Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Under New Leadership

I am optimistic about the possibility of change for the better. In Washington, D.C., there is movement afoot to reform the schools. Toward that end, the district is accepting applications for principal and assistant principal. Apply here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Not Such Good News

From Connecticut:
Results from the 2008 ACT college admission test show that many Connecticut high school seniors are "appallingly" unprepared for college-level work, according to a state report.

Of the 8,159 students who took the test, 35 percent of white seniors, 18 percent of Hispanics and 9 percent of African Americans were ready for college-level work.

"It's an appalling figure to look at," said Frank W. Ridley, chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education. "Basically it says that, at the very best, only one-third of our students are succeeding." Ridley said he was disgusted by the low numbers, which were included in a state report about racial and ethnic diversity in higher education. He said the disparity in the scores of whites and minorities underscores the state's struggle to close the stubborn "achievement gap."
Ridley says that the scores mean that "only one-third of our students are succeeding." Maybe the scores indicate dismal performance on the part of the schools. Or maybe the scores indicate that they are inadequately funded:
A Connecticut school finance lawsuit, filed more than four years ago with the high expectations of 12 towns that were challenging the way the state hands out education dollars, may not even make it to trial.
. . .
The case, Johnson v. Rowland, began in the spring of 1998, when the suit was filed on behalf of seven students and a coalition of the 12 towns. The plaintiffs have contended that the state has not contributed its fair share of education funding, and that poorer communities, like those that sued, are left with hefty tax burdens to pay for K-12 education.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A School of My Own

A few years ago, someone approached me about starting a charter school. Although I was on board with the idea, quite frankly, I was horrified at the possibility of being the person who executed it. Me, a principal? I could not see it.

Still feel that way. I'm more of a supporting role actor. But I saw this article yesterday, via the ASCD newsletter, and it got me daydreaming about school.

ScienceDaily (Mar. 16, 2009) — Children exposed to a multi-year programme of music tuition involving training in increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal, and practical skills display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers, according to a study published in the journal Psychology of Music.

It's old news that studying the arts helps children do better in other areas. And yet, and yet, we keep pushing art and music and literature aside in a sort of shortsighted devotion to Gradgrindian ideals.

Wouldn't it be great to teach students in a lively, interesting way that would make them want to learn? To include not only studies of content, but teach them how to do things--play music, build stuff, make art, grow plants, sew a placemat, knit a hat--so they could gain that beautiful confidence that always comes from competence? At this dream school, the curriculum would be integrated, let's say, so that kids would see that everything is connected, that there's math in music and biology in the garden and reading is everywhere, and so the skills and knowledge would not have this artificial demarcation, but would seep into real life.

P.S. Besides, pretty much any kind of intervention improves student achievement in reading. You can sit with a kid for thirty minutes a week and just give him your undivided attention, talk about basketball or video games or whatever, and his scores on reading tests will probably improve.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Incentive or Punishment?

I would rather think of it as incentive. But I like to look on the bright side.

You know that in 2006, Florida came out with a policy of linking teacher pay to student test scores. On the surface it might sound reasonable, but you have to roll back the carpet on this one to see the bugs. What about great teachers in underfunded schools? Great teachers in schools with high populations of second-language learners? Great teachers in schools where families are walking the razor edge of survival, where parents are working two jobs and can't help with homework, where some parents are MIA, having fallen prey to addiction, violence, or some other poison? See, no matter how great these teachers are, they need to grocery shop, too, and how many will be able to resist the call of being able to buy bread and cheese, and so they will migrate to the neighborhoods with higher-priced real estate. Once again, the kids who have the most need will end up with the worst teachers.

Now President Obama is talking about linking teacher pay to performance. Which makes a lot of people nervous. I am all for it, as long as the performance in question is that of teachers, not solely that of the students, and that the performance is measured in a fair way. We all of us in the (non-gummint) world are paid according to our performance. The man who shines shoes at the casino where I take my weekly UNLV class (everything in Las Vegas happens in a casino, it is just part of the local charm, I guess) makes more money because he does a good job (and is just plain pleasant to talk with); a server at a restaurant makes more money in tips because she is competent at her work. Writers can command a higher rate when they have established a solid reputation, and it's the same for consultants. There's no reason teachers should be exempt from expectations.

What I very much appreciate is the possibility of excellent teachers receiving higher pay. I've always thought if teachers could make a decent living, there'd be more excellent teachers. Last week, someone asked me why I didn't teach anymore (I taught a few community college classes in beginning and remedial composition, which I loved doing), and I said I couldn't afford the pay cut. I have to support my children, you see. And I would put money down--this being Vegas and all, I am picking up the local lingo--that I am not the only one.

That Time Again

The CCSSO Large Scale Assessment Conference is coming up: June 21-24. In Los Angeles, which is so convenient.

I believe I may have to take little field trips to see the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, and to LACMA. The Getty. If you have any other suggestions, please let me know.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Be Easy, Baby

. . . in the immortal but out of context words of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

I often used to conduct item and passage review meetings with groups of teachers. I liked doing it, not only because I like being large and in charge. I also liked traveling to different states and meeting teachers from all over the country (and hearing their accents). I liked talking about test questions and reading test passages. I liked giving the teachers information about assessment, information that would help them in the classroom and for which they were invariably grateful. (I especially liked how teachers, when they are away from the classroom, always behave like students of the age they teach. The primary grade teachers are wide-eyed and very enthusiastic and sweet and need a lot of direction to keep them focused. The upper elementary grade teachers are lively and they talk out of turn and like to take breaks. The middle school teachers are sometimes a little difficult to manage. The high school teachers wear their sunglasses inside and sit toward the back of the room and slump down comfortably in their chairs. )

One of my first such review meetings was in French Lick, Indiana. A couple of hours in, I suggested we take a break, and encouraged the teachers to stand up and stretch and move around to refresh themselves, which suggestion inspired them to tease me about my wacky California-ishness.

It's been years, but now I get to say that I was right. And I do confess that I regrettably harbor a tiny fondness for being right.

P.S. Meditation is also beneficial to students, as is knitting. All three activities change the brain wave patterns:
Clinical studies over the years have shown the effectiveness of interventions on a wide range of medical problems caused or made worse by stress, such as hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, pain, insomnia, allergies, repetitive stress injury and infertility, among many others. Practicing the relaxation response daily can boost the immune system and make one more resistant to the harmful effects of constant stress.
Good for all of us, but especially at-risk students, who may not have many resources to help them with the stress of surviving in this sometimes hostile world.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

When Work Is Fun

One of my dear friends also happens to be Ms. Big Busy Very Important at one of these companies for which I sometimes work, and she gave me some hurry-up-we-need-it-now work last week. The task involved correlating English language arts standards created by one educational agency to standards created by another, and then aligning test questions to the first set of standards. Old hat. I've spent so much time keeping company with various state standards that there are some I know by heart.

Sometimes, though, it's the old hat that fits best. Once in the task, I was completely and blissfully absorbed by it. I had no concept of time passing, and the work felt almost effortless. Match, match, match, match, turn the page. Repeat. That would be flow, according to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. I don't know how that happens, that one becomes so immersed in work that the work becomes a pleasure, but it is wonderful when it does. And yet, if you saw this big stack of test questions and the other big stack of papers with the printed state standards, it probably would look more like someone's final exam nightmare than a trip to the circus.

Also last week, I was in a class and the teacher asked what I did for a living. When I told him, he gave me that look that people often do give me when I tell them what I do and then asked, "Is it fun?"

That was a question I hadn't considered in a very long time. I had been working at a crazy pace the two weeks before, which hadn't been all that fun. Or I should say, would have been a lot more fun if I hadn't underestimated the amount of time the work would take me to do. (Because I like to live on the edge like that.) And of course, much of the last several months has been taken up with the culture shock of moving to a new state, and trying to begin putting my house in order, so I'd been working less than usual.

I thought about the teacher's question, and then told him that it was fun. And so once again, I had the opportunity to reflect on how fortunate I am, particularly these days, when not everyone gets to choose his occupation, and when even people who yearn to work are unable to find jobs.

The only other job I've ever liked so much as what I do now was making coffee drinks at an espresso bar. As dissimilar as it may seem. There is a common thread though, that of giving a client precisely what she wants and needs at that moment.


Today I got a shout-out asking about a practice to be employed in a classroom assessment, and it got me thinking about classroom assessments.

In this business, we think of classroom assessments as informal and low- to no-stakes, meaning that there will be no decisions made about student promotion/retention, and that there is no teacher/school/district accountability. There are probably some stakes for the students--they will receive a grade, which will contribute to an overall grade in the class, but the effect of this one grade on this one assessment is fairly minor in the great grand scheme of the universe.

Which is an excellent thing, as so few teachers know much about assessment, what skews an assessment, what practices should be avoided in assessment, which question constructions put up unnecessary obstacles for the test-takers, what kind of wording should be used. How do that happen, I wonder. Not to blame the teachers; the mystery is why teachers aren't generally required to take a class on test content development. Creating a sound assessment that accurately measures the targeted skills or knowledge requires knowing how to do it. You don't just get up from the couch one day and say, Hey, Ima build me a house without doing at least a tiny bit of research. But we don't know what we don't know.

Test content development is not difficult, but one does have to know what are the best practices in order to build a test that has at least some potential of giving a relatively fair and accurate measure of what a student knows and can do. Even if it is just in the classroom, even if the results only affect a tenth of the student's semester grade in one class.

Same thing at the DMV, you know. And those high-stakes tests could not possibly be legally defensible, constructed as they are in such a haphazard way, with all their outliers and overly attractive distractors and so on. Every single assessment professional who takes a DMV test cannot help but exclaim at the shoddy construction. What's so interesting to me about the DMV tests, though, is that even civilians recognize how bad the tests are, even if they cannot identify the reasons.