Wednesday, October 10, 2012

If You Get Any Closer, You'd Be Me

I'd just read The Sound and the Fury and The Hamlet, and then started Wise Blood because I'd read an excerpt that was one of the funniest things I'd ever read. Those Southerners, you know. (I'm reading my way through my own Southern gothic course now--I'll continue with Faulkner, then more O'Connor, and go from there. I also want to read a biography of O'Connor, partly because she was such a strange person and partly because I'm interested in her Old Testament theology, being as I was brought up in that tradition myself.)

My daughters had read the excerpt, the part about Enoch Emery meeting the gorilla. The eldest by five minutes, the one who finished reading Anna Karenina in two days (she liked it so well she didn't want to stop reading), went on ahead and did her own thing. She's busy making up a list of classics she wants to read and then ordering the books on Paperbackswap. It's an ambitious list. She generously said, when I eyed the list with envy, that she'll loan me any book I like.

The other, my youngest, wasn't sure she fully understood the excerpt, or at least not enough to write the essay I'd asked her to write, so we talked about it.

As we talked, we kept looking back at the text for evidence of what we were thinking and saying. We started from a reader response perspective--How did she feel when she read the excerpt? What did she like about it, what did she not like? What in the text created this or that effect for her? What did she think the author meant by this or that?--and moved to comprehension and making inferences--What did she think about Enoch? Why was he so different from other people? How did that difference manifest? What did he want? Why?--and then talked about patterns and motifs and style:
  • the use of color (especially the black/white)
  • the animal motifs (the umbrella handle is the head of a fox terrier, the gorilla)
  • how seemingly harmless, everyday things transform into weapons (the joke box of peanut brittle, the landlady's cast-off umbrella)
  • the funny things--how Enoch never sets out to do anything without eating first; how Enoch is always thinking of something else the moment Fate is "drawing back her leg to kick him"
  • the economy of writing--how O'Connor gives so much information about Enoch without any heavy analysis of his character, instead letting the reader feel smart and draw those conclusions

The more we talked, the more we liked the writing.

There was so much there to talk about, and the conversation led to one about the bigger meaning, that of transformation and of the human desire for connection and to be loved--how Enoch had intended to provoke the gorilla with some obscene insult, but then the touch of the gorilla's hand, even in this sort of perfunctory handshake, awakened in him a longing to be close to someone--anyone! even a jerk in a moth-eaten gorilla costume-- and how it's impossible to transform oneself simply by making some superficial outward change, just as it's impossible to find a shortcut to being loved or to force people to love you, that the only way to be loved is to be lovable, and so Enoch's attempt is doomed from the start.

This is what close reading looks like.

This is what the CCSS require, that students move beyond basic literal comprehension to an analysis of the elements in order to make connections between the text and culture, history, our personal experience, and, ultimately, to its greater universal meaning. All the while, the students must return to the text for evidence. What did the author say? Why? Why this word, why this gesture, why this action. Why why why why why. 

Although we'd begun the conversation because my daughter had said she didn't really like or understand the story, by the time we were done talking, she liked it so well she wanted to read the whole of the novel.

(I couldn't remember if I'd read Wise Blood before, so I read it again. It's so good, and one of the funniest books I've ever read, especially in the first 100 pages or so--the woman on the train who, upon seeing the price tag still stapled to Hazel's suit, feels comfortable because she believes that places him, Hazel's insistence to all that he's not a preacher when he's clearly Jonah fleeing the voice of God, the sly asides--"After a few weeks in the camp, when he had some friends--they were not actually friends but he had to live with them--he was offered the chance he had been waiting for; the invitation"-- but the end is so horrifying and sad, I'm not sure my daughter will want to read it. I told her that, and she'll make up her own mind. Neither am I sure it would be as interesting to someone without a pretty solid understanding of the Old Testament, but maybe I'm wrong about that.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

File Under: The Law of Unintended Consequences, Cross-Referenced to Undesirable Outcomes

From the National Bureau of Economic Research, hat tip to Inside Higher Ed, an indication that overtesting is a no bueno.

Ian Fillmore and Devin G. Pope of the University of Chicago studied student performance on the AP exam and found:
. . . strong evidence that a shorter amount of time between exams is associated with lower scores, particularly on the second exam. Our estimates suggest that students who take exams with 10 days of separation are 8% more likely to pass both exams than students who take the same two exams with only 1 day of separation.
This is of particular interest to me for a variety of reasons. Since the passage of NCLB, testing in grades 2-12 seems to occur at an astonishing frequency. Not only are there state tests in ELA and math and, in some grades, social studies and science, but there are usually some kind of interim (benchmark, call them what you will) district tests administered once (or more) per quarter in both ELA and math, along with the classroom teacher's tests and quizzes in every content area, and then there are other supplementary tests administered in programs such as Accelerated Reader (please don't consider this mention as an endorsement, more on this later).

Testing is not instruction. It seems obvious, but it needs to be said. When kids are being tested, they're not learning.

If you asked why all the tests, teachers and district personnel would say that they need to test in order to find out if kids are learning. Which might be true if they weren't testing quite so much.

The more testing, the less instruction, the more homework. The burden for instruction is offloaded to the children. They're supposed to be teaching themselves. This, in spite of a growing body of research that tells us how ineffective homework is:

The results of national and international exams raise further doubts.  One of many examples is an analysis of 1994 and 1999 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data from 50 countries.  Researchers David Baker and Gerald Letendre were scarcely able to conceal their surprise when they published their results last year:  “Not only did we fail to find any positive relationships,” but “the overall correlations between national average student achievement and national averages in [amount of homework assigned] are all negative.

(No one likes hearing that about homework. A teacher I know tells me that when she assigns less homework, parents complain. They worry their kids aren't working hard enough. As a parent, I was often astounded by the amount of homework expected from my children. Clearly no teacher ever sat down and worked his or her way through the material, or the teacher would have discovered that the time on task was excessive.)

Not to mention the other obvious problems with such a scheme--I mean, have you ever launched some ambitious self-study program? To muster up the wherewithal is daunting enough for a grown-up of strong will, and yet, we expect this of a child who 1) lacks the body of knowledge and skills required for such self-study and 2) has yet to develop that kind of self-discipline.

What's sad is that the overtesting deprives kids of the joy of demonstrating what they've learned. When teaching is sound and kids are learning, they can't wait to show you what they know. That's when we know that the instruction is working.

Fillmore, Ian, and Devin G. Pope. "The Impact of Time Between Cognitive Tasks on Performance: Evidence from Advanced Placement Exams." NBER. National Bureau of Economic Research, Oct. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. 
Kohn, Alfie. "The Truth About Homework." The Truth About Homework. Education Week, 6 Sept. 2006. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. 
"The Impact of Time Between Tests | Inside Higher Ed." The Impact of Time Between Tests. Inside Higher Ed, 9 Oct. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. 

UPDATE: fixed a bad copy-cut-paste.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bad Teacher

You may have heard the gotcha NPR story about lighting a fire under teachers by giving them a bonus and threatening to take it away if students didn't show measurable improvements in math:
The teachers were given a bonus of $4,000 upfront — but it had a catch. If student math performance didn't improve, teachers had to sign a contract promising to return some or all of the money.
If you threatened to torch a teacher's car if your kids' math scores didn't improve, the scores would probably go up. What does this really tell us? Nothing that we didn't already know. People are averse to loss.

How silly is the premise of this study. Samuel Johnson said no one but a blockhead wrote for money, and I'd say this is twice as true of teaching. It's not a high-roller game.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average yearly salary of a full-time teacher is $56,069. This is significantly higher than $44,402, which is the average salary where I live, and slightly lower than $57,574, which is the median household income in Ventucky Bakersfield by the Sea Ventuckywood this coastal California town.

To put this into perspective, here are average salaries in other professions:

attorneys: $112,760
blackjack dealers: $20,260
dentists: $146,920
funeral directors: $54,330
garbage collectors: $22,560
paramedics: $30,360
personal financial advisors: $64,750
police officers and detectives: $55,1010

(Information courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

That and summers off make teaching look all right, I guess, in parts of the country where the cost of living is less than it is here--and yet, anyone who's spent more than five minutes in a (noisy, paint-splattered) classroom might understand that teachers earn their pay. (Many of them. Not the ones who spend the period painting their fingernails while students are supposed to be reading, or texting or emailing while students listen to audio of textbooks, or even talking on their cell phones while students run amok, and yes, I know of what I speak, these aren't idly selected hypothetical scenarios. Although to be fair, the fingernail-polisher was a substitute teacher; the others were all classroom teachers of many, many years' experience.)

But how many teachers do you know got into the work because of the pay? Is money really what motivates them?

Hardly. Money isn't the best motivator; what's best is "to pay people enough to take money off the table." When not worried about money from a survival standpoint, people are far more interested in challenge, mastery, and the chance to make a difference in the world, says Dan Pink in this talk for the RSA:

 Speaking of what doesn't work, I don't see that publishing reports of teacher performance evaluations will serve any useful purpose. Incompetent or willfully mediocre (or worse) teachers who got lucky and are established in schools in affluent communities where students tend to be high-performers will continue to teach badly and will point to high test scores to justify themselves. And then public humiliation won't transform the bad teachers into good ones, although it might be the final gnat-like annoyance that inspires a good teacher of at-risk, low-performing students trotting off to seek employment in another field.

My friend and colleague Carrie, who works at a test publishing organization, sent me this, from the NYT, about whether we expect too much from teachers:

Last year, at an Aspen Institute conference, the education historian Diane Ravitch was asked her wish list to improve schools. At the top of her list: universal prenatal care — which, of course, has nothing to do with the classroom. Or so it would seem. 
Of course, Ms. Ravitch wanted to make a point. As we slash services in deeply impoverished communities and reduce school budgets, how can we expect that good teachers alone can improve the lives of poor children? Poverty, of course, can’t be an excuse for lousy teaching. But neither can excellent teaching alone be a solution to poverty.

The problems in education are so much bigger than the person standing in the front of the classroom. But that's overwhelming and makes us feel bad. It's a lot more comfortable to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and stick teachers with the blame.