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? 

Monday, November 12, 2012


We have seen much in the media in recent years about cheating scandals conducted by both students and educators.  Perhaps a 24-hour news cycle and its pressure to attract an audience with sensational stories is behind a perceived increase in such stories.  On the other hand, perhaps some changes in the world of education are contributing. 

In the last couple decades we have seen an expansion of the testing culture.  More and more kids are taking AP classes and exams, needing top scores to get into the college of their choice.  The SAT test has been revamped and both the ACT and SAT tests are perceived to be a larger and larger part of the college admissions process. 

Colleges and universities have used marketing to increase their applications without doing anything to expand their incoming classes, thereby lowering the percentage of students admitted and increasing their supposed prestige, exclusivity and status. 

We have told our high-performing students that they have to be number one to be successful, all the while knowing everyone cannot be number one.  We have put them under amazing pressure.

And with No Child Left Behind we have seen the testing culture expand into the lives of all students from early in grade school to high school, for students of all abilities.  As we have tied school funding and teacher evaluation to the test scores, we have put awesome pressure on all our students.

We have done the same to teachers.  As strictly limited, objective measures are used in teacher evaluations, teachers have done what they can to protect their livelihood.  Some might say that teachers simply have to teach their students more effectively, thereby helping them achieve higher test scores.  But teachers certainly don’t choose their careers so they can teach to a test.  As educators, they realize that there’s so much more to an education and to their students’ development than test performance.  Tests can only be one, limited, imperfect measure.

I certainly don’t support or encourage cheating.  It is simply wrong.  But imagine if your career is at stake.  Consider feeling as though anything short of admission to Harvard or Stanford was failure.  Consider believing that nothing short of fives on all 12 of your AP exams was failure.  Consider if your ability to put food on the table for your family were at stake as your students took a single exam. 

We need a more humane approach to student achievement.  We need a broader, more thoughtful approach to teacher evaluations.

I explain to my students that a test is a snapshot.  Nobody looks great in every picture.  No student is always at their best.  They will not, must not be judged by a single performance.  A teenager comes to school as a product of their family, community and experience.  Furthermore, teens are emotional roller coasters; we never know what we are going to get.  Their mother is running late, their clothes don’t feel right, they don’t like the way their boyfriend looked at them, they woke up late, they didn’t have a good breakfast or sleep well, it’s raining, …and all these things can impact their readiness and confidence when taking a test.  And then we want to judge them and the teachers based on this very singular snapshot?

So when the stakes are too high, whether it is Enron, Peter Stuyvesant High School, Harvard University or Atlanta Public Schools, cheating starts to looks like a viable option.  We must bring back some common sense, some reason, and some balance to the process and to raising our children.

Here’s some compelling reading on the subject:

Friday, November 9, 2012

How to Ruin Teaching

Teaching is an art, not a science.  The same can be said of leadership.  While there may be elements of teaching and leadership that can be measured, most of the finer points, the points that truly are the mark of great teaching and leadership cannot be measured.  A great teacher has to be nurturing, engaging, empathetic, and energetic.  Do these qualities show up on student test scores?  Students come to our classrooms with the baggage of their homes and families, their past classes, and their moods.  Do these issues make an appearance on test scores?  Can and do teachers overcome these influences?  Can school leadership recognize great teaching outside of test scores?  

This article made me yell out in a most positive way.  Deborah Kenny says it so eloquently.  Want to ruin teaching?  Give Ratings.