Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Making Accountability Count

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century - Part 2

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else.

The public is currently screaming for increased accountability, so what measures do we utilize to hold our education systems accountable? The fact that the answer to that question is nearly always multiple choice tests is another testament to the true nature of our educational philosophy. There is no doubt that there are multiple choice tests that can, to a degree, measure higher levels of thinking, but these sorts of tests are reductionist in nature, and sacrifice subtlety of interpretation for ease of scoring. What’s worse, is that basing accountability on multiple choice tests encourages, perhaps even forces, a reductionist style of instruction that focuses on distinguishing between concrete possible answers rather than formulating solutions from disparate information.

This has come about because in response to the call for greater accountability, we have put the cart before the horse. The proper sequence would have been to determine what students needed to know and be able to do when they go out into the real world, then based on that information, to design assessments that appropriately measured the degree to which students are able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. Instead, we took the kinds of assessments commonly in use, then formulated standards that described what students needed to know in order to score well on those tests. 

Of course the thousands of educators who sat on those hundreds of committees and formulated standards will disagree with this description. I, however, find it impossible to look at the standards we’ve been saddled with and not be reminded of the old adage that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

In fairness, these committees probably did try to start from what students needed to know and be able to do. However, it was, and is, all too easy to let the tool we already have in the toolbox–the multiple choice test–confuse us into believing that what this kind of test measures, because it is what we are accustomed to measuring, is what students need to know and do. 

So, to get the cart back behind the horse, what do we want students to be able to know and do?

If we believe that what students need to succeed in life is the ability to recognize a correct solution from one of a limited number of options, then multiple choice instruction and accountability is the right system.

If on the other hand, if we believe that students will experience success in their future careers because they have the ability to process information from a variety of sources, recognize and connect patterns, predict future trends and applications, and communicate results in an appropriate format, then we ought to recognize that no matter what kind of improvement current accountability systems might produce, the results are illusory. In an increasingly complex world, it is more important than ever to teach student to think, then measure their thinking utilizing methods that ask them to make their thought process tangible via some kind of performance.

There are plenty of models, either in use now or used in the recent past, for how to do performance based assessment of many different types. For example, the California High School Exit Examination currently uses a writing sample as part of the requirement for graduation. Students write a response to a writing task from one of five types of writing. They are scored by teams of teachers using a process where groups of teachers meet, review a rubric, which specifically describes the performance of students at a number of levels. The teachers then go through a process using sample papers that all the scorers read, assign a score, then discuss why they assigned that score. The papers are then read by two teachers, with a third scorer weighing in if the first two scores are too far apart. This process, despite the subjectivity, produces remarkably consistent scores.

However, it is time consuming and more expensive than multiple choice assessment. 

It is a human tendency, I think, to be attracted to simple answers to complex problems. Those simple answers mislead us into thinking we have solved the problem, which is almost always not the case. 

Complex measures, like performance assessment, can be messy, but will produce much more nuanced results that tell us more about the real-world capabilities of students. We just have to be willing to pay for them.

Future posts will discuss:
  • Does Every Student Need College?
  • Re-energizing Career and Technical Education
  • High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College

Monday, October 22, 2012

One Size Fits All

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century Part 1

I began my teaching career in 1974 in the continuation school of a small, one high school district. There were two teachers and an aide. The routine was that students were assigned, based on what classes they had and had not yet passed, to a course. Each course had a set of packets that were to be completed sequentially. These packets were kept in file cabinets in the office between the two classrooms. Students went to the aide who got them the packet they needed. When they completed the packet, they turned it in to the aide to corrected it and gave them the next packet.

What was my contribution? Good question. I kept order and assisted students who were having problems. However, since on a really busy day we had maybe 14 or 15 students in both classrooms, this was not a taxing assignment. Plus, the students left at noon. I know there are teachers who are dedicated to the kinds of troubled kids who fall through the cracks and land in alternative education schools. Thank goodness they exist, and I hope they all work in better schools than the one I was in. As for me, the job was so boring I couldn’t wait to get out of there, although it took me three years to accomplish it.

Though negative in many ways, my experience in an alternative education program provided me with an unintended insight into American educational philosophy. Despite whatever grand rhetoric we attach to our curriculum descriptions, we are much too frequently willing to consign students to classrooms where instruction largely consists of fill-in-the-blank activity.

Why does this kind of system exist? Partly because we have difficulty truly allowing students to fail. When push comes to shove, schools will go out of their way to make it relatively easy for students who fail a class to get caught up and graduate with their age-group peers.

But mostly it is because we fundamentally believe that learning is modular and sequential, can be reduced to a check list, and can take place largely independent of a teacher. In other words, though we don’t like to admit it, school is mostly about busy work.

This is why class isn’t canceled when a teacher is absent. We believe that a substitute can be given a lesson plan which, for all intents and purposes, reproduces what the regular teacher would have done as if the two were simply replaceable parts in a machine. It is why parents take their students out of school with so little regard for what might be missed, then ask the teacher to give them makeup work as if what was done in class was of no importance.

Now of course this is a generalization, and like all generalizations it is true in differing degrees in different classrooms around the nation. However, I am pretty sure that if you are one of those thoughtful, imaginative, and creative teachers who finds this analysis offensive because you work so hard to create a relevant classroom, you either currently work in, or have worked in, a school where much of the instruction around you was essentially busy work. 

The dirty little secret of American high schools is that, while our top students have great experiences in charter schools, or magnet schools, or Advanced Placement classes, or International Baccalaureate classes, it is not only the students in alternative education programs who are consigned to fill-in-the-blanks instructional programs. 

Most students, what could euphemistically be called "regular" students, correctly perceive that they are simply marking time until graduation. They know that if they sit relatively quietly, turn in a reasonable number of assignments, and keep their noses clean, they will pass the class and end up after four years with a high school diploma. The unspoken “deal” that teachers and students make is that if the students promise to sit relatively quietly and not snore too loudly, the teacher won’t ask them to do much difficult work. It’s not really surprising that so many students feel like school is irrelevant to them, largely because it is. 

For the highly motivated and academically advanced students, high school is a necessary preparatory stage for advancement to a four year college. They see a real purpose and clearly understand the relationship between this step and the next.

Many more students, however, though they may have some vague sense they “should” go to college, are not nearly so clear about the connection and are usually not as convinced that they can succeed at college. They are also much less likely to have clear ideas about career goals. Since they aren’t strongly motivated by the idea of attending college, they see high school as less of a value-added proposition than the college bound do. 

Since the education establishment has come to the consensus that every student should be prepared to go to college, and has made vocational preparation such a taboo concept, large numbers of students find themselves stuck in a sort of temporary bubble where the realities of the impending “real” world seems seldom to intrude.

How do we fix this? We have to change our attitudes toward our high schools. The one-size-fits-all mentality that currently defines American high schools prevents them from making the kinds of changes that will re-engage students and prepare them for a challenging future. In my next few blogs, I will look at issues I believe will help us make the improvements we need:
  • Making Accountability Count
  • Does Every Student Need College?
  • Re-energizing Career and Technical Education
  • High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Storytelling Animal

As far back as I can remember, I have loved to lose myself in a story, to immerse myself so deeply in the world of the story that it seems as if I’m a participant in that world. Throughout my youth, reading was always one of my favorite ways to spend time, much to the chagrin of my two younger brothers. When they wanted to play baseball (or basketball, or football, or swim in the pool) and I wanted to read my book, they had to find a way to convince me to stop reading. They could never do that, though, so they put their heads together and devised a blunt, but effective plan. One would jump on me and knock the book away, then wrestle with me to keep me busy while the other took the book and hid it. At that point it was easiest for me to just give in and go play whatever they wanted to play.

Many of you, since you are reading this, are probably from the group that immediately relates, thinking to yourself, “I totally understand that.” As educators, especially as teachers of language arts, it is critically important to realize that we seem weird to substantial portions of the population. Those differing reactions, merely show that reading is not any different than throwing a baseball, playing the piano, or riding a skateboard. It’s simply a set of abilities that to some of us comes naturally, and to others is a challenging and difficult skill to master.

I am convinced that when reading doesn’t come naturally to to someone, if they have rarely or never gotten lost in the world of a story, the enthusiasms of those of us who love to read aren’t very compelling in motivating them to put more effort into reading. 

Consider chess for a moment. I have tried, without success to enjoy playing chess. I have never succeeded. I understand the rules, but I am handicapped by two limitations: I can’t see the board in terms of patterns, and I am unable to keep more than two future moves in my head at one time. Without those abilities, I’ve never been successful at chess and have never enjoyed it.

But reading is not like chess. I have lived my life successfully so far without mastering chess. Yet as an English teacher, I am tasked with the responsibility of getting students to read more maturely. Worse, I must endeavor to get them to read and analyze complex narratives and develop the ability to recognize not only the literal meaning on the surface of a story, but also the hazy figurative meanings lurking like sharks in the sub-currents below the surface. What’s worse, academic tradition has decreed that to be considered educated, one must have a passing familiarity with a canon of traditional literature, much of it written in an idiom that has long since passed and filled with references to other literature that the author assumes the reader is familiar with. Finally, there is no explicit connection between mastering this literature and succeeding in most careers. 

A slight digression: the last few decades have served to uncover a host of wonderful multi-cultural literary offerings that is only gaining more steam. The realization that great literature doesn’t all come from an island in the North Atlantic has tended to drive the final nails in the coffin of the established canon. Let’s let it go.

Despite the discouragement presented by all these headwinds, I am convinced that it is critically important for students to, if not master, at least develop a fair degree of skill with relatively complex narratives. 

Throughout human history we have been storytellers, because it turns out a narrative is one of the most effective means of learning how to behave appropriately. OnFiction, which bills itself as an online magazine on the psychology of fiction, puts it this way:  “Our explanation is that fiction is a set of simulations of goings on in the social world, so that people who spend time with fiction become more socially skilled just as people who spend time in a flight simulator become better pilots that those who do not.

It also turns out the fiction is more convincing than non-fiction. As English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, Jonathan Gottschall, points out, “Brains on fiction ‘catch’ the emotions enacted on the page or screen. When we watch Clint Eastwood get mad on film, our brains look angry too; when the scene is sad, our brains also look sad.” As has been commented on ad infinitum recently, positive portrayals of gay couples in many TV show and movies, such as Modern Family, have begun to shift public views of gay marriage.

The reason we have always been storytellers also seems to have something to do with the social skills that significantly enabled us to become the dominant species on earth. At Penn State, Joseph Carroll and others found that positive characters tend to be ones who reflect values that promote social interaction, where negative characters tend to project desires for dominance of wealth, power, and prestige. In other words, stories promote getting along with each other rather than fighting each other for advantage. 

Though stories originated in oral tradition, in music, and in art, technology has broadened the opportunities for story telling. Writing, though it probably originated as a practical means of keeping track of items grown or traded, was one of the first new story telling technologies. It’s origins go back beyond the reach of history. Using paper as the means to record a story was an innovation that followed the invention of writing. The use of woodblock printing techniques in China in the early 3rd century, followed by the printing press in the 15th century. 

Drama goes back at least to the 5th century BCE, and perhaps existed before that, in a less formal way, as an extension of oral storytelling around campfires. With the invention of the movie camera in the late 19th century, drama could be recorded, which then evolved into broadcast technologies, first radio and then television. Computers and the Internet have now enabled viewers to choose when they want to view a story, as well as providing the capability to read a story on a portable electronic device.
So stories exist in many forms, and it is important that though students may have some forms of stories that they prefer–comic books, say, or television–they need to become at least comfortable with other, socially significant forms. To put that another way, for the foreseeable future, reading as a means of interacting with a story is going to remain an important, though not the only, way to interact with a story.

Our emphasis in schools on the written form of narrative tends overlook other useful means of accessing narrative. We need to teach students how to unlock the values and ideals that underline the plots in narratives of all sorts, and we ought to be careful not to focus almost solely on what for many students is the least accessible form: books. The written narrative is still important and needs to be a significant portion of the curriculum, but it need not be the only format we use.

Some suggestions? First, recognize that not every student is going to be an English major in college. Some will, and AP Literature and AP Composition need to be in the schedule for them. Most students, however, need to learn to think critically using more accessible material. 

I like to begin with fairy tales. They are short, easy to read, and they contain narrative elements that form an effective basis for introducing literary concepts to even reluctant readers. I also find that there is a wealth of short videos available that offer the same opportunity to analyze narrative structure, technique, and purpose. Discuss popular movies and TV shows for the same reason.

If you want to expose your students to Shakespeare, great. But don’t waste hours of class time illuminating the text in a line-by-line explication. This is heresy, but start with watching the play rather than ending with viewing it. Rather than assessing students with a recall test, focus on significant themes. Ask students to do close reading of a segment of the play–it overloads their circuits to do the entire thing. For an example of a unit that uses this approach, go to Heroes and Villains on my web site.

Just like with Shakespeare, far too much class time is wasted on reading novels. As English teachers, we love novels, but we must face the fact it simply takes too long to slog through one in class. The only narrative element that can’t be taught using short stories is the idea of the great works that must be read. As I said above, whatever value that notion creates, is not worth the time it takes to teach a novel in class.

Finally, A better way to give students exposure to novels is to use one of the variations of Literature Circles as an independent reading activity which can be designed to have a much lower class-time profile. The version that I used, which I called Book Clubs, can be found on my web site.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Should We Blame Unions?

The opening of the movie, Won’t Back Down, which lays the blame for failing schools at the feet of teacher unions, has re-opened a wound to teachers’ sense of self respect. In some ways, it is a self-inflicted wound, because teachers have allowed their unions to focus more on adult issues than student issues.

While I wouldn’t argue for continuing unions as presently constituted, this blame is misplaced. Teachers deserve a place at the table when decisions about teaching are made, and currently, unions are the entity that usually provides that representation. But I have never been convinced that traditional labor unions, which are organizations built to address the needs of blue-collar workers, are the right fit for representing professional employees. Using the labor union model makes teachers seem less like professionals, and more like hourly employees.

This is why much of the anti-union rhetoric of late has had a ring of truth to it. Hourly employees collectivize and bargain to win benefits for employees. The adversarial relationship between management and workers in the private sector over the rights of the workers does not impinge on the rights of the widgets being made by those workers. In schools, however, benefits for teachers and benefits for students must be seen as interdependent.

That interdependence compels teachers to work  together with management to improve learning by students. This will often be accomplished by improving the working conditions for teachers, but just as often, those benefits need to be balanced by the needs of the students. These kinds of issues are not resolved by adversarial negotiations, but by professional relationships of mutual respect. Of course those relationships are difficult to build and maintain. But they begin with an organization that is designed from the ground up to reflect the professionalism of teachers.

Recently Howard Gardner, in a New York Times essay, defined professionals as, “a cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner.” Teachers, administrators, parents, and the public at large, should be guided by this view of teachers as professionals. Teachers should be represented by an organization that works to shore up the status of teachers as critical decision-makers in the process of running schools.

So what should the unions do?

First and foremost is to quit calling themselves a union. When I began my career, the NEA was not a union. It was a professional organization for teachers that worked to improve education. We should go back to that. The organizations that now function as a union should change their focus away from bargaining for teachers’ benefits to the augmentation of teachers' professional standing in communities across America. Stand up for teachers, sure, but stand up for them by improving the perception of them as respected professionals promoting improved use of assessment data, increasing sophistication of instructional methodology, or tighter integration of career preparation into curricula, not as wage earners, whose only priority seems to be job rights, salary negotiations, or pension plans that threaten to bankrupt school districts.

Though it would be foolish to drop collective bargaining right away, because the system has been in place for too long to allow a rapid change, teachers need to evolve into another system that recognizes and defers to the collective intelligence and professionalism that we bring to the table for the discussion about what’s best for kids. The teacher organization, in whatever form it takes, needs to be a respected and listened to part of the discussion.

Of course teacher union leaders do make gestures at addressing the professional issues of teachers. However it clearly isn’t what they see as their main job, which is to fight management to maintain benefits for teachers. Though they are not necessarily perfect, teachers should consider as models the professional organizations that doctors and lawyers create to represent their interests .

What do the managers of school systems need to do?

School administrators, legislators, and politicians of all stripes need to recognize that teachers are not simply replaceable cogs in the mechanism. Take for example the recent fuss about evaluating teachers, which is mostly about establishing acceptable procedures for identifying and firing ineffective teachers. Even upon reaching agreement about accurate identification, firing every ineffective teacher would result in an even larger problem–replacing them with better teachers who don’t yet exist in numbers large enough to meet the need. A better solution is a system that accomplishes three things. First, make it possible to identify and remove the worst and most irredeemable teachers. Second, commit to working with teachers who are capable of improving and help them become more effective. Third, improve teacher education to recruit and more effectively prepare prospective teachers. The teaching profession has a great deal of expertise that can be brought to bear here. They ought to be part of the process.

School boards and taxpayers need to face up to the fact that incentives are needed in order to recruit and keep the best teachers. Salary and benefits are incredibly important for this. Administrators need to see teachers not as expendable and interchangeable, but as valuable and unique resources. Hiring the best teachers, and getting them to work at the most challenging schools, requires seeing the marketplace as competitive. To get the best talent, you may have to loosen the pocketbook a bit.

Some form of job security is a must. Tenure, perhaps modified to some degree, is unavoidable because, once again, teachers are not, and never can be, cogs in a machine. I want to reiterate here that as professionals, teachers make complex judgments and decisions about human beings. In business the customer is always right. But when you are dealing with what’s best for a child, sometimes that customer, the parent, may be unclear about what is right for that child. Teachers need to be at a bit of a remove from the day-to-day controversies surrounding curriculum and instruction decisions they make based on what they believe is right. This is not an absolute right, but there needs to be some buffer to insulate these decisions and give teachers room to use their professional judgment and do what’s best for their students.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers need to be treated with the respect they deserve. This involves dialogue, not monologue. Teachers need to be partners in the discussion. Schools cannot achieve the best results if all of the talk is from the top down. Site based organization, in which principals serve as leaders not managers while sharing decision-making with teachers, has to be the key here. Those higher up in the chain of the organization must see their role as establishing what needs to be achieved and to clearly identify what goals are to be met. As you get closer to the classrooms, roles should switch to a focus on how to achieve those goals, with the freedom to think outside the box in figuring out the best way to help students learn what needs to be learned.

Both teachers and administrators should be part of the conversation about accountability. Teachers will tend to gravitate toward fuzzier accountability models with less hard data. Administrators will tend to prefer the security of data, even when that doesn’t necessarily doesn’t prove what they think it proves. Dialogue between both groups is what will generate the best solutions.

You will notice that the list for teachers is shorter than that for leaders. That doesn’t mean their task is easier. Unions, with their willingness to be adversarial and confrontational, have proven their ability to increase the clout of teachers. And to be fair, before the unions, school leaders operated largely from a position of unquestioned power and authority. They held all the cards, and no one should be willing to go back to those days.

The school district where I worked most of my career decertified the union back in the 70’s. In it’s place was created a group called the Faculty Senate which has for years now functioned as a representative of the faculty, though not a legally constituted collective bargaining agent. The District releases a teacher to serve as the president of the organization and invites this teacher to be a part of many of the various committees at the District Office. The Senate plays a role in salary and benefit discussions, assists individual teachers in disputes with the administration, and serves as a two-way conduit of information between teachers and administration. Salaries and benefits have either met or exceeded those in other districts in the area because the school board is committed to hiring the best teachers and realizes compensation must be competitive for that to happen. It isn’t perfect, but it has mostly worked for us.

The biggest benefit, as our former superintendent used to say, was that we were the only district around where teachers and administrators could legally talk about doing what was best for kids. It’s not a bad idea.