Friday, January 31, 2014

Not ready for college

"Forty percent of Ohio high school graduates weren’t ready for college-level math or English when entering the state’s public colleges or universities in 2012."

On January 14, this was reported: "As the California State University system announced a record number of applications Wednesday, a new study found that the system should study its placement exams, eligibility standards and other factors to determine why so many entering students are not college-ready."
Sadly, remediation has become instead higher education’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” This broken remedial bridge is travelled by some 1.7 million beginning students each year, most of whom will not reach their destination — graduation. It is estimated that states and students spent more than $3 billion on remedial courses last year with very little student success to show for it (Remediation: Higher Education's Bridge to Nowhere.)
This is what college readiness is all about. Making sure that kids are ready for college and if they're ready for college, they should be reasonably well prepared for the work place. Sure, there are caveats about that, but if kids can avoid college remedial courses, they probably have sufficient English and math skills to succeed in entry level positions.

Having taught remedial courses and mentored kids in freshman experience courses, I understand students' frustrations. Remedial courses can often feel like a waste of time and money, and it can be humiliating to know how much longer it will take to graduate because of the remedial courses.

At most universities, students are limited to 12 hours for the semester, which is a full course load, but if one or two of those courses are non-credit remedial courses, their progress is slow. Tuition, by the way, is no less for remedial courses than it is for any other course.

In addition to having to take remedial courses, they often have to sign up to work with a tutor to be successful in those remedial courses. Depending on the credit courses they're taking, they may need one or more additional tutors to make sure they can be successful in the courses that actually count towards graduation.

Universities don't love remedial courses: they take classroom space and faculty time away from other courses. And it doesn't help a university's reputation to be the home of a large population of students who need remediation.

There are options. None are easy and most will cost some money and time. But those costs may be small ones to pay in the long run if, in the end, our kids are ready for college and ready for the work place.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What kids want from their teachers

Yesterday I got on it a bit about lists of what makes a great teacher. And then I came across more lists; well, we do like our lists.

Anyway, Angela Maiers (someone worth following if you don't already) offered up a list of 12 things kids want from their teachers. So my top three things a great teacher can do are these: 1) listen; 2) make your expectations clear; and 3) remember it's always, always, always, always about the kids.

Angela's 12:
  1. Greet your students each day. Really, how hard is that? How hard is it to acknowledge your students as individuals?
  2. Smile. Again, it's not really all that hard to smile, even if it's only now and then. Sure, maybe you wanna be the tough guy teacher, and that's fine. But even tough guys smile every once in a while. It won't hurt.
  3. Give them your attention. I think this is a corollary of the first one. Making eye contact, asking them questions that are more substantial than "How are you?" and actually listening to the answer. Not hard. Perhaps you worry about how much time it will take. But this of it as an investment. You take the time to invest in them at the beginning of the school year, what's the likelihood they will trust you more and be more willing to be responsive to you as the year continues.
  4. Imagine with them. This will cause some cracks in the facade for some folks because some kids will imagine some really wacky stuff, but this goes back to what I think is the first and most important quality of a great teacher: listen. Hear what wacky stuff they imagine because it will give you more insight into the students as individuals and that will help you as you think about ways to make your expectations very clear and how you make sure your classroom is student-centered.
  5. Give them challenging content and assignments. Oh the places they can go if you trust them to step up to your expectations, if you provide the support and encouragement they need, if you listen to their concerns and help them learn how to manage, even overcome, those concerns.
  6. Ask about them. See #1, #3, and #4. Kids will be blown away when you say stuff like, "Wow, Marcus. I hadn't thought about that. What prompted you to imagine that?" But also ask about them. Start small. For example, if they play any sports, there are all kinds of questions you can ask that aren't necessarily personal but open the door for you, and them.
  7. Let them have time. Some educators will remember when "wait time" referred to several seconds as opposed to a few nanoseconds. Yes, give them time. It's their learning and that learning may not always happen on your preferred schedule. Sometimes you may have to slow down so you can go faster later.
  8. Demand of them. See #5 and my observations about expectations. They can surprise you and we do a tremendous disservice to our kids but not giving them the benefit of the doubt and by setting our expectations too low.
  9. Notice them. See many of the preceding. Notice the kid in the back of the room who spends most of the time giving you the stink eye and, mostly likely, feigning indifference. At some point, if you're student-centered, that kid is going to react in a positive way and you need to see that. Not make a big deal of it, but acknowledge it with some small gesture that you noticed. There are lots of ways to notice kids without being creepy. They just need to know that you know they're in the room.
  10. Let them ask the questions. Again, they will surprise you. Sure, you'll get some weird questions and the some to which you won't know quite how to respond. But you'll also get some impressive insight. Go ahead. I dare ya.
  11. Engage them. Through most of the above, you will engage them. You will let them know that this time together is about their learning and their growth.
  12. Trust them. And when you trust them to begin to take ownership of their learning, to be invested in what they learn and how they learn, you'll see a difference. And when you show them you acknowledge them as individuals, that you see them and hear them as individuals, and that you will listen to them and begin to expect more of them, they will trust you, too.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

7, 14, or 17? What it means to be a great teacher

Apparently there are anywhere from 7 to 17 things that educators can do to be highly effective
teachers. Todd Whitaker's first book told us there were 14 things great teachers do differently, but now there seem to be 17. You can get a sense of the genesis of this book from the 2005 document of essentially the same title. The reviews will tell you this is one of the best books ever, and some will tell you the information is common sense and not particularly innovative. I'd agree with the later, but there is some truth in thinking that we often overlook or ignore the obvious.

Whitaker speaks to something I've been saying for years: it's the teacher, not the program, not the resources, not the curriculum, not the teachers' dress code. It's the teacher.

In fact, in the first edition and in the 2005 document, Whitaker states:
The issue with ineffective teachers is almost always the person, not the practice or program. . . .Many times we think that programs are the problem or that programs are the solution. That is one reason we are so quick to jump on new ideas–open classrooms, whole language, block scheduling, etc. None of these ideas are wrong, and none of them are right. It all depends on the effectiveness of the staff members who are implementing them. The only reason to implement a program is to refine or enhance the skills of our staff members. The program itself is never the solution or the problem. There are only two ways ways to improve our schools. Hire better teachers or improve the ones we have.
So what are the things great teachers do differently? What makes them effective teachers? Well, I'm not going to cut into Mr. Whitaker's profits by summing up his book, but I will tell you what I think are the qualities of a great teacher.

First, listen. Listen to your students, even if and especially when they aren't actually talking. What is it that engages them? What happens when they start getting distracted? What happened that distracted them? What behaviors and attitudes do you hear when your students are in the process of learning? Yes, what do you hear. Sure, it's easy to talk about what you see, but don't forget to listen carefully and that will supplement what you see or what you think you see.

Second, great (and clear) expectations. Do your students know what you expect of them? Classroom behavior and manners? On assignments? One of the elements of text complexity is reader and task. In the Standards we are reminded that "variables specific to particular readers (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and to particular tasks (such as purpose and the complexity of the task assigned and the questions posed) must also be considered when determining whether a text is appropriate for a given student." The tasks or assignments I give and the questions I pose indicate my level of expectation of my students. It's not just a matter of students knowing how to complete a task to get a good grade. It's a matter of students knowing that if the task seems too daunting, I believe they can do it. We might have to work a little harder or a little differently, but my expectation is that they will, perhaps with my facilitation and/or perhaps with the collaboration of their colleagues, they will be successful.

Third, it's always, always, always, always about the kids. The more I listen, especially when I'm stating my expectations, the better I will get to know my kids. That means I'll have a better idea of who will struggle with what and I'll have a better idea how they might respond to texts and tasks. If my focus is student-centered, it's because I listen and because I think about what it's like to be them in my class, and that my class is one of many classes. If I listen and remember it's always about the kids, then I don't worry about educational trends or fads because I  know that what I do this year may not be the same as I what I did last year or will do next year, and that what I do in one class may differ from what I do to help a different group of students achieve the same objectives in a different.

I think it's really easy to come up with an extensive list, and I could add to my three. But I think many of the others are corollaries.

In the end, whether you're comfortable with seven standards or 17 things that matter most doesn't matter. What matters is emembering that it's always about the kids and that means worrying less about your teaching and more about their learning. I believe that as we focus more on students and their learning, our teaching naturally evolves. And we become better for it, as people and as teachers.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The learning revolution must continue to evolve

We live in a digital age. That is not news to you unless you've been living in a cave in some remote area completely off the grid. Nearly every day I'm told of the "must have" apps for my smartphone. I think the number is up around 4,329. I jest, but barely.

Observation: We are bombarded by digital possibilities, many of which are in fairly constant motion, evolving and morphing. Many of us feel like Nemo trying to hold on in the EAC. . ."Grab shell, dude!"

Observation: This is nothing new. I mean, I think the speed of change is faster. That reminds me of the famously funny Lucille Ball bit with the chocolates. We have to make choices faster of what to keep and what to discard, or at least ignore until the next iteration.

Now online education has been around since the mid-1990s. Really. It has. And alternative education has been around for a lot longer. Back in the early days of online platforms, there were a lot of limitations because, well, we didn't know what we could do with the technology and we really didn't know what we wanted or needed to do with the technology. So when we look at the platforms today and when we look at MOOCs, we see how far online and blended learning has evolved.

In Innovation in 2014: Welcome to the Evolution, Jeffrey Selingo writes
Lost in the debate and hype over MOOCs and other innovative ideas to finance and deliver a college degree, however, is that we are living in an important evolutionary moment, not a revolutionary moment, for the future of higher education. When any sector of the economy undergoes sweeping change—just as colleges and universities are now—every new development feels like a major turning point. But in hindsight, what we think of as big moments at the time often turn out to be just blips in the life cycle of an industry. Change, by its nature, is incremental. Big advances in a given year are few and far between.
We have become an impatient lot, expecting significant change to occur with unfaltering rapidity. Not gonna happen. Selingo goes on to say "To transform higher education for the next generation, we need to better blend game-changing innovations with one another, and with traditional methods." This is true of K-12 as well. Transformation requires a blending of innovations and tradition, but NEVER change just for the sake of change.

MOOCs are new. Digital technologies are newish. While it's technically true that smartphones have been around since the early 1990s, the technology and the idea of smartphones didn't gain currency until nearly a decade later.

I'm not saying we have to wait ten years for the educational revolution to evolve, but I think it's fair to say that we have to be more patient with the changes just as we have to be more intentional and purposeful of the changes we choose to adopt, those we choose to discard, and those we choose to set aside until we can figure out if they're valid and/or what to do with them.

At the same time, I also think it's fair to say that the educational revolution itself is not new. I think education has been evolving for some time now. Perhaps we got off on some weird detour and perhaps we're still crawling through a morass of legislation and less productive thinking, but we also have to learn from those mistakes. The oft-misquoted George Santayana said, "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

There are hundreds of quotes on progress. One of my favorites is a George Bernard Shaw quote: "Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."

Change is a process, and often a slow one. Progress is often gained by inches, not miles.

We cannot throw up our hands and call something a failure if some fabulously amazing outcome doesn't occur right away, or within a year or two. And, as I'm inclined to clich├ęs today, we must learn to expect the unexpected. Folks who have worked in technology know this and our innovative world is littered, if not cluttered, with stories of enriching but unexpected discoveries.

Returning to Mr. Selingo: "This much, though, is certain: Many more front-page proclamations about the future of higher education may be proved wrong in the coming year, but without these early experiments, we can't ever evolve to what comes next." The same can be said for K-12, so let's keep moving forward. What comes next could be really exciting.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Learning confounded: Standardized tests, a systemic conundrum

Michael Soskil, an online colleague, started a conversation this morning about tests. That tests, especially standardized tests, are not of any real value to students.

I read an article this morning about the ACT Aspire test and how it will be taking the place of other standardized assessments ACT currently offers to K-12 schools. The ACT Aspire test will have "shorter and longer constructed-response questions, and the computer version will have technology-enhanced items that allow some interactivity. . . . There is no sign, however, that they will include the types of lengthy performance tasks that PARCC and Smarter Balanced are designing to engage students in more complex analyses." The tests are, of course timed. "A 30- to 40-minute English test, designed to gauge students' ability to revise and edit texts, will be composed of multiple-choice and technology-enhanced items." Exemplar items are posted online.

The age-old conundrum is this compulsive need we have to measure what kids know and what they are able to do; a compulsive need to assign some sort of letter or number that says one kid seems to know some percentage points more than some other kid.

I remember taking a history final in college when I had one of the worst cases of flu ever. Or so it seemed that day. I took my box of tissues with me and felt as though I needed to apologize for the constant nose-blowing. I'm sure it was disruptive to my classmates, but I had no choice. I made a C on that final. I should have made an A, but I felt miserable and I was distracted about being disruptive. I should have been home in bed. The final exam grade affected my overall grade for the class and, of course, my overall GPA. My professor knew I knew more and could have done better, but apparently felt handcuffed. Fair? No. Not for anyone.

I agree with Michael that tests don't prepare kids for anything they will experience outside of the K-12 classroom. How do parents assess their kids' performance on chores? Is there a test for mowing the lawn? No. The evidence is in the work completed. Is there a test for a marching band on the field? Yep. Its performance. But not a written bubble test. Not even test with short or long constructed response.

As I pondered this, it occurred to me that part of the challenge is that our country has a compulsive need to compare one state's kids to every other states' kids. We have a need to determine how well we are doing as a country so we can flex our academic prowess in the world. But test results can be manipulated. We've seen that time and time again as school districts make decisions about how and when to test which kids, and what to do with certain at-risk populations so they are tutored or classified or worked with in specific ways so as not to ruin the attempt at the passing benchmark. Because every school and every school district is focused on getting a passing grade!

I know my friend Ginger Lewman will agree with me when I say one of the solutions to the morass of problems here is PBL. Students who learn with project-based learning actually learn, and they learn stuff they can use outside of the classroom and they can use in any other classroom. Because they learn problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication skills in addition to the academic. (You'll want to check out her LifePractice PBL products, too.)

There are no easy solutions to this assessment problem because the issues are systemic and deeply entrenched. I wonder what would happen if teachers simply stopped giving standardized tests or even giving regular tests. I wonder what would happen if teachers simply started asking their students to do more realistic work and started assessing them in ways that would encourage self-reflection about their learning and that would encourage them to think about themselves as learners.