Wednesday, August 31, 2011


As the State continues to climb out of the mess left behind by Tropical Storm Irene, the authors of Throwing Curves send our best thoughts and hopes to the residents of Connecticut and the East Coast.

Many, many schools had to start the year with cancelled classes - Connecticut still has a long list of school closings across the State. Schools are without power or are being used as emergency shelters for residents that need them.

How fortunate we are that schools are so well-built that they can shelter people in times of need as well as provide shelter for young growing minds in better times. It is a reminder of how important a good school is to a community -- especially in the many small towns of New England.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Waterbury Teachers May Have To Pay For Costs Of Cheating

The Connecticut Post reported that the State Department of Education may try to get a law passed to make teachers caught cheating to pay for the costs of investigating and correcting the problems caused by their cheating.

It surely seems like a good idea -- the costs to the State of cheating scandals is large. Investigators have to be paid, students will need to be retested, and well, apparently there's a lot of money at stake. If teachers and administrators were involved in actually changing student answers to fake passing the CMT, then they clearly have some personal responsibility for their actions.

And what these "educators" have done is just like stealing.

But, that being said, they aren't the only ones to blame these days. There are a lot of people out there that have claimed to educate students, but given them a sham. The State is to blame for setting such low and vague standards that they could be met merely by exposing students to a topic. Meeting the state standards should mean you've learned something.  All too often the standards are set so low that anything will count.

Then there are the Boards of Education that set graduation requirements so low that a high school diploma ceases to mean anything.  And the curriculum administrators that force teachers to use a new program because someone at a conference somewhere convinced them it would solve all of their problems, or purchased programs because they claimed to be "research-based" but never bothered to read or evaluate the quality of that research.

The textbook companies and myriad of education companies that create appealing, but vacuous, curriculum and materials, and reap the profits of our schools' failures. Yes, they are to blame too. 

Or the schools of education that have set the bar so low, and removed all elements of content from the required knowledge of newly minted teachers, that they are not prepared (by any measure) to take on a classroom and succeed.

And then there are the unions and the teachers themselves, that have watched passively as their profession lost credibility and respect, and spent too much time protecting the incompetent and not enough time worrying about what is best for students.

And, finally, parents need to be honest ourselves. We've trusted too much, and we've happily believed that we could just pop the little ones on the bus and all would be well.

So let's beat up on the dishonest teachers of Waterbury -- those that knowingly changed student answers should pay the costs of their actions. But the widespread problems of our failing education system will not be addressed until we take a critical and honest look at all levels of the education bureaucracy. There is plenty of blame to go around.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lots of Education News

It is hard to believe how much activity the realm of education has experienced this summer. And Connecticut has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it seems.

First, there was the Board of Education drama in Bridgeport -- in which the elected members decided to throw their hands in the air and leave all of the most difficult decisions to unelected persons appointed by the State. The sad thing is, the unelected Board looks much more promising than the disbanded Board that had been picked by the voters. Coleman has put together an impressive list of people to serve on the Bridgeport Board -- the retired President of Bridgeport Hospital, a professor of teacher preparation from Sacred Heart University, an executive from People's Bank in Bridgeport, and the list goes on. I wonder -- why didn't these people run for the Board? How come people of high caliber are willing to serve on the Board of a troubled school system, but are not willing to stand for election for the same Board?  Actually, the answer is obvious, when you think about it. There are very few things most of us would find more unappealing than standing for election in any city in this country.

Second, the Waterbury School system continues to be rocked by the cheating scandal. In case you missed it, Waterbury teachers are suspected of changing student answers on the CMT to improve the scores of the students they failed to teach. The latest reports are that 17 teachers and administrators have been placed on leave. Seventeen! But the State insists that there's no evidence of widespread cheating in Connecticut. I wonder how hard the State is looking for such evidence?

Finally, the Connecticut teachers union made the mistake of posting on their website a power point presentation that was shocking in its self-congratulatory tone describing in detail how the union "succeeded" in denying parents the right to insist on closing or reforming perpetually failing schools. If you'd like to take a look at the power point -- here's a link to it: Parent Trigger Power Point

That seems like enough bad news for today.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Still More on Vocational and Technical Education

In case you missed it, the New York Times did  a long article on Saturday on the fate of Career and Technical Education schools: Tough Calculus as Technical Schools Face Deep Cuts.

Federal funding to vocational and technical schools could be cut by 20% in the next budget. In States like Connecticut, where state funding is disappearing as well, this could mean the closing of many technical high schools.

These cuts are baffling -- technical high schools have a much higher graduation success rate than general "comprehensive" high schools -- 90% for technical high schools v. 75% at a traditional high school.

And the success of these schools doesn't come by lowering standards. In fact, in a recent survey, employers were much happier with students coming from technical high schools than traditional ones.

And the Times article points to a Massachusetts analysis that technical high school graduates actually do better on reading and math tests than traditional high schools. With such a strong record of achievement, our elected leaders would do better increasing funding to technical high schools, rather than cutting it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Strange happenings in Bridgeport

In a new first for Connecticut, the Bridgeport Board of Education simply gave up on the task of creating a budget and educating the kids.  Things are so bad in Bridgeport that the elected Board members believe that strangers and outsiders would better serve the needs of their children. They are most probably correct, but it is still a sad day when acrimony between board members is so terrible that they give up the job and walk away.

The Bridgeport school board requested that the State Department of Education take over the operation of the schools. The local elected leaders will be replaced by a five member panel appointed by acting commissioner of education, George Coleman. The press on this suggests that the main reason for the imploding of the Bridgeport school board is the inability of board members to "get along" and act like grown-ups.

The take-over by the state of Connecticut's second largest school district (with 31 schools, Bridgeport has about 20,000 students enrolled) has also been driven by the $18 million budget short-fall. However, the State has said that it will not have any money available to increase the Bridgeport budget. Basically, the State will decide what to cut and what to save, rather than local elected board members.

Maybe that's for the best as the Board of Education has managed to hire more than 100 administrators making more than $100,000 each, with little to show for it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Technical High Schools Do A Better Job In Connecticut

Employers looking to hire new workers for manufacturing jobs find graduates of Connecticut's technical high school system to be much better prepared than those coming out of our traditional high schools. A just released survey of business and manufacturing companies in Connecticut demonstrates the strength of the technical education system. 61% of employers said they were satisfied or highly satisfied with employees coming out of the technical high schools, but only 28% were satisfied with those coming from a traditional high school.

Also interesting is that there is almost no difference in employer satisfaction with new workers who come from a 2-year community college versus a 4-year college.

But the survey was not all good news - despite a desire to hire more workers for good paying jobs in the manufacturing sector, employers say they need a better trained workforce. The biggest problems? Lack of math and reading skills, poor work ethic, not showing up on time for work, and a lack of skills. 

The employer survey shows that there are companies looking to hire, but they need better employees with stronger education in the science and technical areas -- and basic skills are needed too.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where did this past month go?

Yes, it has been a crazy month and neither Rosemary nor I have written a thing on our blog. Apologies to all. There have been graduations and travel and start of summer activities a plenty. Many days were spent doing interesting things, but computers were not a part of it.

In the meantime, here is a new blog to watch. Grace is putting up some interesting posts -- go check her out!

Cost of College

Friday, May 20, 2011

Vocational Education -- Rethinking its role in the U.S.

One of the many interesting things that "The Finland Phenomenon" brought out was the embracing of vocational and technical education in public high schools. According to the film, about 40% of Finnish students choose a vocational track in secondary school. They learn and train for careers and are immediately employable after graduation.

The U.S. on the other hand has a monumental disdain for anything that smacks of "tracking." The result is that an unacceptably high number of students choose to drop out of high school, or pay for vocational training after high school. Too many of our adolescents know that they have no interest in pursuing college, and yet, that seems to be the only option our educational system wants to prepare them for.

Of the 18,000 public high schools in the U.S., about 900 are vocational (or about 5%) according to the U.S. Department of Education statistics. Why the disdain? Why are we so reluctant to encourage teens to pursue careers as welders, electricians, computer technicians, or health care workers? These are good jobs and for many students, learning something useful would be better than marking time in a "comprehensive" high school completing low level academic courses.

The Economist article raises a good point.
America has a unique disdain for vocational education.  . . . . However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity.
This is the same sort of thinking (the every child is a unique snowflake thinking) that led us to such destructive curricular choices in K-12 education. In our attempts to educate every single child in their own unique way (differentiated instruction with whole inclusion of SPED), we have adopted curricula that are a mile wide, an inch deep, and so obsessed with not offending anyone at any time, that it fails to meet the fundamental objective of actually educating the kids.

Vocational and technical (now called Career and Technical Education or CTE) is so despised, that few kids are ever encouraged to pursue it, despite the clear benefits of higher wages and less time in training. The Economist article found statistics that show adult men with CTE training were more likely to be married and to have a 17% higher income.

The discussion following the Finland Phenomenon highlighted how badly we serve the needs of our youth with our current system. By age 25, the U.S. has a terrible record of achievement -- only 30% of 25 year old have completed a 4 year college degree and only an additional 10% have earned a 2 year associates degree. That means that 60% of our 25 year olds are either in the category of "some college" or no college. With results like that, its time to rethink our cultural disdain for vocational education.

Friday, May 13, 2011

All Potential Teachers Unsuited to the Profession Left Behind - The Finland Phenomenon

Play-based early education ... Academic education that begins at age seven ... Longer classes, but fewer of them per school day ...  Little or no "homework" ... no standardized testing until matriculation ... leading a child's concentration to content ... independent teacher development of material to cover core curriculum ... smaller, more cozy spaces in which to learn ... sounds like homeschooling, right?  Indeed it does, but to the list we now add up to fifteen un-related children, teachers with no less than a master's degree plus 3-4 years of shadowing a master teacher and we have the Finnish education model which looks very much like what I would call the public school / home school hybrid.

My blog partner and I attended "The Finland Phenomenon" at the Stata Center at MIT last Thursday.  It also opened in Washington, D.C. in a screening for members of the NEA.  As documentaries go, it was kind of lame. There was too much Tony Wagner letting us know how Tony Wagner was interpreting the situations being filmed.  Tony Wagner being incredulous at the tiny amount of homework the kids have ...  Tony Wagner whispering during classes, with subtitles for his whispers, so we wouldn't miss a whispered word of Wagner wisdom ...  Tony Wagner telling us those Finns could learn some stuff from us, specifically how to tape in the classroom and how to do digital portfolios ... I think it would have been more edifying to hear longer interview segments with the various Finnish teachers and education officials.  I should have liked to have had the subtitles used to tell me what the teachers and students were saying instead of transcribing Tony Wagner's whispering.  All the Finns, adult and child, came across as competent, economical in their speech (in many cases using more understandable grammar constructs than many psuedo-erudite native English speakers) and just downright charming.

To learn a bit about Finland's educational model, I watched an interview on YouTube with Eeva Penttila, the Head of International Relations for the Helsinki Education Department.  I think I learned more in the eight minute interview with her than in the one hour documentary. The documentary went on and on about the PISA testing and how Finland aces it year after year, while the U.S. comes in 26th or so.  Ms. Penttila chuckled, telling the interviewer that educators in Finland don't place much value on PISA.  She said something to the effect that Finnish kids do so well because they are familiar with how the questions are posed and how to come to the correct answer. She said the emphasis for learning in Finland is placed on implementation of knowledge, not constant repitition.

It appears on the surface that EVERYBODY loves the Finland Phenomenon.  Teachers, politicians, administrators, education consultants, professors at schools of education ... so what's the downside?  Well, there really isn't a downside, there are formidable obstacles.  According to Paul Reville, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education and one of the four panelists to discuss the Thursday screening of the documentary, the context for a "Finland Phenomenon" does not currently exist in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  He cites such issues as the child poverty rate, a large range of "variability" and a hugely less robust social contract between government and citizens.  And, as I have mentioned in a previous blogpost, diversity in Finland is comprised of blonde and brunette hair, not black, white and brown skin. Almost 95% of the population of Finland (a country roughly the size and population of Massachusetts) are ethnic Finns, the other 5% are Swedes. But Finns are not wealthy and twenty-five years ago they had a lot of the same problems we have - we cannot point to skin color as if that were the obstacle.  The obstacle is the kind of class system that has arisen out of our educational system ... an educational system that manifests itself as adequate, or even good, for children NOT living in poverty and just down-right pernicious for those who do live in poverty. And so we come to the Catch-22 that dogs all of us - you will not be properly educated if you are poor and you cannot get out of poverty until you are properly educated.  That's how this "lack of context" invariably plays out. What the Finns did that was so darn radical is that twenty-five years ago they made a decision.  They saw that the educational model that serves an industrial society was not working at all, so instead of bemoaning an entrenched, dysfunctional system, they changed it.  And they began with the teaching profession, making teaching the most highly respected and sought-after line of work in the country.  Finnish universities admit to their teaching programs only 10% of those who apply. And it isn't about money, it's about ethos.

The Finland phenomenon, as an experiment in public education, is not an unattainable Shangri-La. It didn't spring up overnight, but it does seem to have fair political winds at its back. It would be as if the Commonwealth of Massachusetts made up its mind to put political differences aside, ideologies out the window, and window dressing at the curb. The secret of Finland is political will and teacher training.  No, it's way more than teacher training, it's more like a contract the government has made with children -- No more bad teachers.  None.  Not one, anywhere. The folks unlikely to make a good teacher are weeded out years before anything like tenure is made available and everything about the Finnish system smacks of built-in, trust-based assessment of teacher AND student performance.  We cannot take the system we have and make it into Finland.  We are too likely to appropriate isolated ideas and try to make them work in a system that, ultimately, cannot support them.  All education "reform" in this country goes like this ... someone has a wonderful idea and by the time that idea goes through the gauntlet comprised of politicians, unions, textbook lobbies, schools of education and the various boards of ed (state and local), you have a thing that looks nothing like the original concept.  And it's never better.

We have to make that radical decision.  If we continue to tolerate ANY bad teachers and if we continue to turn a blind eye to the crap that passes for curriculum in this country, there really is nothing for it.  Our "robust social contracts" will always tend to be about grownups - the politicians and the voting public, the teachers' unions and the teachers, the textbook companies and their lobbyists, the lobbyists and the various state officials in charge of curriculum, the state officials and the local boards of education ... where do children and their parents fit into this?  How about a robust social contract which stipulates there will be no bad teachers or bad curriculum.  How about a social contract with children that assures them they will be supplied with the tools of learning rather than the indoctrination that leads to a false progressivism or the use of shoddy material that leads to ignorance masquerading as comprehension? The "robust social contract" that Finland has with its citizens appears to be more a product of its educational system, rather than the other way around.  Yes, it was jumpstarted twenty-five years ago, but now the Finns have a system that teaches its children how to think and provides children with an environment which promotes play, learning and family time not marred by additional daily hours of homework.  It allows teachers to create classroom and study materials based on a slim document the Helsinki Department of Education refers to as the "curriculum core" (as Ms. Penttila said in her interview, the curriculum core is set nationwide, but curriculum work is done in the schools.  How to reach the goals of the curriculum is decided locally.)

But the most radical thing Finland does on behalf of its children is it does not let unsuitable people teach. Those who would like to teach, but show through years of academic assessment and supervised experience that they do not have the chops for it, are left behind.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Students need to understand the Solution of a Problem -- We've heard this before

It's been well over 150 years since Massachusetts became the first state to demand compulsory education by law. The idea that every child must attend school was radical at the time, but now is broadly accepted around the world. While some things have changed -- such as the size of schools and number of administrators -- some things have remained persistent issues.

I have seen fully demonstrated the past year that the best educated are not always the best teachers, though it is often thought that a person who passes high in examination or holds a state certificate, is fully competent for any district school.

To be able to master books is not enough. One should possess either a trained or natural ability to impart in a manner comprehensible to the young mind.
If the pupil is not made to understand the solution of a problem but little is gained. I find a deficiency too often in this respect which intercepts the best results.
This was taken from the "Annual Report of School Visitors to the Town of Granby" dated  1903.

Whenever I get a little too immersed in the rhetoric of the "21st Century Skills" movement, at those times when it seems like every commentator and blogger and administrator is singing the same tune about the different needs of today and how today's child is so different from yesteryear's -- at those times, I like to go back and read about the concerns and issues of 1900 and reflect upon what hasn't changed.

Here's what hasn't changed: 1) It is very difficult to identify good teachers.  2) Retaining good teachers is difficult, 3) Students need to be able to solve problems, and 4) Students need to understand what they are doing and shouldn't just memorize answers.

These were the top issues in 1903. They are still the top issues today in 2011. It's good to remember that we still haven't solved the education problems of 1903, they are with us today.

In advance of tonight's premiere of The Finland Phenomenon, I've read Tony Wagner's book -- The Global Achievement Gap. Tony might be surprised that back in 1903, educators were worried about the need for better teachers and the focus on problem solving and understanding. Tony might also be very surprised by how many of his "reforms" were thought of by others long ago.

Monday, May 2, 2011

City Schools Are Taking on the Competition

I doubt anyone will decide to forego a seat in a top charter or magnet school based on this video, but I see it as a very positive sign of change. The Hartford Public School system, one of the worst public school system in the country, has a long way to go to actually convince parents that they should keep their kids in the local neighborhood school. But, the schools are finally understanding something very important. People want quality and they have choices. Right now, according to one news source, 28% of minority students choose to leave the Hartford School System.

Under a settlement with the Scheff plaintiffs, the schools need to meet 80% of the demand for charters, magnets, or sending kids to the suburbs. The Hartford schools have decided it might be easier to reduce demand. They have made some improvements to the quality of education and are now actively trying to court parents and students to stay.

I wish every school system had the same incentives and consequences for failing to improve. Competition is a really wonderful thing. Improving the quality of the schools in Hartford is the best possible outcome for the kids in Hartford. I'm very glad to see the city taking it seriously.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why Connecticut's Schools are Lagging

I'm re-posting from an excellent Westport Patch article going through the litany of why CT fares so much worse than residents believe.  You can find it here: Why Connecticut Schools are Lagging.

To the extent readers don't think that CT residents are delusional on this point, I point to our town budget hearing of two weeks ago. The President of the local PTO stood up and said she couldn't believe her luck in moving to town, because the schools just keep getting better and better. Even those opposed to the budget kept their comments focused on the need to cut spending and keep taxes down while maintaining the excellence of the schools. No one ever says out loud in public that the schools are not all they are cracked up to be.

The Westport Patch article is spot-on. My only complaint is that it misses two of the most critical reasons as to why our CT schools lag.  The first -- horrible curriculum foisted upon us through the State DOE through vague state standards and state consultants that actually recommended poor curriculum to local districts. Any parent that has ever complained about the use of Everyday Math has heard the same justification that I have: it meets the State Standards. The State actually insists that we use this wretched curriculum, despite its short-comings, despite the parents' opposition to it and despite the rather weak research background of the program. The same goes for the  whole language and balanced literacy that has largely replaced phonics and grammar.

The second reason that CT will continue to fail is the poor quality of our schools of education. Add to this, the difficulty teachers have crossing from state borders. A certified teacher from another state (with higher standards) must jump through hoops and incur expenses to teach in CT. Because we have a very small state, we should not be slamming our doors at the border to good teachers wishing to move in. The inability to easily move between states means that CT is overly reliant upon teachers graduating from our own in-state teacher colleges. That would be okay if those colleges were producing top-notch teachers, but that is simply not the case.

Anyway, from the Westport Patch, Nathan Allen says this about the Achievement Gap:
The fact is, poor and minority students are better educated in Florida and Texas than in Connecticut. Connecticut’s poor and Hispanic students are outscored by Moldova, and Connecticut’s black students barely beat Egyptian and Palestinian student scores. Our poor and minority students can’t outscore students from developing nations with 1/20th the per-capita income.
And on our best students:
Internationally, Connecticut’s highest scoring 8th graders score behind Slovenia, Estonia, and Poland in math on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). And these are our best students. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Blame Game -- from the School Institution Point of View

The current issue of The Nation contains this: Teachers are not the Enemy.

I wanted very much to embrace the premise of this article. As a proud lefty, I am not interested in bashing unions for the fun of it. I was really hoping to find a spirited defense of teachers and unions that would point a way forward toward school improvement. For the past decade, the efforts to improve the schools came mostly from the right. The left has tended to defend the status quo, while requesting ever larger quantities of money. It has been disheartening to those of us that think we need to change the way we are doing things, but would like to believe that the teacher union should have a seat at the table and be a part of the process.

So I had high hopes for the article in the Nation. We need the left to engage in the debate on how to make the changes we need to make without dismantling the good with the bad. Unfortunately, I was once again disappointed.

You will not find an acknowledgment anywhere in the Nation's article that the current system sucks for a whole lot of kids and families, that for even our best and brightest (and best funded) schools are not keeping pace internationally with their peers, that those in our urban schools are dropping out in shockingly high numbers and those that graduate are woefully unprepared for college level work.

What will you find in the article? You will find a list of evils that teachers oppose -- vouchers, charter schools, merit pay, eliminating seniority preferences, using student achievement as a measure of teacher or school quality, closing schools that fail year after year, and changing any of the bargained for perks of many teacher contracts.

You will find strongly worded criticism of all reforms that have been proposed. But you won't find a single new idea on how to improve the results of our failing schools. You won't find an appeal to research on what has worked in particular states or countries that have dramatically improved the quality of their educational system.

You will find that the only solution being offered is the same one we've tried and tried for the past decade or more -- just give them more money for more counselors, more teachers, more professionals. The writers give us no reason to expect a different result this time around. At best, they use a couple anecdotes and no data to suggest we will see "marked student improvement."

At this point, anyone that wants more of anything (particularly tax dollars) had better be able to point to some hard data and solid research for their claims -- "trust us" just isn't good enough anymore.

World Premiere of the Finland Phenomenon

On May 5, the new Bob Compton documentary, "The Finland Phenomenon" will premiere at MIT in Boston. I'd love to go -- but it's invitation only.
Following the screening, a panel discussion including the Mass Secretary of Education will take place. Tony Wagner, author, educator, and  researcher of education, will also be on the panel. Wagner is the Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard's Technology and Entrepreneurship Center. Wagner wrote The Global Achievement Gap.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Technology, digital natives, and the future of education

Technology, and in particular -- games -- in the classroom are only the latest example of fads sweeping the education establishment. This particular fad is likely to persist for some time for a number of reasons: 1 ) kids like playing games, they are "engaging" 2) computer games are very expensive (which means they must be good in the world of education), and 3) someone else does all the hard work (and gets paid well for it).

The video linked to above is one of the more recent efforts to bring technology into the classroom. This particular game is aimed at teaching microbiology to 8th graders. Players try to figure out what is causing a dangerous infectious disease outbreak on an island filled with scientists.

This particular game is worth looking at more closely. It has received a lot of support (i.e., money) from the National Science Foundation ($4 million) and was created by a collaboration of the North Carolina State University College of Education, College of Design, and the Institute for Educational Innovation. The game has received high praise from teachers and the education establishment:
"Today’s class was fully engaged and I have already gotten emails from a number of students asking for the web address so that they can continue playing from home."  (from a teacher blog).

Edweek also carried a glowing article about Crystal Island, quoting one of the developers of Crystal Island:
“It’s absolutely the case that kids are very engaged [while playing the game],” says Lester, who is also the head of the IntelliMedia Group. “You can see it on their faces and the way they interact with the software.”
The same article quotes an 11-year-old that played the 5th grade version of Crystal Island:

“The game made me like science a little bit more, because in science sometimes you have to look through a textbook and that’s not fun,” she says. “But in a game you actually get to choose your character and pick out [choices based on] your own interests.”
 Engagement and fun are all well and good. They really are. I think every teacher and parent would like to see kids learn AND have fun, whenever possible. Of course, there are real risks to elevating "engagement" -- too often the content and knowledge are watered down to make the game more appealing and engaging. Projects that are fun can be given preference over the not-so-fun but really important stuff. Such as grammar and learning long division.

To get beyond whether the game is fun, I tried to find out how much Crystal Island actually improves learning. This was no easy task. Most of the comments and articles surrounding the game dwell on student engagement and give us little information on what students actually learn. There is an implicit assumption that if students are engaged, they will be learning.

I found one research paper written by the developers of Crystal Island here:

I also found a literature review of Serious Games (which includes a review of Crystal Island) at the U Mass Computer Science Department:  A Literature Review of the Field of Serious Games.
Crystal Island features a fully 3D interface and environment in which players explore, and collect important information by meeting and conversing with other agents. Players can collect other information through realistic events such as reading newspapers or examining objects in the environment. In this same way, players in general are given a large amount of freedom. The theory is that student motivation will rise when the sense of freedom within a game is increased. This is because students can quickly judge how much there is to discover within a system. When they detect a vast and interesting world, they wish to explore it, and freedom within a game allows them to do just that.
There is little mention on the trade off between providing students with freedom within a simulation and manually focusing students on chosen tasks. It can be argued that although providing freedom to users increases motivation, it may not lead to learning because students might tend to engage in unproductive tasks. Likewise, forcing student efforts may lead to desired actions within the system, but a loss of engagement may be a great detriment to learning. This trade off must be thoroughly analyzed in future serious games research, although intelligent tutoring research may do a great deal in informing the likely result of the trade off.
An interesting part of the paper was the paradox of trying to make the content of a game strong, without destroying the enjoyment factor. Some feel that this paradox is impossible to overcome. The paper also makes the interesting point that:
Unfortunately, students have been shown to be particularly good at recognizing when a simulation is trying to “trick” them into learning.
 So now, I return to the only research paper on Crystal Island, published by the developers. 8th grade students participated in an actual test of the game. Kids were tested before they played the game on various elements of microbiology, they were allowed to play the game, and then they were tested again. Another group of students also participated in the study, but they were given traditional lecture-style instruction by a teacher with a slide show and did not play the game.

Kids that played Crystal Island correctly answered TWO additional questions after they played the game for an hour. As for the kids in the traditional classroom?

The results showed that students [that played the game] did exhibit learning gains, but that those gains were less than those produced by traditional instructional approaches.
In other studies, the gains may have been better, but the data isn't clear. The developers still insist that the benefits of motivation and engagement are "substantial" (but unquantified). Also, students that took notes during the game did better and girls were more likely than boys to use the note-taking capabilities built into the game.

So I remain very skeptical of the benefits of technology and game playing in the classroom. For the amount of time the kids played the game (60 minutes) to improve their content knowledge by only two questions, it seems that this is a very inefficient way to learn. Add to that the high cost of developing the game and installing the technology into classrooms and the limited focus of the game, it just can't be justified at this time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Flip The Curve!

In our continuing search for solutions to the education crisis, we should all be encouraged by the growing recognition of the value of great teachers. The best teachers get results consistently, year after year, with all of their students. It isn't magic and it isn't luck.

For too long, the role of great teachers has been diminished. Teachers have been viewed as fungible -- just another input into a system that has valued laptops and school buses as much as they have valued teachers. As long as a teacher graduated from a collegiate teacher prep program and passed the State certification test, then one was just as good as another. Results and skills have gone unremarked and unrewarded. The only way to boost your pay as a teacher was to get another degree, move out of the classroom in the bureaucracy or the administration, or just stay longer. Our pay scales and our entire teacher recruiting system is perfectly structured to encourage the best teachers to stop teaching, to get more degrees, to become a bureaucrat.

Teachers that simply teach, and teach well, are not the goal of our education system. Which brings me to the chart at the top of this post. The chart was included in a presentation by Bill Gates to the National Governor's Association last month. I think my friends at KitchenTableMath were the first to note the disparity between how much we spend on education and the lack of results for our money.
There's nothing new here -- the amount spent, per pupil, has increased dramatically, every year for decades. The results have been flat, as measured by the NAEP (which is the only test given nationwide to 4th and 8th graders and allows us to compare apples to apples across the States).

The US has got to figure out a way to increase the quality of education results but hold costs flat. There will be tremendous resistance to this idea. Just two nights ago, I was told again at my town budget discussions that flat spending in education is really a cut.

Here's my last slide from the Bill Gates presentation, showing the growth in education personnel from 1960 through the present.
The numbers of people employed at our schools  -- the teachers, teacher coaches, administrators, specialists, and other adults in the system  -- has exploded from 40 adults per 1,000 kids to 125 adults per 1,000 kids. That kind of employment growth is the reason that education has become very, very expensive. But for all of those very expensive adults employed at all levels of a particular school district, we have had almost no change in the results.

One solution is to increase class sizes for our very best teachers and eliminate our very worst teachers. Everybody else has got to improve.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Education in Singapore -- the role of good teachers

I was delighted by this video. As it was created by the Ministry of Education, it has to be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. It is an adorable propaganda video, but there are several very interesting aspects to it. Here's two off the top of my head.

First, notice the class size. There are a lot of really cute kids packed into those classrooms. A lot of kids. In the primary grades, the "ideal" class size is pegged at 35 to 40 students.

Second, notice the lack of technology. Not a single computer, calculator, clicker, or gizmo of any sort. Take a close look at the frame at 2:14 -- how old fashioned is that?! -- a pull down screen for a projected image (rather than the standard SMART board we see all over in the US schools). But you see lots and lots of books, pencils and paper.

So how does Singapore do it? How do they achieve world class results with  no SMART boards or calculators, with big classes of little kids?

Last fall, the Chair of our local board of education stated in a Public Forum that Singapore gets such good results because they have better parents and a culture that values education. He also wanted more money. (I'm paraphrasing, and my apologies to the Chair if I am misrepresenting what he said. I invite him to correct the statement if he disagrees.)

But I disagree. Singapore clearly values education and it is seen as the way to success, wealth, and happiness. In the U.S., our kids seem to believe that the way to success, wealth, and happiness is through a spot on American Idol, so he may have something there.

The answer to Singapore's success, and the best hopes for turning around the U.S. education system, is in the quality of the teaching core. Here's an interesting point about Singapore teachers -- they have a strong union. We don't need to destroy the teachers union to improve education.

Here's another interesting point about the Singapore teacher training system:
Singapore now has one of the world’s highest-performing education systems — but it was not always so. In the early 1970s, less than half of Singapore’s students reached fourth grade. Teachers were hired en masse, with little attention to quality.

Singapore soon identified teacher quality as key to improving educational outcomes — and government policy has been instrumental in identifying and nurturing teaching talent. Today, Singapore offers teaching internships for top-performing students starting in high school. It carefully selects promising adolescents from the top third of high school seniors and offers them a competitive monthly stipend while still in school.

In exchange, these teacher candidates must commit to teaching for at least three years and serving diverse students. After these bright, committed students undergo a rigorous teacher education program and become teachers, they receive 100 hours of professional development per year to keep up with changes in classroom instruction and to improve their practice.
(Uncommon Wisdom on Teaching)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Parents and Coaches -- an interesting interaction for education

I'm sharing a video that  my daughter's gymnastics coach  pointed out to me yesterday. It is rather long, but hilarious if you've ever watched the progression of little girls through the levels. The parent and coach in this are extreme caricatures, to be sure, but there are a couple of points that are relevant to any discussion of education.  
First, the "coach" doesn't blame Suzie for a lack of talent or ability to learn the kip and move to level 5. In fact, the coach insists that hard work, persistence, patience, and a commitment to the sport will pay off. But skipping practice and negative feedback have Suzie in a downward spiral.

Second, the bar coach spent much time explaining exactly what the component parts of a kip are, she explained the progression of each element that makes for a successful kip -- muscle, flexibility, and timing. Each part must be ready before the kip will work. There really is no short-cut and kids will work on this one stunt for months before they get it.

Contrast this with much of the discussion we see in public education -- when students aren't performing at grade level you almost never hear about the importance of foundation skills, the building of knowledge, the identification of weaknesses, the importance of hard work, persistence, and patience. 

Instead, the National Education Association has page after page of stories from teachers explaining that the kids they have just don't have the ability to work at grade level. Such as this:
"I watch their little faces get confused and even sad at times because they just do not have the abilities that other students have . . . ."
 or this:
"There is nothing worse than watching a student of yours struggle and not being able to help them. It is even worse when you know that they are going to become overwhelmed, and you still have to sit back and watch."
These stories are most heart-breaking because the teacher does not have a plan to build the foundation and teach the skills. They are willing to write off students that just aren't smart enough. It's even sadder when you see other schools and teachers making great progress with the hard to teach kids -- those from poverty without English spoken at home.

When I read the NEA webpage stories, I feel very sorry for those kids that don't have teachers with a strong curriculum and strong skills and an attitude of hope. I wish we could get every kid a strong teacher and a cumulative progressive curriculum that builds the foundation skills the kids need. I wish they all had a teacher like the coach in the video.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Small Changes to Town Education Budgets May Be Possible

A bill that would allow for a very limited reduction in town education budgets has a potential of passing this year. The change is incredibly small, and not nearly enough to give towns control over their budgets, but it is a start.

It would allow towns to reduce their education budgets IF they have declining enrollment. For every kid that their enrollment is reduced by, the town can reduce its budget by $3,000.

Connecticut has a very strange system of budgeting. Towns have little control over many aspects of spending, and this is a particularly insidious state law that has no justification. Whatever a town spends on education in one year, it is required to spend AT LEAST that much the next year. This is called the  "Minimum Budget Requirement" and I've blogged about it in the past.

In a town such as Granby, the change would permit (not require) that the town COULD reduce spending on education by about $120,000 as we see about a 30 student decline in enrollment year-to-year. That will probably never happen, as we have been increasing our expenditures every year despite significant drops in student population (in the current year, 46 fewer students attended than the year before, and 79 fewer students attend the Granby Schools than they did just 3 years ago).

But don't expect any drops in budgeting as a result. The Board always has a way of making sure every dollar (and then some) is spent regardless of how many students we have. In fact, despite enrollment declines, the actual amount budgeted next year will likely grow, not shrink. This is true across the State -- towns typically budget more than required -- much more. In these difficult economic times, towns are proposing budgets of 1%, 2%, even 5% more than last year for education.

Even if Bill 6385 passes the legislature and is signed by Governor Malloy, the impact will be very small. Few towns are likely to reduce their education budget, and the new law would only apply to the next two fiscal years.

So why am I such a fan of removing the MBR, if I think it will have almost no impact? Because as a basic principal, I think towns should be able to control their spending. Parents and tax payers are not interested in destroying public schools. But it is also the people on the ground and in the schools that can best determine what their budget needs are. Does a playground need to be rebuilt this year? Did we have unusually large expenses last year that are not recurring? A drop in the number of special education students? An increase in bus routes?

School districts and towns need to be able to respond to changing conditions without a mechanical requirement that any increased cost in any particular year not become a permanent cost in the budget for every year after.

Bill 6385 is a small step in the right direction. Complete repeal of the law would be better.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Do Parents Deserve a Choice?

I just read an excellent review of Diane Ravitch's book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." The book has been out for a little over a year. At the time it was published, it sent shock waves through the education establishment -- Ravitch had "switched sides" from a pro-NCLB, pro-testing, pro-school choice, to anti-all those things.

I read several reviews of the book, and even joined Diane Ravitch's facebook page. However, I haven't finished reading the book. Maybe a snowy day like today would be a good time to start.

But getting back to the good review of this old book (old in the internet sense that it has been hashed over pretty well and there isn't much new to say about it.)

Katherine Beals, the Out In Left Field blogger, and author of Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain world (and a newly converted homeschooler to boot), has written one of the most insightful reviews and worth relooking at some old news.

One of the best points raised by Beals is that Ravitch is quick to cast blame on easy targets - politicians and businessmen (i.e., Bill Gates), but fails to acknowledge the insidious damage done to the education system by the insiders -- most particularly, ed schools. While Ravitch claims to care deeply about content-rich curriculum, the schools of education have done the most to eliminate almost all of the actual content in the classroom.

A case in point -- students "learn" geography by making soup in a high school class. One of the most frustrating things about the Diane Ravitch flip flop is that she makes good points, but fails to see how the education insiders she favors (ed school professors) have created a generation of teachers that don't know how to teach content. Or don't see the value in it. From Katherine Beals:

"Ravitch devotes four chapters to the failed experiments of politicians and business people and another to NCLB. Not one chapter focuses on the power brokers inside the education establishment. Somehow, in the years since Left Back, Ravitch seems to have convinced herself that the nation's education schools, superintendents, and school boards have a reasonable track record in comparison with politicians and businessmen."
 And when we get to Charter Schools, we see Ravitch's position to be flimsy at best. Ravitch would strictly limit the choices parents and students could have. This is one of the biggest flips Ravitch makes from her past, and Beals addresses it head on:
"The most immediate way around this is to let parents vote with their feet; to give them what Ravitch, who doesn't include parents as part of the solution, no longer supports: school choice. But true choice requires schools that are accessible to everyone (i.e., local and publicly funded or vouchered) and that present meaningful alternatives in curriculum and pedagogy (i.e., reflecting parental demand and what's known about effective instruction).
 Ravitch rightly describes charter schools as falling short on both measures, and as not, on average, providing a better alternative to public schools. What she doesn't admit, however, is that these shortcomings aren't inherent to charter schools per se, but largely result from the obstacles placed in their way by state governments and the education establishment. Since most states require that most charter school teachers be certified, it's hard for charters to avoid hiring teachers who haven't been indoctrinated by education schools.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Malloy Gives Up On Fixing The School Funding Method

Governor Malloy's budget director gave up trying to get a "money follows the child" law passed this year. They will study it, despite admitting that the current school funding formula is broken and has been broken for years.

How broken is it? Well, when my son was in the 8th grade, he attended a magnet school in Hartford. One of his assignments in one of his classes was to actually read the funding formula law. Then students were to create their own funding formulas.

The one thing I remember both of us thinking at the end of the assignment was that the existing formula was so unbelievably complicated that it could not be explained to anyone.

My son is now in college and nothing has improved. The funding formula is opaque at best, and intentionally confusing at worst. There is nothing fair nor transparent about it.  Now that everyone admits that the funding formula is broken and unfair, and has been for a long time, how long before it is fixed?

Religion and the Public Schools

The UConn School of Law is hosting an interesting and timely debate between two heavy weights on both sides of the religion in schools issue. The event is free, but advance registration is required.

The Event is the Milton Sorokin Symposium on "The Relationship Between Religion and the Public Schools."
The debaters will be Anthony Romero, the Executive Director of the national ACLU, and Kevin J. "Seamus" Hasson, Founder and President of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Moderating the debate is Rick Kay, Professor, UConn School of Law.

After a quick read of both debater's bios what struck me is that both Romero and Hasson claim to support "religious freedom." On the surface, they would appear to be largely in agreement about the importance of the free exercise of religion. Romero's website has this to say:

"Children's religious education should be directed primarily by parents, families, and religious communities — not the public schools. The ACLU defends students' free speech rights in the public schools and defends students' rights to pray in the schools. Additionally, whenever a teacher allows children to choose their own topics for an assignment (such as which book to read or which topic to study for a presentation), students may choose religious themes — and the ACLU has protected their right to do so." ACLU statement.

I had more trouble finding a clear statement of The Becket Fund's principles regarding religious freedom in the school, but they are probably best known for their litigation to keep the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance recited by school children. From the website on the symposium, Hasson is described this way:

"Hasson is founder and president of the Becket Fund, which describes itself as "a bipartisan, public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions." The fund, as described at its web site, "believes that government may not discriminate against religion by specially excluding schools or students from government funding, or any other government benefit, simply because they are religious." Hasson is author of The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion in America."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Teacher Evaluations and LIFO

The Education Committee is considering a bill that has the potential to take a step in the right direction: senate bill 1160. Last week, the committee heard testimony on this bill, all of which can be found here:

Public Testimony

The bill would empower the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC) to create a model teacher evaluation system.That sounds like a good thing, except that the legislation almost ensures that the system that is eventually created will not be fair, nor will it be created by people with student's best interests in mind.

The people assigned to the PEAC are all school board, administrator, or union reps. Nobody on the Council is there to represent parents or students. And these days, I find if hard to believe that union reps actually represent teacher views anymore. I could be wrong on that.

In addition, the law requires the PEAC to look at everything except how well the teacher does in actually teaching students.

Friday, March 4, 2011

LIFO -- Connecticut considers a change

It is impossible to watch, read, or browse the news without noticing that teacher tenure is the latest hot button issue in the ed reform world. Once again, politics on this particular issue have changed, quite radically in fact, in just the past month. Democratic Governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy said in his budget address that he wanted  “to give local school districts the flexibility they need to retain new, talented teachers."

For those who missed the code in that statement, Gov Malloy was attacking one of the standard provisions of most contracts between teacher unions and school districts -- the "Last In, First Out" or LIFO rule. The last to be hired, is the first to be fired.

A google news search gets hits in the thousands. Why has LIFO suddenly become the issue in ed reform? In my opinion, it is the scapegoat that lets everyone off the hook of real reform. Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, and for what it is worth, LIFO rules are hard to justify.  One of the few that made an attempt to do just that was Maurice Berube in a letter to the editor at the NY Times. And even his defense is pretty weak -- protect teachers from outside pressure? And then he goes on with this:

"Moreover, critics of teachers’ unions do not take into account the fact that teaching is labor-intensive and teachers often burn out."

Um, geez Maurice, you don't think that teacher burnout is taken into account by the critics of LIFO? That is absurd.  Teacher burnout is exactly the point. Some teachers do burn out and they probably should not remain in the classroom. Why are you protecting burned out teachers? How does that help kids?

Moving beyond this tepid defense of LIFO rules, what about teacher pressure? Do LIFO rules insulate teachers from pressure? A union president in NY seems to think so according to this statement in the Times Union.

"In education and other fields, unions have stated that a retreat from seniority protections would leave workers at peril of subjective evaluations, and worse. "We will not allow a bill that exposes our members to harassment, favoritism and intimidation to divert us from our commitment to defend collective bargaining and the right to organize," Iannuzzi said."
But not so fast. Has this LIFO rule actually protected teachers from harassment, favoritism, intimidation, or other inappropriate pressures? My informal and unscientific answer is no.
Teachers are besieged by outside pressure, by the very harassment the unions claim to protect them from. They have lost control of the content they teach and the methods by which they teach it. The number one complaint I hear from teachers is that they can't teach what they have been trained to teach nor what they know they should be teaching. How are teachers protected from outside pressure if a principal has firm instructions to her staff as to what must happen in a classroom on the days the superintendent is observing?

In other words, when the big guy is in the building, there will be no spelling tests, no kids sitting doing work, no paper and pencil stuff. Kids must be running around the room and using the SMART board. Throw your lesson plan out the window and get the kids up. Make it look like they are active and engaged.

This probably isn't what most people would consider "protecting teachers from outside pressure."

So why not end LIFO rules? The only real reason I can come up with is that exactly the opposite of the current situation will occur. Rather than fire all the newest teachers during layoffs, all the senior teachers will be fired instead. Such a result would be troubling. I've yet to find any teacher that didn't improve after 1 or 2 years on the job. Maybe its an indictment of our teacher training system that so many enter the classroom in their first year and find themselves shellshocked by how difficult the job is. I'm willing to put up with a brand new teacher, because you know they will get better. But no one believes a teacher is at their most effective in that first year or two on the job.

Simply tossing out LIFO rules is not likely to improve teacher quality. It may actually get worse. But at least it will get cheaper.

My biggest concern about the entire LIFO debate is that there is almost no discussion on how to fairly evaluate teachers. How will we retain the most talented teachers, in the absence of LIFO, if we can't even identify who they are? There won't be any more effort to keep the talented effective teachers without LIFO as there was with LIFO. But budgets will be balanced by firing the most senior teachers, the teachers with the least ability to get re-hired somewhere else regardless of their talents and abilities.

LIFO rules need to go, but we've got to have a system in place before LIFO is ended that gives us some degree of confidence that the talented teachers can be identified and retained. The teacher is the most important element in a child's success in school. Until we get serious about teacher evaluations, quick fixes that are popular with politicians and that play well in the press, will divert attention to the more difficult and more important problems of education reform.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Parent Union in Connecticut?

People who think parents are not involved in their child's education have probably never heard of Gwen Samuel. She is a force for parents and children looking for real education reform. She is starting a parent union with hopes to gain a seat at the table.

She certainly has my support.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Spittleless Politicians, Apathetic Constituents and Collective Bargaining

Rosemary here. I am a Republican because I am a social conservative.  But I'm a Catholic social conservative, and I believe that social justice is code for ... social justice.  I do not believe that the smallest unit of any just society is the individual, it is the family. Economically, I am not a capitalist, I am a distributist, which makes me a subsidiarist.  A subsidiarist is a person who believes that all matters concerning the family must be addressed at a level of governance that is as close to the family as possible.  One of the largest of all the issues addressing the family is education, and to our detriment, we have put spittleless politicians in charge of the education of our young.  These erstwhile public servants began having acute cases of dry mouth at the local level, and kicked the can up and up and up, so now we have policies and mandates decided at ever higher levels of government.  And I have to lay some of this blame on my own doorstep.  Since I homeschooled my children, I did not show up at town meetings concerning the town budget, a huge percentage of which goes to education.  I wanted to stay below the radar.  I forgot that what was decided at those meetings affected my family in the form of taxation, in the form of education decisions being made for the children of my neighbors and for my children’s friends.  Shame on me on that score.

What does any of this have to do with collective bargaining?  A whole lot.  When it comes to public employee unions, like the teachers’ unions, it is our politicians or their surrogates making the deals when negotiating contracts.  The political environment is such that politicians are constantly campaigning.  Politics is institutionalized “people pleasing.”  It has less to do with public service than with an affable, well-meaning, benevolent, condescending consolidation of power.  When a public employee union comes to the table, our elected officials do not negotiate, not really.  Democrats say “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” and Republicans say, “No, wait … what … you’re going to walk out?  You’re going to tell the press …. What?!!  Damn you …. Okay.” And at the local level, it is often “hale fellows, well-met, let’s rubberstamp this thing and head to the bar.” This is an oversimplification of the kabuki dance that happens behind closed doors, but you get the picture.

So … Wisconsin.  What amazing political theater we’ve been witnessing over the last week and a half.  At fist glance, I would sympathize with Governor Walker.  He made no bones about what he would do when elected, and with an abundance of spittle, he got right down to it.  As it turns out, it’s just well-staged union busting.  Collective bargaining is a big headache for everyone, even the Democrats.  It makes politicians say “Yes!” or “Okay” to spending more and more and more money.  It makes them mandate things no one can pay for. It makes them do things they maybe should not be doing.  It makes their mouths so dry, they cannot possibly say “No” or “Not this year” or “We can’t afford it.”  So, let’s take away the very thing that makes a union a union … collective bargaining.  That solves the problem, and makes democracy a safe Neverland  where politicians never have to grow up, where they get to posture and glad-hand and backroom-deal to their hearts’ content.

I am not a fan of what teachers’ unions have brought to the table over the last twenty years.  I hate tenure for K through 12 teachers.  I think some of the curriculum decisions that have been made in the past two decades have been ridiculous. I intensely dislike the notion of incompetent teachers getting the pay that should be going toward the process of hiring and keeping promising, young teachers … but union busting is not the answer.  The unions brought this stuff to the table, but it was the politicians who said ‘yes.’ The public employee unions are willing to make concessions in order to help with the fiscal problems afflicting the state of Wisconsin. Taking away collective bargaining is an injustice and it would make the unions as top-heavy as government.  Taking away collective bargaining would funnel the process of gaining benefits and raises for workers away from the local level, away from the very people affected.  If the money isn’t there, it’s up to the town council or state or federal legislators to say so.  If the process becomes messy and contentious and the press cries “FOUL” and the unions cry “UNFAIR” and some politicians cry, “WE’RE BROKE” and other politicians cry, “PEOPLE WILL SUFFER” its all to the good if collective bargaining is still in place. If the answer is a political “no”, then justice has not been totally mangled to deliver that answer.

In closing, here are a couple quotes from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centisimus Annus (1992):

" . . . The freedom to join trade unions and the effective action of unions . . . are meant to deliver work from the mere condition of 'a commodity' and to guarantee its dignity."

" . . . The right of association is a natural right of the human being . . . Indeed, the formation of unions cannot . . . be prohibited by the state because the state is bound to protect natural rights . . ."

Got spittle?

(Speaking of spittle, gumption, audaciousness, etc. you have to see this video of the “vote” on the bill to bust the unions.  Keep your eye peeled on the timeclock.  It made me ashamed to be a Republican.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Swedish Charter School Coming to NY

In September of 2011, the Innovate Manhattan Charter School will open in NYC. The school is getting some press as it will be the first Internationally owned and run Charter school in the US by the Swedish for-profit education consortium -- Kunskapsskolan.

It looks like an interesting concept -- kids progress at their own pass and the class room composition is flexible and frequently adjusted. As kids move faster or slower, they can move up or down between groups throughout the year.  There is a lot to like about this approach. This will be a school to watch.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Kids Aren't As Internet Savvy As They Think

One might argue that the title of this post is simply stating the obvious. I agree. Kids aren't as savvy as they think they are at just about anything, so no reason to to think that the kids and the internet would be any different, right? Parents have known for years that kids aren't good at evaluating the claims they hear -- on tv, the internet, on the bus, I could go on  and on. Yet, this truism apparently has been lost on education administrators that have for years told us that our kids are "tech natives" and other such hogwash.

Just because our kids spend an enormous amount of their free time (if we let them) texting on phones or surfing the web, doesn't mean they can critically evaluate what they are consuming.

Now a professor from NEAG (the school of education at UConn) and Pearson, a very profitable company that peddles techie gadgets to the ed world, have teamed up to tell Superintendents that kids lack the skills they need to critically evaluate what they read on the internet -- even older, high school kids aren't good at telling fact from fiction when it is on the internet.

To find out what solution Pearson and Professor Donald Leu (of NEAG) we would have to attend the conference they are putting on in Texas.

For those of you who missed the Texas conference last Monday, let me suggest a few ideas on how to teach kids internet savvy skills -- direct instruction is my favorite method, hands down. Tell and show them the difference between a .com site and an .edu or .gov site. Help them practice by evaluating sites you pick for them to evaluate accuracy and trustworthiness and which are not.  I'd caution against discovery learning approaches.

And if you think your kid is the exception to the rule -- ask them to visit this website:  Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, and ask them (with a straight face and as sincerely as you can) if you should donate money to the cause. It is a great site, extremely well done. Click on all the links and marvel at the elaborate efforts put into it.

Actually, if I were feeling really evil, I might try to get my child to share the link with a teacher and see if any of them fall for it too.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Confusing Middle School Assignment

Over at Education Quick Takes, Grace describes an ill-conceived middle school writing assignment. It is a good example of the sorts of things that drive me crazy as a parent. If the teacher doesn't (or can't) proof-read the assignment for clarity of communication, exactly how will he or she impart to students the skills they need to learn to write effectively.

Because it is an English class, the teacher should really be held to the highest standard in her own written communications to the students. Unfortunately, this example is no exception.

I am reminded of one particularly horrible 8th grade English assignment from last year. After my daughter, another parent, and I discussed the assignment at length we finally reached some sort of conclusion about what the teacher might have meant. The worst part of it was, the assignment had so little merit. If I'm remembering correctly, they had to create an action figure based on something they were reading.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Kindergarten Age Change Supported By Gov. Malloy

During this brief time when both Rosemary and I are overwhelmed by life's little challenges, I read this piece in the CT Mirror: Malloy: Raise Kindergarten Age

For those of you unfamiliar with the long running age cut-off debate in Connecticut, a quick recap. If your child will turn five before January 1, he or she can start school in September at the age of four. Not surprisingly, many people take advantage of this option and sent their four year olds to kindergarten, and others hold them back and start them when they are five. Anecdotally, it seems more boys are held back and more wealthy kids -- those parents that can afford an extra year of day care will hold back the immature four year old.

I've been down this road twice -- I have two kids that were born near the end of the year. Daycare expense is only one of the many issues that go into the decision. Parents know their own children better than anyone and are probably in the best position to decide if little Susie or little Johnny need an extra year to "grow."

Still, the proposal makes sense, mostly because I don't think there's another state out there that allows such young children to start kindergarten as Connecticut does. And as hard as it is to send any child off to college, sending a 17 year old off to college can give many parents pause. As a state, our kids may do better in the long run if they are five when they start school and 18 when they start college.

If the proposal goes through, I hope the State Board of Education gives strong support and encouragement to towns to make acceleration for advanced students a clear policy. The four year old start policy has been a positive thing for bright kids that are able to keep up with their older peers. Hopefully, changing the start date will give towns the incentive they need to accelerate kids, when appropriate.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Get Smart, Connecticut campaign

The ConnCAN organization has launched a big campaign to promote their legislative agenda. Many of the reforms the organization would like to see passed are leftover from last year. Things like -- money follows the child, teacher tenure, and the like.

The agenda is filled with common sense proposals -- things that many other states have already adopted. The school finance issue will mean big changes for Connecticut, if passed. There are so many interests opposed to the reforms, and there is no longer a "race to the top" carrot dangling out there for the state, the effort is unlikely to succeed.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Connecticut's High School Science Teacher Certification Found Wanting

A recently published report by the National Council on Teacher Quality gives us more disturbing news about the quality of the teachers put in front of high school science classrooms. Some States, including Connecticut, have set the bar very low -- expecting little specific knowledge about the different science disciplines before being permitted to teach some of the most demanding and important high school subjects.

Connecticut received the lowest possible score in this report -- a RED light. Here are some pulls:
The US suffers not only because of the math and science teachers we don't have -- in many cases we also set unacceptably low expectations for the STEM teachers we do have.
[M]any states fail to guarantee that biology, chemistry and physics teachers have mastered the content they teach. . . . The bottom line is that the so-called flexibility of the "broad field" science teacher is a fantasy. In reality, the concept of the all-purpose science teacher not only masks but perpetuates the STEM crisis, and does so at the expense of students.
[Connecticut's] approach does not guarantee adequate knowledge in particular areas of science. Candidates are only required to pass the Praxis 2 General Science (and content essay) test. These combination assessments fail to note performance in any specific science discipline, and a candidate could answer many questions wrong in one area yet still pass the test.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New High School Graduation Requirements -- Should they be Voluntary?

The State has just realized that it is broke and really can't afford to pay for the sweeping new high school graduation requirements they passed last year into law. This new law will apply to kids that are currently in the fifth grade -- the class of 2018. To graduate from a public high school in CT, students will have to pass state tests in the subjects of english, math, science, and history, get at least a credit in a foreign language, and do a "capstone" project.

In the next 7 years, the State expected to do a lot of the prep work for implementing these standards -- things like deciding what would actually be on those exams, writing model curriculum, and defining what would be a capstone project. The State had counted on using all those federal dollars dangling out there in Race to the Top to pay for the new requirements.

The federal dollars never materialized. Connecticut's application for $175 million was rejected. Since then, other events have taken center stage. With the looming budget crisis, legislators appear to have noticed that all those laws they passed last year are still on the books, but there's no money to make them a reality.

One idea is to delay the requirements even later than 2018. Another is to do nothing and let the towns figure out how to pay for all the new things they'll have to do.

Here's a third idea -- make them voluntary. Some of the new high school graduation requirements are unproven with no research base behind them -- particularly former Commissioner McQuillan's "capstone" project. I've been uncomfortable with the whole capstone project requirement, even when it seemed possible that someone else (my federal tax dollars rather than my state or local property tax dollars) would pay for it.

But I've got some serious misgivings about the whole capstone project as it is. It might be a good idea, but there's little evidence at this point that it would do anything at all to prepare students for life after high school. So, keeping an open mind -- how about we make the new requirements voluntary and ask school districts to provide feedback instead.

Ask districts in their yearly reports to include a short description of whether they voluntarily implemented any of the new requirements and to describe their experiences.

I start with an assumption that the vast majority of citizens and towns would like to graduate students well prepared to achieve after high school. If they think this new capstone project is a good idea, some will try it. The towns that don't like it or can't afford it, can watch the experience of other towns. It could be a great big collaborative project where towns share their experiences and give each other feedback before we mandate it across the state.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

LYNN: Attention -- great new blog!

Education Quick Takes -- just up and blogging!!  I'm adding it to my favorites and joining the rss feed. In her latest post, Grace tells us that no longer will high school students have to take three SAT subject tests to apply for top colleges. No college will require three test anymore. It's hard not to wonder if the lowering of standards is a result of a less prepared student body coming out of high schools.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

LYNN: Minimum Budget Requirement -- Repeal or Leave in place?

An editorial in the Norwich Bulletin raised an issue that I had not heard of before, but which should interest anyone worried about schools, taxes, and how to survive the economic downturn. It sounds like a dull topic, but the details are so easy to explain and comprehend, that I think we can all get behind this one.

The State of Connecticut has a law on its books that requires towns to fund their schools at or above the same level that they did in the prior year. This is called the "minimum budget requirement." I couldn't believe that this was true, so I looked it up. Indeed, it is true and I even found a opinion from the CT General Assembly's Office of Legislative Research explaining the entire thing. It doesn't get any more official than that.

Interested readers should read the entire thing, but for my purposes, the last sentence is the most critical:

"The effect of the current MBR is to prohibit towns from reducing education budgets in FY 10 and FY 11 below their FY 09 levels. By law, the penalty for failing to meet the MBR is a reduction in the town's ECS grant for the subsequent fiscal year equal to twice the amount of the shortfall."

In plain English, this means that your town CAN NOT reduce how much it spends on education next year. By force of law, it is prohibited. The penalty is equal to twice whatever the town cut from the education appropriation.

Some lawmakers are suggesting that the MBR should be repealed. The Norwich Bulletin would keep the MBR as it is. Their reasoning? Connecticut schools have the worst achievement gap in the nation, so we shouldn't allow towns to cut spending.

I really don't follow the reasoning. It is true that CT does have the worst achievement gap in the nation. But basically, the Norwich Bulletin would argue that since schools have done a poor job with the money we gave them, we should continue to give them at least the same amount. The logic is a little fuzzy.

Here's my opinion on the matter, and I believe it to be perfectly consistent with a liberal philosophy.

The MBR discourages efficiency and innovation. No town has the incentive to do a better job, to reduce cost, to figure out how to do more with less. By the State's mandate, towns must appropriate the same amount next year, no matter how much more efficient or creative they become.

For example, imagine a couple of rural towns that offer a handful of advanced classes. They could offer more classes at a lower cost by harnessing the power of collaboration and technology. If they jointly paid a single teacher and used teleconferencing and the internet, they could broaden the academic course offerings and lower cost. But the MBR would penalize them for doing it.

Small districts could share expensive administrative personnel -- has anyone wondered why ever single school district needs a curriculum director? Sharing these types of resources would save money and could improve results. But the MBR prohibits it.

Finally, public school enrollment is steadily declining and some school districts are seeing big drops in their student enrollment. The MBR would require them to continue funding the schools at the same level, no matter how many students leave the district.

The MBR should be repealed.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

LYNN: Acting Commissioner Coleman?

The CT Mirror reports that the State Board of Education is likely to appoint Deputy Commissioner George Coleman to lead the State Department of Education until our new Governor, Dan Malloy, is able to appoint a permanent replacement to Mark McQuillan.  The State BOE will meet this morning to discuss the appointment, although the agenda makes it clear that this will be a closed door discussion.

When asked about his choices for a new permanent Commissioner, Malloy said, "I am looking for a track record of success, great potential, someone who thinks outside the box, someone who stresses collaboration and change."

With that said, I'm guessing Coleman will not be Malloy's permanent choice as there is no greater "inside the box" thinker than Coleman, who has spent his entire career as an insider that learned to work the system well. Coleman gives every impression of being a decent person and a smart man, but I dare anyone to come up with anything he's ever done that was innovative.

According to biographical information on Mr. Coleman, he joined the State Department of Education in 1987 as a kindergarten consultant. Could it be that George Coleman has never worked for anyone other than the State Department of Education?