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.