Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I told myself I wouldn't do this

Gov. Rick Snyder came out with proposals for reforming Michigan's education system.  I'm not watching the press conference.

I'm not going to read the article or the accompanying PDF.  I'm certainly not reading the follow-up articles on

And whatever I do, I'm not going to blog about it.

I won't be happy with anything I hear.  I've got real work to do.  I don't have time.  I had four hours of sleep yesterday.  My clothes are slimy with the humidity.  I'm cranky.  No good can come of it.  It will only upset me.


(All of these references come from the Special Message on Education Reform PDF.)

Do schools really give pizza parties on count day?  I think that the attendance taking system actually sees through that ploy.  I have the exact same criticism for this funding model that I had for it when Bush proposed it under NCLB: He wants to give money to schools doing well. A "reward," he calls it, or an incentive, or something.  What about the schools that don't improve?  Well, less money for you.  I forget who said it, but it's still true: Money can't solve everything, but it can solve some things.  It's obvious that a businessman would want to put more money into what works, but it just leaves too many schools behind, and there's no way--NO way--the remaining "good" schools could pick up the slack.  In a competitive environment, the winners pull further ahead, the losers stay really lost.  His solution to this is to erase all school borders and increase on-line learning opportunities.

I disapprove of charter schools.  I don't think more of them will do anything to improve education.  Indeed, in an environment where the people furthest ahead are likely to continue to be so by dint of increased funding, the charter schools won't last long.  They'll be nothing more than an expensive distraction for the next 10 years.

Merit pay is a pipe dream.  It may or may not work for the next 5 years, while people still think it's a great idea.  Then, some funding emergency will come up.  The funding for merit pay will dry up.  Then, all the "incentive" teachers had to do a good job will be gone.  Here's hoping the good teachers stay.  This scenario is just as probable for schools and districts as it is for individual teachers.

I kind of like the idea presented in "Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace."  Anything that makes success in school less dependent on the game of school is a good thing.  The rest of that paragraph sounds like it was inspired by Waiting for Superman.

"Cost-efficient, competitive, innovative, and effective."  Hmm.  I'll ponder the grouping of these four adjectives later.  Particularly their order.

The symbolic gesture of creating "a P-20 state education system" by making the state school fund pay for the whole thing, while simultaneously not paying anything extra into the system, would be laughable, if there were anything at all funny about it.

Effective feedback for teachers is important. Fair, rigorous and meaningful evaluation systems are important.  Peer learning and shared practice are important.  Intelligent use of technology to enhance performance is important.  Recognition of high performance is important.  I don't know if reward for high performance is or not.  Research suggests not.  The point is, though, we don't have any of those other things.  We're not getting them any time soon.  It will be good to have them.  If nothing else, this speech should be able to push everyone in the direction of getting them.

I will be evaluated on the effectiveness of my teaching to the tune of 40% based on student achievement growth, when I've seen some evidence that the state's standardized tests are in any way a meaningful assessment of same.

I don't think most administrators are able to put in the time to do teacher evaluations properly.  On a similar note, who's evaluating the efficacy of administrators?  We're all about transparency and accountability, right?  And I don't mind about effectiveness in teaching being more important than seniority, although I think more experienced teachers often have a great deal to add.  We simply have no system for determining effectiveness of teachers.  I really need to find the link, but not so long ago, I remember reading that when Arizona got rid of its seniority priority laws, they fired all the experienced teachers.  This was not because they were ineffective, but because they're expensive.  Whether or not the law is intended this way, it will be used this way by increasingly cash-strapped school districts.

And the money phrase: "Michigan has to nurture great teachers, make sure they find satisfying career paths that reward them for teaching excellence, and keep them in the classroom[...]."  You're doing a heck of a job, Rickie.

PD.  I am going to write to my congressman and ask him to propose legislation to officially change the name of our state from Michigan to New Michigan.  This will allow us to break completely with the old way of educating our kids, and symbolize the new and shining future that we'll create for them.  I further propose that every 100 years we successfully manage not to be annexed by Indiana, we add another "New" to the name.  Not necessarily to the beginning.  "New Michigan New" has a nice symmetry to it.

Edited to add:  I just saw the Education Dashboard.  Under the category "Value for money," the only metric is the percentage of school districts running a deficit for 3 years or more.

Friday, April 22, 2011

More about reading

In a comment on Coates's take on teaching reading, Ray says the following.

Two good books that are must reads for those who want to change reading in schools are Readicide; How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher and Focus: Elevating the Essentials To Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker. Gallagher describes how American schools are killing the love of reading in schools and then he gives a plan to change the issue. Schmoker’s book is how we can take some straight forward steps to increase student knowledge in every subject through teaching some very simple steps for reading, writing, and talking.
I started to respond in the comments; when I got to the third paragraph, I just turned it into a blog post.

Readicide is on my reading list.  At my school, we have a very functional, test-score-driven approach to teaching reading.  It works for us; our reading scores are pretty good and getting better.  But I end up with huge numbers of seniors (I teach both the senior English classes) who have no interest in reading anything again.  So I just made it an assignment: Find a book you want to read.  Read it.  Tell me what you read.  I have guidelines for people who need that sort of thing:  They have to read 10,000 words every two weeks (a VERY light requirement) and the summary should be 100-250 words long.  But when students want to break the guidelines, I repeat that the assignment is to read something and tell me about it.  They can send me a video, an e-mail, turn in a paper, whatever.  They have to use words in their summary, but other than that, I don't care about the format.  I don't want the assignment to get in the way of the reading.

I have some anecdotal information to suggest that the assignment is having its intended effect.  Some of my upper-level students are taking time to read that they otherwise wouldn't, because they all lead busy lives with rigorous academic schedules and more social activities than can possibly be healthy.  They say they're enjoying the experience.  Other students, including a few that hate reading, have reported, "This is the first book I've ever read for school that I enjoyed!".  They're not books that I would have chosen for them, but then, that's the point, isn't it?

I worry about this assignment: I'm not really adding value to the experience.  This is an assignment that they could do on their own.  My good students can already read well, and I'm not doing anything to help the ones who aren't good readers.  But the point is that they don't read on their own; they don't get a grade for it, so it's not seen as important.  The anecdotes are frequent enough to keep me doing it, and I've since reviewed some evidence that helps justify it.  Dan Brown, in his post "You can't compensate for not reading," says that independent readers just do better, and that makes sense.  That point, however, raises another worry--am I affecting the "read on your own" thing by making it mandatory?

The point of that whole assignment description was to say that I'm eagerly looking forward to reading Readicide, which is kind of ironic, when you think about it.

Schmocker is also on my list--he also wrote Results Now, which Ray lent to me and I never got around to reading.  Between the title and Ray's summary, Focus might just be the book I've been looking for.  Those are reasonably good descriptions of my goals for the senior reading program.

My go-to guide for teaching reading is I read it, but I don't get it by Cris Tovani.  In it, she identifies 8 or 9 skills that good readers have and outlines her lessons for how she teaches them and how she encourages her students to use them.  I started out the year by presenting them, and it was surprising how few of them even my good readers did.  I sort of stopped referencing those strategies directly to my students, but I always keep them in mind when I design reading assignments.  I think that those strategies are a big part of what ELA class is, or at least what it should be.

It's been so long since I've been to school as an English teacher.  I have a lot of knowledge about the theory of learning, from many many many very interesting seminars on Marzano's books, differentiating instruction, and RtI.  From those seminars, I have a lot of "every teacher is a reading teacher" strategies.  But I don't have a lot of specialized content knowledge about teaching ELA.  I'm still an emerging practitioner of reading theory and writing processes.  The more of these books I can get my hands on, the smoother things will be, I hope

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Management theory, education theory, and philosophy

I was thinking that this summer I might read some management books, based on the idea that big chunks of classroom management probably have considerable overlap with the most effective HR departments of major corporations.  If management companies can find a way to convince employees that working for (for example) BP is actually a good move, then surely I can convince my students that reading is fun; at least my statement is true.

Before I got the chance, though, I read this article (h/t Making Light) that argues that business management theory is basically a stupid, corrupt sub-set of philosophy.  Now in my college years, I had a philosophy instructor suggest that all knowledge was a sub-set of philosophy, and for all I know, he was right.  But this philosopher-turned-business-consultant-turned-philosopher argues (I think) that the bond between management theory and philosophy are much more tight than a simple "philosophy trumps all" philosophy. 

This intersects with the focus of this blog in several ways.  First, the whole premise of the article is a critique of the education of managers.  Shorter Stewart: We charge too much for MBA's and then we don't teach them anything.  Many graduates of Harvard's MBA program are successful, but this is not because Harvard cranks out great MBA's.  It's because you have to be very intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, and probably financially stable to get into the program.  You have to be all of those things, only a lot more so, to graduate from those programs.  Coincidentally, those skills are also requisites for success in any area, but specifically business management.  So Harvard's MBA program isn't necessarily good at creating good managers, but it may be good at finding good managers.

In education, this question is asked of most advanced coursework: does my Honors English class create good thinker/communicators, or does it just find people who are good at those things and make them work at it?  Is there really a difference?  If there is, is it one that matters after graduation?  If that's all we're good for, then why do we insist on educating everyone?  Why not just find the best?  (NB: Regular readers know that I am firmly dedicated to the principle of high-quality education for ALL students.  I have no interest in being a cherry picker.)

Second, throughout Stewart's criticism, the parallel between business management theory and classroom management holds.  In fact, in many ways it grows stronger and expands to include the whole field of education theory.  Ed theory focuses on how people learn, what they should learn, how other people can get them to learn it, how we know when they have learned it, and what to do with them if they haven't (and if they have).  It's a field of study which, like philosophy and management theory, has at its core a search for tools for quantifying and analyzing human experience.  This leaves me with the resounding question: Should I be studying more philosophy than ed theory?  Stop reading Marzano and start reading Kant?


Friday, April 15, 2011

How to teach books to kids

My friend Jamie sent this to me.   It seems not to be so much "How to teach books to kids," as "How not to teach books to kids like me."  Here's my response in its entirety.





*processing, please wait*

Well, at first blush, I reject the premise that schools are strictly utilitarian in nature, or that the objective is to make productive little workers ready to jump into the job market.  I also reject the unstated premise that no "form of mass education" can be of benefit to "poor students."  Coates himself seems to be a product of public schools, and he seemed to turn out all right.  (I love Coates, by the way.  I hadn't seen this piece yet.  I'll have to subscribe to his RSS.)

Second, the way he describes the process and pleasures of reading is insightful and almost poetic.  I had a rough day trying to teach a couple of pieces of poetry to my students today, and I can hear echoes of what went poorly in what he writes.  He says it in a way that adds clarity to some important thoughts I was having.

But more broadly speaking about school, research shows that there's a right way to teach reading and a wrong way.  Handing out a copy of a book which is far beyond 60% of the class and far behind  20% more, and then going around the room taking turns reading paragraphs out loud, isn't it. Michigan actually has a pretty good model for teaching literature.  At any given time, barring other considerations, students should be reading 3 books: one which they choose, anything they want.  Judy Bloom, Dungeons and Dragons, Philip K. Dick, whatever.  It should be something they'll be reading successfully on their own with NO intervention from the teacher.  One book should be a little bit beyond them, and a small group of similarly just-slightly-out-of-their-league students are reading the same book, and they're all  trained on how to support each other's reading.  The third book is the book the whole class is reading--it should be considerably, but not impossibly, out of the range of most students in the class.  It should be something they can be successful at with significant support, scaffolding, and instruction from the teacher.  The idea is not to have kids read certain things, or to get specific ideas out of particular pieces of literature; it's to teach kids how, and why, to read.

 But this model leaves the teacher with a need for a lot more human resource management and a lot less knowing-how-to-read-good.  Most English teachers are good at reading, and not great at HR.  Teachers also like to teach what they love, which is why everyone reads The Scarlet Letter and Jane Eyre.  (I take that back.  I've never read Jane Eyre.)  And a lot of curriculum decisions are made by other people, which is why people still read Beowulf in high school.  To add wrinkles to this, there is a great deal of support for the idea of thematic units: you're not just reading The Scarlet Letter, you're reading it and a lot of things like it to study, say, the role of women in 19th century literature.  The development of the American Dream.  The literature from war zones.  Colonialist literature.  Whatever.  So that makes coordinating everything much harder.  The point is, though, there are other, better, much much much harder ways of doing it.

And the broader BROADER point is that the objective is to teach reading, and not to have kids read specific things.  I also reject the "cultural literacy" point made by the first commenter.  And the way to teach reading is to have students read things that are too hard for them and show them how to be successful at it.

And more broadly speaking about literature, it is in the nature of good books to change with their readers.  One Hundred Years of Solitude is not the same book for me now that it was 10 years ago; it's one of the reasons I keep re-reading it every couple of years.  I understand that I might quite enjoy Scarlet Letter if I re-read it now; I just can't bear the thought of trying.  So I understand Coates's frustrations, and I share many of them.  The article has a sort of "Don't even bother trying to teach me to read; I'll get it in my own time or not" feel to it that I'm not sure I like.  He doesn't have to be rational or correct about his response; I do (or at least look and sound like I do).  It's what I'm paid my absurdly big salary for.

By the way, I'm going to post this response and your link on my blog, if that's okay; I have at least one other reader who might find this really interesting.  Thanks!


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Japanese erasers...?

A possible new source for models for vocabulary in my class.  They're off-beat, and in some cases off-putting.  They're amazingly detailed, and utterly bizarre.  They could be attached to vocab cards, or put in little plastic baggies which hang from cork boards with the vocabulary word up above and students have to match them, or....

The only downside is that they're a touch pricey.