do it.  All students can think at profound levels, they can analyze new information and evaluate arguments and all of those things.  At least at higher levels, they can think abstractly enough about their learning in order to realize that it doesn't matter what novel (or article or whatever) you're reading, the higher-order thinking skills can be applied equally well to anything.  Teachers can almost categorically up their game and encourage these skills.  A long checklist of standards does not lend itself to this sort of depth of knowledge, and so a shorter list of better standards would at least in theory be more helpful.

And for a long long time, we've written off as lost causes those students who can best benefit from really high-quality instruction techniques.  Students with learning disabilities can almost universally learn more stuff than what schools have historically taught them.  When school special ed support systems focus on what students CAN do, rather than what they can't, they can make huge progress.  This is not to suggest that high standards cure autism, but rather to suggest that autism doesn't make you incapable of learning.  The earlier high-stakes regime has meant that schools are no longer able to forget about its neediest students--ELLs, students with learning disabilities, students with behavioral problems, the gamut, are now held to the same standard as everyone else.  This should help focus intervention resources where they're most needed.

As Ravitch notes, though, there are real consequences to giving a test to a student when everybody knows that the student is going to "fail" it, particularly when the fault lies not in the students nor in the teacher but in the test.  The people who developed the standards were mostly not educators, and didnt' have a lot of experience in writing educational standards of this kind.  None of them were early-elementary educators, which seems like an utter miscarriage of common sense.  PreK through second grade is the time when schools can have the biggest positive (or negative) impact on a student's education.  To exclude those educators is to ignore the reality of the profession utterly.

Most damning of all, though, from an education view, is that there is no way to change these standards.  Our state standards were clunky, but it was possible to change them.  (In the case of the World Language standards, they were also written by a small committee of world-class teacher leaders, and even they managed to muck it up some.)  The English standards went through three drafts that I'm aware of between the time state-level standards began and the time the state adopted the Common Core.  But these--when we find out that there is no way to instruct first-graders on the deeper meaning of Stelaluna and the symbolism of the trees, to whom do we write to change them? 

The next 10 years is going to be an interesting time in education.  Watch this space for occasional not-particularly-insightful missives from the field.