Sunday, December 16, 2012

What makes a good school-wide support system?

I've been heavily involved with a new, mandatory after-school program for students with missing assignments.  We call it our After School Assistance program, ASAP.  I think our councilor found that name someplace.  It's kind of like a detention, but instead of getting one for behavioral problems, students get one when they have less than a C- and are missing assignments.  We've been running it twice a week for three weeks now.

[Quick standards-based grading justification of this policy: Obviously, in a traditional grading system, 0's on a homework assignment can kill a student's grade faster than anything.  But if you're in an 80-100% standards-based grade system, missing assignments aren't that big a deal to the grade, so why have a special intervention program just to solve that problem?  My thinking, as an advocate of both ASAP and standards-based grading, is that, in a SBG system, you need a certain level of proficiency to pass the assessment.  The homework, whether it's graded or not, is meant to help you do that.  If you ace all the assessments, you obviously don't need the practice for proficiency.  If you don't, then the homework's extra practice might be just what you need to help you get the standard.]

We started the program before we had all of the logistics worked out, and part of that was because I really wanted to get it started.  Teachers complain about homework assignments all the time.  So even without all the lines of communication being operational, we started pulling students in after school.  For the first few weeks, teachers asked me, "How do we do X?"  My answer was usually, "I don't know.  Let's tell the student and the student's parent that she has to come, and we'll work it out from there."  With a couple of notable failures, that seems to work out.  It's gotten me to thinking about how I would assess this program's achievement so far, and that leads me to ask, what makes a good school-wide learning support system?

So, spitballing: A new program should address a need the school has.  It should not take the place of something a teacher should be doing.  It should not get in a teacher's way, or place an undue burden on the teacher.  It should remove a concern that a teacher has about a small minority of her students, so that she can focus on better instruction for all students--it should deal with small numbers of students with similar learning challenges.  It should not enable the systemic marginalization of a minority student population--it shouldn't keep the tough cases out of sight and out of mind.  It should SOLVE the problem, not just change the problem or make it look like something else or allow the school to say they have a program in place--it shouldn't be window dressing.  Like all things in school, it should have learning as its goal.  Like all things in school, it should be student-directed.  Like all things in school, it should be data-informed.  (I've decided I reject the phrase "data-driven.")  It should help answer one of the key questions: What do you want students to know and be able to do?  (Curriculum.)  How are you going to give it to the students?  (Instruction.)  How are you going to tell when students get it?  (Assessment.)  What are you going to do with the ones who don't get it, and what are you going to do with the ones who do?  (Differentiation; interventions and enrichments.) 

I feel like this program is still in its infancy, as is my capacity to evaluate it.  But I think it still scores pretty well: It definitely addresses a need of our school, and I definitely have the data to show why we need it.  I think teachers get great benefits for the time they put into it: they fill out a form and agree to give students 50% credit for late work, and in exchange they don't have to chase students for work they need to get done.  Students who need extra practice or time or structure get it; students who don't, don't have to sit through it.  We have, I'm guessing, about an 80% success rate: with very few exceptions, students who come to ASAP finish their work that day.  I don't know how many multiple-offenders we have, but my impression is that it's a relatively small number.  In all, it seems like a good school-wide support system.  There are improvements to be made, but it seems like a good start.

Readers, what do you think?  When schools create programs to help teachers do their jobs better, how do you know they're working?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Unions, RTW, and the teaching profession

Full disclosure: I'm a union guy.  If (when) RTW passes the Michigan legislature, I will still pay my union dues.  I think unions are a net positive force, both in terms of economics and in terms of productivity.  If occasionally they end up on the wrong side of history, or defending somebody stupid, or killing the business they purport to serve, well, you can't be right all the time.

After I wrote the introduction, I've spent the last 4 days trying to write something intelligible about the subject.   Every tme I think about it, though, I frankly lose my breath at the sheer audacity of what has happened here in Michigan.  I can't be rational about it; I don't see the other side's point of view; Gov. Snyder's justification for changing his position is so flimsy as to be laughable; Sen.  Schuitmaker's assurances that she is not anti-teacher no longer seem like pleasant half-truths, they seem like insults to my intelligence wrapped in stationary.* 

I'm scared for the following reason: every year I have been a teacher, my job has gotten harder, more demanding, and more complicated.  I champion many of these changes, and I think that if there's any work force on earth that should embrace lifelong learning as a professional quality, it should be teachers.  But it's also gotten less well compensated, and the profession is being systematically denigrated.  Public schools are seen as the problem, most notably in situations where poverty is the problem, both with the students and with the public schools.  It's as if I were, I don't know, a butcher, who is told he has to become a surgeon, who will be compensated like a lumberjack, and treated like tripe.  And I feel that way WITH the union protection.

I saw the union as a way to restore some measure of dignity to the profession.  We're never going to be paid what we're worth; we're public employees, after all.  But I get the distinct impression that people resent us for even ASKING.  Look, my job is 30% harder than it was last year; my retirement health care has more than doubled in cost, my pension has gotten more expensive (yes, I know about private-sector pensions going the way of the dodo; maybe if you'd had a union, your employer wouldn't have been able to steal all your money with no guarantee of repayment), I am less likely to retire before I stop being an effective teacher than I ever was before, and dammit, I'm still good at my job. 

But now the official policy of the state of Michigan is that solidarity is wrong.  Unions are not a force for good to be respected, they are a cancer to be broken.  There is no way for me to see this as anything other than a political attack and a battle in the class war.  (The rich are winning the class war, by the way.  I just expected to be able to put up more of a fight for longer.)  And right now, there's no way for me not to take this as a personal insult. 

*During the Great Teacher Purge of 2011, when Michigan passed a state law that made being a teacher much more expensive, I wrote Sen. Schuitmaker an e-mail imploring her not to vote for the package.  She sent me a 2-page typed letter in response, with her signature in actual pen at the bottom.  It was very nice, it expressed her opinions, and assured me that her children go to public schools, and she wants nothing but the best for them.  I believe this; I no longer believe that she thinks public schools are what's best for them.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Longer school days

Thanks to the efforts of a public/private partnership, 5 states are going to experiment with longer school days: 

NPR: Days to get longer at some low-performing schools

This is probably a good thing.  It all depends on implementation, of course, but longer instructional periods should roughly equate to more learning.  If we're going to make longer school days, I for one would prefer to eat into summer break, but that's not my call.  I understand why a district would opt for longer days instead.  Among other things, Secretary Duncan argues that longer school days also helps to keep students safe in districts with lots of violence, like Chicago, his home turf.  That aspect of it had never occurred to me, since I have the great good fortune of coming from a more-or-less violence-free upbringing.

 The thing that troubles me, though, is Sec. Duncan's attitude towards why we haven't adopted longer school days as a national model.  He treats the arguments of teacher compensation and "who's going to pay for the toilet paper" as minor nuisances.  Call me cynical, but when I heard him say that on the radio, I could almost hear his next line: "Teachers have to buy toilet paper anyway; they could just pick up some extra."  I'm not opposed to teachers working harder, working more, working better, working together, working differently, even buying school supplies.  We're all in this to do what's best for kids.  I'm opposed to decision-makers assuming we should do it for free with a smile on our faces, because it's what's best for kids.  During scheduled school times, an administration has the right to tell teachers what to do and where to be, as long as it improves instruction, and with the possible exception of planning period, depending on contracts.  Anything outside of that is kind of extra.  We all know we can't do our jobs well in 6 hours, but there are only so many hours in the day.  Now, if Sec. Duncan would like to wash my dishes....