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Posted by on in Education Policy

soap box derby car

We have tied to explain the problems of equality and equity and opportunity dozens of ways. Here's one you've probably seen many many times:

I'm going to offer another metaphor today-- the soap box derby.

Let's imagine two racers approaching the starting line. Our two young divers are seated in similarly-built cars, made well enough for the race. The race down the hill begins at the starting line, but before they arrive at that line, anything goes.

Chris's car is carried to the starting line, and there Chris sits, waiting for the flag to be waved, at which point Chris will take off the break and let gravity move the car down the hill.

Meanwhile, Pat is lined up further in back of the starting line. Pat has family there, too, and when the flag waves, Pat's family will push Pat just as hard as they can.

A few seconds later, we see the two cars on the hill. The race has begun. Pat is out in front, going far faster than Chris. But when someone among the spectators complains that the race is not fair, the reply they hear is this:

"It's perfectly fair. Look-- they're in equal cars, on the same hill, each one steering and driving their car depending on nothing but their own skills, reflexes, talents and abilities. If Pat wins, that must be because Pat is a better driver, and Chris would be better off building a skill set and becoming a better driver than worrying about. Because right now, on that hill, they are perfectly equal."

We could make the metaphor more complicated, give Pat and Chris different vehicles to represent various obstacles Chris brings into the race. But here's the thing-- even if Chris has just as good a car, is just as strong and sharp, works just as hard at driving, history is still on Pat's side. Everything that happened before the starting line was crossed makes a huge difference.

Research tells us over and over again that families of origin make a huge difference, that history stacks the deck before a child even crosses the starting line. We also know that how our society functions makes a difference as well (I might expand the metaphor by adding that Chris is stopped by police every ten feet down the hill).

I'm not arguing for inescapable destiny. I'm not saying that children who are born poor or raised poor are doomed, their fate set in stone, nothing we can do about it. There's plenty we can do about it. There are soooo many things that we can do in school to help boost up those racers who didn't get the extra push to start, and we should be doing every single one we can think of, because success is attainable for every child who walks through the school door.

But we can't do anything if we don't understand the situation. And if we are looking at the two racers on the hill, saying, "Well, they're totally equal with the same resources and situation, so I guess Chris just isn't trying hard enough," then we don't understand the situation, and we won't find the solutions we need.


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Posted by on in Assessment

So about that actionable data...

One of the frequently-offered reasons for the Big Standardized Tests is that they are supposed to provide information that will allow classroom teachers to "inform instruction," to tweak our instruction to better prepare for the test better educate our students. Let me show you what that really means in Pennsylvania.

Our BS Tests are called the Keystones (we're the Keystone State-- get it?). They are not a state requirement yet-- the legislature has blinked a couple of times now and kicked that can down the road. Because these tests are norm-referenced aka graded on a curve, using them as a graduation requirement is guaranteed to result in the denial of diplomas for some huge number of Pennsylvania students. However, many local districts like my own, make them a local graduation requirement in anticipation of the day when the legislature has the nerve to pull the trigger (right now 2019 is the year it all happens). The big difference with a local requirement is that we can offer an alternative assessment; our students who never pass the Keystones must complete the Binder of Doom-- a huge collection of exercises and assessment activities that allow them to demonstrate mastery.  It's no fun, but it beats not getting a diploma because you passed all your classes but failed on bad standardized test.

Why do local districts attach stakes to the Keystones? Because our school rating and our individual teacher ratings depend upon those test results.

So it is with a combination of curiosity and professional concern that I try to find real, actionable data in the Keystone results, to see if there are things I can do, compromises I can make, even insights I can glean from breaking that data down.

The short answer is no. Let me walk you through the long answer. (We're just going to stick to the ELA results here).

The results come back to the schools from the state in the form of an enormous Excel document. It has as many lines as there are students who took the test, and the column designations go from A to FB. They come with a key to identify what each column includes; to create a document that you can easily read requires a lot of column hiding (the columns with the answer to "Did this student pass the test" are BP, BQ and BR.

Many of the columns are administrivia-- did this student use braille, did the student use paper or computer, that sort of thing. But buried in the columns are raw scores and administrative scores for each section of the test. There are two "modules" and each "module" includes two anchor standards segments. The Key gives a explanation of these:



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Posted by on in Teaching Strategies

If you are of a Certain Age, this how you were taught writing--

1) Learn the parts of speech, sentence parts, and the rest of grammar.
2) Learn how to construct a sentence.
3) Learn how to write several sentences to make a paragraph.
4) Learn how to write several paragraphs to make an essay.

That's how we were taught to write. Mind you, it is not how anybody actually learned to write-- okay, I can't say nobody learned that way because the first rule of actual writing is that everybody uses their own methods and one person's Functional Approach To Writing is another person's Unspeakably Awful Idea. But the number of people who actually learned to write by the above traditional method is tiny, like the number of people who learned how to play jazz trombone by watching Led Zeppelin videos.

The persistence of traditional grammar instruction in the English teaching world is an ongoing mystery, like the number of people who think vouchers would improve education. Some teachers do it because well, of course, that's what English teachers do. Some teachers do it because it's easier than taking calls from parents that include the phrase, "Well, back in my day..."

Grammar instruction has its place. It's a lot easier to fix things, and a lot a lot easier to talk about fixing things, if you can call those things something other than "things." It's hard to talk about the nuts and bolts of improving a piece of writing if we don't have the words "nuts" or "bolts."

But we know-- have known for years-- that simple instruction of grammar with grammar exercises and grammar drills and all the traditional things does not improve writing. You can read a good recap of the research here, and while I'm highly dubious about any research that claims it has measured the quality of student writing, the fancy big-time research matches what I've learned in my own class-sized laboratory over the past may decades. Drilling students all day on nouns and verbs and participials and dependent adverb clauses will not make them better writer, and bombarding their writing with the Red Pen of Doom deployed over every grammatical misstep (not to mention all the usage "mistakes" which are not grammatical issues at all no matter how many people insist on conflating the two
) will probably make them worse writers. Not that I'm an advocate for the loose anything-goes technique of just letting any kind of mess hit the page-- but if your basic foundation for writing is a bunch of grammar rules, your students are probably not getting any better at writing.
This truth is sometimes masked by volume. The best way to get better at writing is to write, and if you have your students writing regularly, that will help-- maybe even if you give them lousy feedback. God save us all from the "We only do writing for three weeks in April" approach.

But the basic unit of any piece of writing is not a word or a sentence or a paragraph or a rhetorical technique. The basic unit of writing is an idea.

The vast majority of writing problems are actually thinking problems. If you don't know what you want to say, you will have a hard time saying it. And in the modern test-centered education era, we have compounded the problem by teaching students that their central question should be "What am I supposed to write for this?"

Not "what do I want to say" or even "what idea could I construct a good essay out of" but "what am I supposed to write."

That question shifts the foundation of writing to a new skill set-- psychic powers. Can you discern what the teacher or the test manufacturer wants you to say? Try to say that. In this model of writing, what should be central to the writing process-- the ideas in the student's head-- actually becomes an obstacle-- in your search for the essay you're supposed to write, don't be distracted by your own individual ideas.

Messing up that first question of writing automatically interfered with the second question-- after you know what you want to say, you must next figure out how to say it. But test-centered standardized writing has a required set of "how" before you even get to what. In real writing, however, the "how" flows directly out of the "what." For emerging writers, we may provide a pre-fab "how," (looking at you, five paragraph essay) so that they can focus on their "what" and not freak out about how to express it. But once the "how" is coming before the "what," we're in trouble, because now we're not asking "what do I want to say," but "what could I say to fill in these five paragraphs."

There is another level to this problem with assigned student writing-- finding an answer for the student whose answer to "what do I want to say" is "I want to say that I don't care about this topic and have nothing to say about it." That is where a teacher's heavy lifting comes in, with discussion and conversation and maybe research and sometimes a song and dance. It can be a hard bridge to build, but that doesn't change the writing fundamentals-

The center of every piece of writing should be the what, the idea, the thing that the writer wants to say. Any other foundation results in a building that is shaky and unstable, a house in which nothing useful can live.

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Posted by on in Assessment

Last Sunday afternoon the set was struck and the stage swept clean. We've come to the end of this year's spring musical. As always it was one of the highlights of my year, and as always, it reminded me of how inadequate so many of our educational models are.

There are weeks of rehearsal, learning music, learning choreography, working on blocking and lines and the underlying character work that goes with all of that. We have a cast of students in 7-12 grade in very many levels of skill and experience.

That means that in the course of assembling the show, each student learns a different set of lessons that depend a great deal on what roles they receive and what skills they bring to the table, as well as their ambition and adventurousness of spirit.

So this educational experience is extremely personalized, and that means far more than I have twelve lessons to choose from and a computer picks the next one based on how the last one turned out. My lead actor may need to learn about comedic timing, while one of my chorus folks may need to learn about the importance of the chorus in a show. My leading actress may need to learn about how to flesh out a character when the writers haven't given you much to work with. But the list of lessons will be different for every different role and every different cast member.

The lessons also vary with directors. This program is a co-op that allows my school to join in with a school just across town, and I split directing duties with an old friend who heads up the other school's program. We've divided up duties many different ways over the years, and it works because we work well together. Every theater production is a collaboration of some sort, and that collaboration is always shaped by the approaches of the people involved. Some directors have a very specific vision for the actors to bring to life, while others like to leave spaces for the actors to fill in with their own choices. We tend toward the latter, but some actors are more comfortable with the former and all sorts of combinations can get good results (and the requirements of the script itself also make a difference). All of which means that if you showed up with a specific program for exactly how a director should put together a show, I would laugh at you. Here we are with a performance based task that literally comes with a script-- and yet only a fool would claim that the script is all you need to produce a great show.

Likewise, putting on a show is the very definition of a performance-based learning experience. Yet if we were to follow the PBL model currently favored, we would break the show down into a checklist. Does the actor know the lines? Check. Does the actor know the blocking? Check. Can the actor put on her costume? Check. And on and on and even if I have checked off every micro-credential on the list, that is not the same thing as actually performing the show. Nor do we build toward that performance capability by working down the list one separate performance task at a time, because they are all part of a greater whole.

And those tasks would be performed for an evaluator, an assessor of some sort, which is not the ultimate goal. Our show was performed in front of an audience, and because it was a comedy, the audience reaction was a critical part of performance (in fact, on our second night, I saw something I've never seen in school or community theater before-- the show was stopped by audience laughter). Unlike competency-based education, which presumes that competencies can be approached as separate, discrete skills that can be measured through proxies, tasks that aren't the real thing. There is no checklist that would have substituted for dress rehearsal, no assessment more valuable than audience reactions in performance.

And speaking of assessments-- at no point in the eight-week process of preparing the show would a multiple-choice standardized test have been useful.At no point in the process did anyone think, "Hey, we need to do some assessments here to make sure that everyone is on track for a good performance." It would have been a pointless, useless waste of time.

In fact, standardization of any type is useless in this process. I have no idea how many productions of The Addams Family have been put on in community and school theaters at this point, but I will bet you the farm, the rent money, and a full box of donuts that not one of those productions looks exactly like any other. It's true that nobody who saw our production would have mistaken it for Hamlet or Oh Calcutta, but every production exists at the intersection of a specific cast, director, school, community, and stage (ours has no fly gallery, so that affects set design considerably). School theater in particular has to make adjustments for things as simple as language and as substantial as character gender (I can tell you, for instance, that interesting things happen to the subtext of Disney's Beauty and the Beast when Belle's crazy father Maurice is replaced by Belle's crazy mother Marie). It is those specific variations that most often give the special flavor and quality to the local production; the deviations from the standard are a source of excellence, not treatment-demanding flaw.

I love working with students and theater (despite the giant chunks of my life that it demands) because it is an experience that, in an absolutely authentic manner, helps each student grow and learn and discover new greatness in herself. It is an absolutely real learning and growth experience, which is why I'm always struck by how completely it does not match any of the assumptions about real learning made by the forces of ed reform. This is what real learning and growth look like, and they don't resemble the whole standard-driven test-centered punishment-fueled system that has been forced on us for the past fifteen years.

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This work is Romantic because the author used lots of Romantic ideas, and the characters behave in a Romantic way that captures just how very extremely Romantic the work really is. The author has really infused Romanticism into the whole writing in a way that makes in undeniably Romantic.

Welcome to my world. While this is not a direct quote of an actual student essay, it's of a type that English teachers often see. Call it support via assertion, or argument by modifiers (the more adjectives and adverbs you throw in, the more absolutely very clearly definitively true your argument is).

It is one of the few things that the Common Core actually gets right-- if you are going to make a case for a point, you need to provide evidence.

Evidence can take many forms, but it needs to be specific. It needs to be true.

Repetition is not evidence. Here's another archetypical essay paragraph.

Good parents need to be patient, because you need patience to be a good parent. A good parent is able to be patient. If you can't be patient, then you will not be a good parent. Every day, good parents must display patience, because if you are not patient, you cannot be a good parent.

It's hard to say exactly where students pick up the technique of un-supported ideas. Certainly we can reinforce it in school without meaning to. Tests where the student just has to mention a key idea or fact without backing it up help push the notion that we just want you to say the right thing. And of course our young humans come with plenty of pre-packaged ideas from home-- it must be true because it's what I learned from my folks, what do you mean I have to back it up with something.

Nor do I think test-centered schooling has helped. We have taught students that answers are "found," not created or built or supported, but plucked from a pre-created array of possible answers. We just hunt down the "correct" answer and mark it. Even when a standardized test pretends to involve support, that support is itself just one more "find the right answer" exercise.

And of course, it is tried and true in our culture that evidence is not really necessary. Yes, I can make the easy point that our current President and his administration are huge on the whole Just Repeat It Till People Believe It approach. Biggest inauguration crowd ever. Huge margin of victory. Millions of illegal voters. Urban hell holes. Just keep saying it and insisting that anyone who contradicts you is a liar, a faker, a Bad Person, even as you offer not one shred of evidence of the truth of what you say.

Yes, I could point at Herr Trump and say, "See! Our President does it. How am I supposed to teach children to do better, to use evidence?" But that would be the low-hanging fruit, and it would treat us all to the soothing notion that Trump somehow emerged out of the ether, full-blown flush with his lies and his fact-free anti-evidence zone.

But that would be going to easy on our culture. It's no coincidence that the Trumpistan flag was first planted on television, where citizens are bombarded with a constant stream of thirty-second playlets built on spin, deception, half-truths, and plain old bullshit. We soak in lies all the time, soak in them so that we can be softened up to be happy consumers of things we don't need that offer magic that doesn't work in order to solve problems that we don't have. We watch longer dramas that tell us lies about how people think, how the world works, what makes human beings click and work and become their best.

Where in our culture would students find examples of the notion that an idea should be grounded in truth, built out of evidence, supported by substance. What do we have in our culture that works that way?

The best I can do is present the practical notion that you have to do some sort of work in order to convince people to agree with you. The idea of pursuing the truth as a value in and of itself is a far bridge indeed. Evidence? That's a hard sell. We can all do better.

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