Saturday, December 22, 2012

Speaking Up

Most educators I know recognize so many problems, many unintended, with standardized testing.  We have seen the demands of the classroom and the impacts on students change dramatically in the last decade or so.  Yet we rarely speak up.  Sure, we complain amongst ourselves and with our families.  But we are not organized and vocal.  We depend on lobbyists, professional PR people, unions and supportive politicians.  But where is the voice of the actual educator?  We need to be speaking for ourselves.  The American public largely supports us as individuals within our own communities, but shudders when pundits and lawyers speak.  So let’s speak up in our communities and make a difference.

Dr. Joshua Starr, superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland has done so.  He is calling for a moratorium on standardized testing.  He has eloquently spoken out about the multitude of things educators and schools are trying to do at once.  He has spoken out against the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation.  He has demonstrated real leadership from the point of view of an educator in the trenches.  We may not all agree with all his suggestions for every community, but I am sure we can all agree that leadership demands a willingness to start the conversation, to get people talking, and to get people thinking outside the box.

Use whatever pulpit you have.  Speak out.  Speak often.  Consider the possibilities.  Seriously consider what you think is best for your students and for our communities’ future.

Read a little here about Dr. Starr.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

AP Classes Are A Scam?

Recently The Atlantic published a short piece titled, AP Classes Are a Scam.  As an Advanced Placement teacher and test reader myself I had to bite at the provocative title.  As one might expect, there’s been some follow-up to the initial article, specifically an NPR piece and a response from the College Board defending the effectiveness of the programs with all sorts of data.

Let’s first acknowledge a few things.  The title is to get your attention.  Tierney, the author himself, admits this.  As readers we ought to be compelled to read further.  He uses some pretty strong language and makes some broad accusations that data likely cannot support.  His criticisms are not the sort that have data-driven support.  

So let’s just engage the ideas.  In his NPR interview Tierney calls AP classes a sacred cow.  I think he has a point.  That’s precisely why such an article and title get such attention.  How dare he criticize AP classes?  We need to get over that and take a look at his ideas.  We need to always be engaged in dialogue.  That is what will make us better – not throwing away someone’s ideas because we don’t like the hyperbole used to rope us in.  

First, are AP classes equivalent to introductory college courses?  There are all sorts of viewpoints on this.  The one thing I know, based on my experience, is that the quality of instruction tailored to students’ needs is far superior in the average AP course relative to the same level course in college.  How many introductory psychology, history surveys or politics classes are taught in collegiate lecture halls with 500 students?  At the high school, this won’t happen.  The students will be known by name and often taught according to their needs, even in an AP class.  There will be instruction on how to be successful.  Often in college it is simply sink or swim.  The academic expectations may be greater in college, but the high school course will also teach you how to be successful.  There will likely be more primary sources, readings, and more complex writing at the college level, but in high school you will be taught how to do all this.

The monetary argument for taking AP classes may not hold in a direct way.  Many competitive schools are not accepting AP credit any more.  But using AP courses as a “test-out” of basic-level courses saves time and money.  On the other hand, I appreciate Tierney’s point suggesting the advantage of taking your college department’s courses from the beginning.  They help build rapport with faculty and a chance to acclimate to the department’s expectations.  Don’t be so eager to skip out of college experiences.  

True, more students are taking the exams than ever.  However, I need to see evidence that failure rates are up.  Furthermore, it is contradictory to my educational philosophy to suggest that some kids don’t belong in an AP class.  If they want to be and are willing to do the work, then it is my job to teach them how to be successful.  The College Board endorses an open door policy for this reason.  We are TEACHERS.  It is our job to TEACH.  Don’t teach down…lift up!

Minority students are being left out.  There are opportunity costs to schools offering specialized and wide-ranging opportunities.  Agreed.  We all need to do a better job getting top notch resources into all our schools and that includes teachers and curricula. Then we need to make them available to all students.  Then we need to support all students in reaching the potential – and then some.   Again….lift up!

Stultification of the curriculum?  I cannot argue that we don’t have vast amounts of material to cover in limited time and some very specific essay-writing skills that can be specific to AP exam success.  Yes, there’s too much material to cover too quickly and too superficially.  The spectre of the test disallows the teachable moment and further, deeper exploration.  However, changes are afoot in the name of greater depth and critical thinking and away from rote memorization and coverage at the speed of light.

Finally, Tierney is right, we don’t know what the magic bullet is for admission to the top, most competitive schools (not necessarily the same thing, nor the same for all students).  We have too many students and families trying the shot gun approach.  We need to provide everyone better guidance and encourage greater depth, less competition, more authentic learning and thought.  But this is possible in the realm of the AP courses, particularly with the changes coming.    

The bottom line for me?  Let's have an open and continuous dialogue about how to improve and maximize education and opportunity for all students.    

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

AFT calls for bar exams

It is being reported that the AFT is suggesting a bar exam for incoming teachers to assure preparedness.  If such a thing is pursued, will the public support and invest in improved benefits packages so that required preparation meets reward?  Even if that happened, an a test and it's needed preparation really assure teacher performance?  I have seen a lot of change in teacher prep programs over the years, largely with increased contact with students and classrooms prior to graduation and credentialing, but nothing replicates being the lone teacher in the classroom.  It is a tough job that simply demands experience.  No college classroom, textbook, or test can really prepare you for the real thing.  But would a bar exam help?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

More from Klein

Last week I posted a short entry about education reformers, particularly Joel Klein, former head of New York City Schools.  The Atlantic recently reported that it seems Klein is suggesting an exam for getting teaching credentials.  I find this interesting for reasons beyond the connection to Albert Shanker.  Consider that we already have all sorts of exams.  I can remember exams to get admitted to a College of Education, exit exams before credentialing and graduation, and exams for each state’s specific credentials.  Clearly this was not nationalized.  But more important about these exams – they were easy.  I remember very few people getting too stressed about these.  I only remember one person doing anything to prepare for them, and she dealt with some serious learning challenges and did pass the exam she was prepping for.  We have had exams, but they have not provided much challenge and were therefore poor screening agents for finding the best and the brightest, nor for weeding out the unqualified.  The standards have simply been too low.  If teachers faced an exam like the Bar we would have a tool for finding the best, weeding out the least-qualified, and elevating the status and respect for the profession.  As The Atlantic suggests, it could have an impact on teachers’ unions and negotiations, alternatives to benefit structures, and could potentially serve to actually attract potential teachers.  But the final point is spot on…If teacher compensation isn’t dramatically increased first, little else will serve to attract the best and the brightest. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Education Reformers

I doubt many people disagree that much in American public education must change.  But disagreement seems endless when we begin discussing what to change and what the solutions are.  Right now an entire class of educational reformers are making headlines every day.  And as far as mainstream media makes it seem, they are all clamoring for school choice, charter schools, and measurable teacher evaluations using student test scores.  We must be aware of the political and ideological motivations of these so-called reforms.  On the other hand, we also have to believe and demand media coverage of those more broad-minded “reformers.”  There are reformers with other ideas – many with nuance, ambiguity and complexity.  There are many models of school leadership, teacher evaluation, school structure, and teacher training.  Furthermore, we have to grasp the complexity of the problems we are trying to solve.  Students are wildly complex and come to school with all sorts of baggage; they are not widgets.  And while it is true that great teachers can work wonders, great teachers also miss a few.

This article about Joel Klein, former New York City Schools chancellor, highlights many of these points. It is a great muckraking expose of Klein’s mythical biography.  I cannot argue with Klein when he says, “Demography need not be destiny.”  But to lay all academic and personal achievement of all students at the feet of teachers working miracles is na├»ve at best.  His upbringing offered far more support than many of our students ever get and suggesting that his life story ought to be inspiring to students and teachers is silly.  The author, Richard Rothstein, was asked for advice when Klein took office.  I believe his suggestions highlight beautifully the challenges we face.  And his deconstruction of Klein’s biography illustrates the real issues we face in improving our schools for all, including the least advantaged.   

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Solutions to Cheating?

Earlier this week I attempted to explain why cheating seems to be a viable option to many in schools.  But if cheating is so easy to explain, it must be easy to prevent it, right?  Actually, after a few years of thinking about it, I actually think it is relatively easy to prevent cheating.  Here are a few suggestions:

1.       Eliminate high stakes testing.
2.       Develop a new grading system in which students get two grades.  One can be strictly a measure of academic knowledge and skill.  The other can be a measure of integrity and character.
3.       Use student test scores as only one measure of many for teacher performance.  If test scores are to be any part at all, there must be a diagnostic pre-test with a follow-up after classroom instruction.  This sort of thing can be done in most any time frame.  And this is the only real way to evaluate teacher effectiveness via a test.
4.       Do a better job counseling students to find the best college for their personality and interests, not necessarily the most prestigious school.
5.       Eliminate busy-work assignments with simple answers students can easily share.
6.       Eliminate easily copied tests – i.e. multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true/false tests.
7.       Teach students more effectively about honor, integrity and pride.
8.       Teach students more effectively about when it is appropriate to work in teams and when it is not.
9.       If your test questions are easily found online, accept that cheating is possible, if not likely.
10.   Be sure principals are given the power to use their judgment in teacher evaluation, but create a process by which personality differences cannot doom a teacher. 
11.   Develop excellent administrative leadership.
12.   As much as possible, use student assessments that incorporate opinion, reflection and individualization.  The more standard and objective the test, the easier it will be to cheat. 
13.   Consider the case of Finland, whereby schools that struggle get funding increases so as to provide resources for improvement.  Our system is punitive and ineffective; it is based on fear and being re-active.
14.   Have frequent, small, quick assessments.

Cheating will always be with us, as it always has.  And those who cheat will be caught. I suggest it is best to break the habits and do the teaching now rather than later.  When young people learn that cheating is acceptable they become life-long cheaters who can do real damage –see Gen. Petraeus, Lance Armstrong, or Kenneth Lay.  

What are your suggestions to curtail cheating?