Saturday, March 28, 2009

Brown / Brookings

I got an article from the Brookings Institute, reviewing the 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education, from my principal a couple of weeks ago. It's been sitting on my "to deal with soon" pile since then. (The "to deal with soon" pile is actually more of a metaphor, than an actual pile. It's spread across desks, counters, tabletops, boxes, and filing cabinets in 2 counties.) I've just now finished reading it. It looks at 3 issues: Comparing states' standard assessments to an international standard called PISA and their relative abilities to show educational efficacy; mandatory 8th-grade algebra programs; and an analysis of big-city student achievements compared to the suburban and rural school districts surrounding them.

Part 1:) Brown Center says that supporters say that PISA can offer policymakers evidence on what works and what doesn't around the world. Brown Center says not so fast, and states some problems with that idea. I don't know anything about the specifics, and until I start working on my doctorate in International Curriculum Alignment and Benchmarking, I'm unlikely to do so. But I'm pretty sure that we don't have any kind of standard curriculum around the world, we don't have any aggreement (and no plans to get one) with Europe on what our students should know, how well they should know it, and when. So to look at the standardized tests of Europe without any curriculum context is like comparing apples to, oh, I don't know, front-lawn sod. This is sharply different from the International Baccalaureate program, which does include some curriculum content. (Not saying IB is the answer to all questions. Just saying.)

Part 2:) California and Minnesota have passed laws that mandate algebra for all 8th graders by 2011. Brown Center says that we shouldn't have all 8th graders taking algebra, at least until we figure out how better to teach lagging math students. In other news, eating too much fat causes people to gain weight. Of course we shouldn't mandate algebra for 8th graders. High exptectations are one thing, but algebra involves a certain amount of neurological development that not all developing people have achieved by the age of 12-14. We should DEFINITELY have the option of 8th grade algebra available to those who are ready--heck, 7th (or 6th) grade algebra should be OK. We should DEFINITELY work towards having preK-7th grade math instruction strong enough to prepare 8th-grade students for algebra. But to require it seems like an awful idea.

Part 3:) Big-city schools are improving on standardized tests as compared to the suburbs and rural schools surrounding them. Brown Center says the progress is slow but steady, and is not prepared to say why this is. NCLB? Maybe. Mayoral control of schools? Not sure. I have no opinion of this. I'm happy for the big schools that have achieved good results. Nowhere near enough data to do any better than that.

Friday, March 27, 2009

People doing pt. 2

Dina Strasser's take on Chapter 2 of Marzano's Art and Science, over at ASCD Inservice. I'll be eagerly watching to see if Marzano continues to speak.

Dina Strasser's other blog. I haven't had time to look through it yet, but I've liked her on ASCD. Looking forward to less "assignment-driven" blogging.

To find her first chapter, you can click on the "Teaching" tag on the left of ASCD's website. You can also click here for this humble blog's link to the first chapter, and Marzano's oracular response.

Metablog: Tried the Trackback link instead of the other link, the wossname, the Permalink. We'll see if I show up.

Update: It didn't like the TrackBack link. Updated to fix.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ad Hoc

Latin for "making it up as you go along."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Revisiting flashcards

This was inspired by a conversation with a student from Germany who isn't in my Spanish class, about how to teach vocabulary in a World Languages course.

I don't use flash cards most of the time. I try to incorporate communicative activities in my classroom as much as possible. So I try to avoid using "memorize the Spanish word / memorize the English translation" activities as much as possible. My students still have a vocab list with the Spanish on one side and the English on another, because they get nervous if they can't see their vocabulary. But I use it as a security blanket, not as a primary source of vocabulary. (That's the intent, at least.) I see flashcards, as a rule, as an extension of memorizing translations. Studies show that this is an ineffective method of learning a language over the long term.

Instead, my students do glossary entries--they write the Spanish word and its translation, write a definition in Spanish or use the word in an example sentence, and draw a picture that illustrates the word. The idea is that by using the word in a meaningful sentence, they give it a meaningful context; by drawing a picture of it, they engage in non-lingustic representation, which helps with both retention and contextualization. I'll try to find the research on non-linguistic representation on vocabulary. The research is on the effects of vocabulary on L1 content learning, but it makes sense that L1 vocabulary acquisition strategies would work on L2 vocabulary, as well. The idea is that the students do one of these a day.

But this student, who learned English in Germany before coming to the United States, suggests a mechanism for using flash cards of the "L2-on-one-side-L1-on-the-other" effectively. It works like this--The student gets a box with 5 numbered compartments and 10 vocab cards. You run through the vocab, and every word you can translate and pronounce correctly moves up a compartment. Every day 10 or so new vocabulary cards go into Compartment 1. You study Compartment 1 every day, moving cards you know up. Compartment 2 gets studied every other day, with cards moving up as you go. Compartment 3 gets studied every week; compartment 4, every other week; Compartment 5, every month. After you know the vocabulary from Compartment 5, you can throw the card away, because you know the vocabulary forever.

Comparisons: If done correctly, both of these methods have students spending 10 minutes a day studying vocabulary, which is extremely helpful for long-term acquisition. (Source needed.)

Contrasts: The flash card box has a mechanism for revisiting old vocabulary; I ask my students to revisit their glossary, but have no way of making sure they do. The flash cards ask students to memorize vocbulary, while the glossaries ask them to use the vocabulary. Flashcards have students going over a large number of words each day, while glossary entries ask students to go over one word and use it in 3 different ways (including the one I purport to reject as effective). lashcards focus on 1-word-at-a-time acquisition, while glossaries ask students to use the words in sentences. The flashcard box places a specific value on knowing how to pronounce the words for advancement, and the glossaries do not.

Refinements: Flashcards could include pictures instead of words, where practical. (Turns out it's tough to draw a picture that represents conjunctions and words like "however.") I could include vocab quizzes for glossary entries, or some ongoing showing-off-glossary-entry speaking projects. Both projects could be modified to make them computer-based; this would use less paper and increase useability, but then accessibility would be a factor.

Mini-study idea: While presenting new vocabulary, half the class gets a flash card box and half the class gets a refined glossary entry project, with a limited set of vocabulary to choose from. Each assigment should be filled daily, and appropriate controls are put it to encourage and enforce compliance--the teacher checks the flash card box for changes, and checks in glossary entries, every day. After 1 week, the students take a vocabulary test that focuses on students' abilities to comprehend vocabulary; resulsts are compared. The test is re-administered after another week, and 1 month after the beginning date of the project, to test long-term retention.

Friday, March 13, 2009

On charter schools

David Brooks on charter schools: "He [Obama] will reward states that expand charter schools, which are drivers of innovation, so long as they use data to figure out which charters are working."

Well, that's why people support charter schools, I suppose. They drive innovation. Huh.

How's that working out for us?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama's speech on education

I'm not exactly liveblogging this, because the speech happened hours ago. But I'm typing as I watch the video replay-at least the edited version on CNN. I'll try to slap some coherence on at the end.

1.) "Show me a plan to improve early childhood education to prepare students for grade school, get grant money (pending Congress approval)." Probably there's no systemic change that would help education more than a high-quality pre-K education program. All in favor of it. Education spending in the US (and probably everywhere else) is backwards--we should be spending huge amounts on pre-K--2 education. It would push the standards of the rest of the grades forward to sprint off the line.

2.) Encourage better standards and assessments. "Children can, and they must, and they will meet higher standards in our time." For a second, it sounded like he was talking about national education standards. But no, he just meant that states need to be doing a better job about setting their own. (Did he say something about an interstate education consortium? An organization for planning standards across state lines?) Not sure entrepreneurship is a 21st-century skill. High expectations across the board--no excuses--along with teachers equipped to teach them, would go a long way towards effective instruction. If everyone buys into it.

" not only making sure that schools and principals are getting the money they need, but that the money is tied to results." This sounds EXACTLY like the original intent of NCLB--do well, get money. Don't do well, don't get money. It was precisely this aspect of NCLB that got it in such trouble with teachers in the first place. The only way this isn't a return to the worst aspect of NCLB is if he means that some sort of federal "blueprint for success" or some such comes free with every million dollars' grant money. Money to invest in innovation in the school district.

"Provide teachers and prinicpals the information they need...." I thought this was going to talk about a "blueprint for success," again. But it seems to be a call for a central database for keeping track of students' progress. It sounds like a pretty good idea, and sheds some light on my "information-gathering" post from weeks ago (or is that the one that Blogger ate?) (He cites Huston and Long Beach; Florida's state tracking) "Major investment to cultivate a new culture of accountability."

3.) Democrats are guilty of opposing "rewarding excellence"; Republicans are guilty of opposing "investments in early education". So, we're going to throw money at both. "Time to start rewarding good students." "New pathways to teaching and new incentives" to get teachers where we need them. Teacher pay; more supports to teachers; "move bad teachers out of the classroom."

"I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."--The unions are going to have a field day with this. This sort of sounds like a head-on assault on teachers' unions; it sounds like a right-wing talking point against teachers' unions. I don't work in a big school district, where an administrator can shuffle an underperforming teacher from school to school for years before anything bad happens.

4.) Changing the calendar: I am entirely in favor of increasing the length of the school calendar. In my particular school district, it would be expensive. Teachers cannot and should not increase their calendar time without due increases in compensation--indeed, it's the only thing we have to bargain with. There's no money for raises, so student-contact time (to the extent admissible by state law) is the only thing left to talk about. However, we clearly need the modifications he calls for here. More school time, after-school programs, longer school days into the summer, etc. All good. Now, and I say this in the least petty way possible, show me the money. I truly can't afford to do it for free. And if it's worth doing, certainly it's worth paying for. (This is going to lead to a discussion of education finance reform, very quickly. So I'll back away from the precipice slowly.)

And for sheep's sake, can we please disconnect sports from schools? Can we please stop acting like a 2-hour-long basketball practice is more important than getting homework done? (More about homework some other time. Baaack awaaaaay slooooooowly....)

According to the White House Blog, this is where he talked about charter schools. But I didn't hear anything about them. I know Obama supports them, though, so here's my piece. I agree that schools need major reform. But I reject the premise that charter schools are anything but a short-term fix. Nobody's ever explained to me what charter schools are supposed to do that public schools aren't already doing. If someone can do that, maybe I'll stop believing that they're union-busting techniques in the guise of improving student achievement. Let me put it this way--if you're in a sinking ship, you'll hop onto any dinghy, sailboat, inflatable life raft, or chunk of flotsam that passes by. But you don't want to sail across the sea in it, you want another ship that isn't going to sink. The way I see this, public schools are the ships. Charter schools are the life rafts. Probably better than nothing, but not much, and not for long.

5.) Student responsibility--I'm reminded of a quote from the director of New Teacher Academy, quiting from somebody else. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. But you can salt the oats." I think if schools were doing a better job, students would be more likely to stay in. If education were perceived as more valuable, students would be less likely to drop out. This is one of those "rising sea raises all ships" things for me. Better schools make for better students, etc. It ties into the "higher standards" thing he was talking about, too. On the other hand, I can't get my students out of bed on time to catch the bus for them. So he has a point here, too.

All in all, it sounds like Obama's listing pretty hard to what is traditionally the right side of this argument, except he's talking about throwing a lot of (or at least some) federal dollars behind it. I worry about what would happen to all of these great ideas the next time we elect a deficit hawk, anti-federal-government-spending president. I can only hope that the reforms prove so valuable that cutting their funding would be laughable, and there would be no political will for it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Baby steps in the correct direction

I think learning has occurred. I'm not great at dealing professionally with elementary students, both by training and by disposition. So, after three years of making a significant portion of my living by teaching elementary students, I had a good day. For the first time in a long time, my elementary school class today went well by design, instead of by the good graces and personalities of the students, and the tremendous amount of work done by other teachers. I feel like I practiced techniques I should have known a loooooonnnnnng time ago--don't escalate confrontations with students; raised voices do not necessarily mean increased communication (as a World Languages teacher, you'd think I'd know that already); ambiguous communications are easy to misunderstand (see last parenthetical statement).

So I'm learning. Slowly. Hopefully, my students are learning more quickly.