Thursday, August 27, 2009

Incompetence as a Signalling Device: Academia in Italy

You can never complain about the US tenure process again . . . .

Teach for America vs. National Board Certification

If pressed to name my ultimate professional passion and goal—the thing I was put on earth to do—it might be something like “elevate the ideas and voices of excellent teachers.” Like many people in America, I think we can do a vastly better job of educating all our kids, across the socio-economic spectrum. We’re not going to get far with that goal until we upgrade our teaching force, however—skilled and dedicated boots on the ground.

I have written about the experience of snooping through some internal TFA listserv messages about Linda Darling-Hammond and her prospective role in the Obama administration, before Arne Duncan was selected. That conversation was far more intelligent and even-handed than most education writers’ TFA-Defense pieces, like this little gem, wherein Richard Whitmire claims that TFA corps members single-handedly thwarted the Darling-Hammond Secretarial bid, from their current "high-powered" positions.

It is possible to respect and admire both the Teach for America premise and TFA teachers and alums, without believing that TFA teachers somehow have special, magical insights into how to “fix” American schools, whatever that means. Whitmire asserts that there are now 14,400 TFA alums out there making a difference, changing the world, wielding the power and so on—all on the basis of their brief, but well-documented, sojourns as barely trained educational missionaries in their own land.

Here’s another way to consider this. There are currently about 74,000 National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) in the United States. Their practice has been rigorously vetted and evaluated, with most of them having to go through two or more annual rounds of submitting valid (in the standard psychometric definition) evidence of standards-based teaching and high-level student learning. They have at least four years of experience by the time they’re selected—but most of them have a great deal more. NBCTs voluntarily spend 200-400 hours meticulously developing a portfolio of their work over time, to be adjudicated by assessors who don’t know them, and to whom they cannot make excuses. And then they sit for six on-demand content exams. They work in all kinds of schools, in every state in the union, facing a broad range of circumstances, problems and student needs.

National Board Certification may not be perfect, but it’s as reliable a benchmark as exists, right now, for identifying strong and efficacious teaching. Whether they certify or not, National Board candidates overwhelmingly say the process reveals new insights into effective practice.

And—this is the foundation for my argument—nobody would pursue National Board Certification unless they were absolutely committed to a long-term career in teaching and education reform.
So—why aren’t we asking National Board Certified Teachers what they think about key policy issues? Shouldn’t we be asking for input from a pool of solid practitioners, who have demonstrated a personal willingness to be publicly accountable? What kind of pundit honors the views of two-year field medics over those of veteran physicians with long records of success and innovative practice? It’s a good question.

It might have something to do with the fact that teaching is a huge occupational cluster that has not developed a compelling national vision of its own professionalism. This is in distinct contrast to teachers’ professional behaviors and responsibilities in other, high-achieving nations. The National Board standards were supposed to help with that, but the general public—and a fair number of high-profile researchers, in fact—don’t understand the conceptual framework, intellectual tools or process of national certification for teachers.

Full disclosure: I worked with nine other NBCTs in developing a comprehensive policy brief ("Measuring What Matters: The Effects of National Board Certification on Advancing 21st Century Teaching and Learning"), analyzing current research on National Board Certification—and we were dismayed by the lack of impact NBCTs have had on policy creation, and how quick analysts were to attach national teacher certification to teacher union issues, once again lumping all three million teachers into the category of skilled technical workers rather than creative professionals. Whitmire positions TFA teachers as “not beholden to the system”—as if all other teachers were, in fact, part of an amorphous, not-well-hidden agreement to accept the status quo. This is an unsubstantiated but convenient argument, but making it is counterproductive to the (reachable) goal of getting an effective teacher in every classroom, especially in high needs schools.

Then there is the unattractive fact that, according to Dan Lortie in the new edition of his classic Schoolteacher,
"Teaching has attracted many persons who have undergone the uncertainties and deprivations of lower- and working-class life. It has provided a significant step up the social class ladder for many Americans."
It would be unbecoming for academics, policy-creators and opinion leaders to say, hey—why would we listen to low-rent scholars who went to fourth-tier state universities and don’t aspire to anything more prestigious than teaching? So they don’t. Instead, they suggest that it makes sense to endorse the winners of a best-and-brightest competition to obtain a two-year starter job in education. Many TFA recruits become competent, even highly capable, teachers. I want to hear what they have to say about educational change. But theirs is a very limited perspective.

Listening to long-term exemplary teachers would represent a fundamental shift in the way we think about transforming American schools. Power to the teachers, right on.


How do you personally feel about the future of American education?

I’m panicked, I’m worried. I think if we continue along the path that we’re going, our greatest days are behind us. But, I still believe we can turn it around. That’s why I’m still in the classroom, and I’m gonna do my best. But as long as we embrace “testing is everything,” and as long as we keep shrinking art programs and physical education programs, we’re not in a good place. Those are the things that inspire kids to do great things, so I hope we keep enlarging them, not shrinking them.

The words are those of Rafe Esquith, at the end of an interview currently freely available from Teacher Magazine in a piece called Lighting Fires With Rafe Esquith. Esquith is one of America's great teachers, winner of many awards, a notable author. The key is the impact he has upon his students.

Equith teachers 5th grade at an inner city school, Hobart Elementary, in Los Angeles. He has his kids actually performing (passionately) Shakespeare. He is more than a little "unconventional." Perhaps the best description of what he does can be seen in the title of his 2nd (and best-selling) book (published 2 years ago): Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56.

I am going to strongly suggest that if you have any interest in education and meaningful teaching - as parent, educator, policy maker, or simply citizen/taxpayer - that you take the link to the interview and print it down and save it -- NOW. The link will expire at some point, and you will not want to lose access to this insightful piece.

Let me offer a few more exchanges from the interview, with some observations and commentary of my own.

I think the absolute key is that learning, the education of a child, is a long process, and we are now in the middle of a fast food society. We want instant everything. We even have books now like Algebra Made Easy and Shakespeare Made Easy. But I want teachers and parents to remember that it’s not easy! To be good at anything—anything!—takes thousands and thousands of hours of patient study, and I want people to know that when kids make mistakes or have setbacks, we don’t need to jump all over them for every little thing. This is a long process. I’m hoping that from the lessons of Lighting Their Fires people will understand that I’m trying to teach things that kids will remember after they’ve left my classroom, not just for the test at the end of the year.

not just for the test at the end of the year - and yet the Obama administration wants to tie merit pay for teachers to student performance on those same end of year tests, rather than finding other ways of examining the effects teachers have upon their students. I suspect that anyone who would walk into Esquith's classroom in Room 56 at Hobart would immediately grasp the positive effect he has upon students, regardless of any results either on end of year tests examined separately, or the growth shown as compared either to last year's tests or tests at the beginning of the year.

Esquith talks about reminding teachers of the importance of being themselves. Let me offer a bit of this section, right after he mentions other teachers thanking him for that.
Because a lot of people are telling the teacher not to be yourself. That we’re all supposed to be exactly the same. We’re not. In a country that says it’s supposed to celebrate diversity, we’re not! And that’s what I want those burned-out teachers to remember. Be yourself. You’re valuable, you’re important, and you’re making a difference, even though maybe you’re in a school that doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing. It’s a thankless job, it really is. But when you do it well, it’s a fun job.

It is not only a "fun job," it is absoluting energizing, especially on those occasions when you "hit a home run" and find a way of really connecting with the students.

Here I note that I have insisted my student teachers learn how to be themselves in front of the adolescents in my classroom, who can quickly determine if a teacher is being something different, that is, is in "teacher mode" - for many, that will serve as a barrier, because what the students really hunger for is someone who respects them enough to be genuine with them. By the way, as we mourn the loss of Ted Kennedy, perhaps we should note that so much of the response to him was that he was very much himself, which was a very caring person, in his interactions even with those who opposed him politically, which might be why he was able to find common ground on occasion and become close friends with the likes of Orrin Hatch. Effective teaching also involves the building of relationships through trust, the showing of genuine care. If in fact your real self is not caring towards the students in your charge, I strongly suggest you find another occupation, no matter how knowledgeable about your subject matter you may be.

Esquith talks about the number of former students who come back to his classroom and provide positive role models for his current students. Here I note that I teach mainly 10th graders, and I see a similar effect - they have older siblings who come back to me for college recommendations, or neighbors, teammates, those on the bus who will share their experiences in my classroom. I will not claim I have anything near the impact Esquith does - his students are younger, and for many his is the first such encounter with a caring and challenging adult not related to them. There are many great teachers in our school, and I am fortunate that almost all of my students have already had at least one such encounter before they enter my classroom.

Esquith also talks about how his classroom works:
The idea that kids don’t like school is a myth. Kids love school when it’s fun and interesting. They don’t like school when it’s boring. But you let them do things that are relevant, like play in a rock band, as we do in my classes, and capture their imagination. I think that’s what people see in my classroom─there’s a great energy level, an atmosphere of warmth and humor and hard work all mixed together.

Note especially those last words: an atmosphere of warmth and humor and hard work all mixed together - that combination encourages students who are struggling to keep trying. If I am going to challenge my students to go further, I have to build the trust, lighten the burden with humor, affirm that I know they can do it.

A couple of quotes without comments:
I do think that the goal should be that we’re going to give every child the opportunity to be the best they can be. Right now, we’re not doing that. And as I always tell the kids, “It’s not my job to save your soul, but it’s my job to give you an opportunity to save your own soul.” I can’t make a kid smarter or better, but I can give them the opportunity to become that and show them how to do that. That’s my job, and that’s a parent’s job─creating opportunities.

I’m really hoping is that teachers, when they keep growing, they can grow into themselves. They’re so busy following the script, they stop being themselves. I think if the teacher’s a great cook, then I hope she cooks with the kids as part of the day! Work it into the lesson plan! Because that’s your passion... the good news is, in my classroom, it is absolutely my room. Even though we follow all the standards, my three particular passions, which are baseball, rock & roll and Shakespeare are all a part of that classroom. And it works really well, because I’m good at showing kids how to do those things.

Rafe Esquith is an extraordinary teacher, one of the nation's best. And yet, instead of learning from teachers like him when we make our policy, too often we listen to economists and politicians, we are far too inclined to try to standardize - and not just in how we test. When teachers are empowered - as Esquith is and as I have been fortunate enough to be by 5 principals in three different schools - they commit themselves to their students despite the barriers and obstacles, despite the restriction s of external testing and pacing guides (which often make no sense even as they are supposed demonstrate that we have 'covered" the material for which the students will be held "accountable").

We need to remember that we are teaching students, a collection of individual, unique personalities, not a class or a subject if by phrasing in the latter fashion we lose sight of those individuals. We need to be able to adjust our instruction to the persons before us.

I have a decreasing amount of hair. I'm not sure how much I can afford to lose by setting it on fire. But I know Esquith is right - it is by bringing one's own passion to the task of learning with one's students that I am most effective as a teacher. It is also by providing an environment that the passions with which the students arrive can somehow be included within the classroom as well. Esquith is an elementary teacher - he has his students for the entire day. I teach 6 periods, each of 45 minutes, each with a different collection of students, currently with up to 36 in the room at one time (and that will expand today). It is somewhat different, but still fundamentally the same - I may have less time to accomplish that, and far more specific content with which to connect them, but they are still unique individuals with different backgrounds and interests. I make clear I am passionate and invite them along for the ride.

along for the ride - that means I am traveling that road with them. That is one fundamental concept of teaching which Esquith may not explicitly state, but which underlies his entire approach, and with which I strongly agree.

Esquith will be the first to tell you he does not have all the answers. And perhaps his words may raise more questions, to which he would almost certainly say "good!" It is by asking questions that we can reexamine our thinking and improve our own actions.

Which is why this post has the title that it does.



Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Childhood Food Insecurity / 10% of US Population Now on Food Stamps

Food Stamps

A record 32.2 million Americans are receiving food stamp assistance. As the economy grows bleak, 10 percent of the U.S. population fall below the threshold.

Food Insecurity

The states with the highest rates of food insecure children under 5 years of age. Food Insecure: unable to consistently access adequate amounts of nutritious food that is necessary for a healthy life. (As of 2007, PRIOR to the current downturn.)

Louisiana       24.2%
North Carolina       24.1%
Ohio       23.8%
Kentucky       23.3%
Texas       23.3%
New Mexico       23.3%
Kansas       20.9%
South Carolina       20.7%
Tennessee       20.4%
Idaho       20.2%
Arkansas       20.0%
West Virginia       19.8%
Missouri       19.8%

“The first three years of life are the most critical period of brain growth and development. Child hunger causes physical and mental impairment that may never be reversed.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More from the Textbook Wars

[Houston Chronicle] Texas high school students would learn about such significant individuals and milestones of conservative politics as Newt Gingrich and the rise of the Moral Majority — but nothing about liberals — under the first draft of new standards for public school history textbooks. . . [read on]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Race and Diversity in the Age of Obama

Wide ranging summary of current research on race, "assimilation," immigration, and inequality in America, by Orlando Patterson.

h/t Neuroanthropology

NYT: Do Teachers Need Education Degrees?

Our new dean mentioned this posting to our college this week.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How can we use bad measures in decisionmaking?

Reposted from my personal blog:

I had about 20 minutes of between-events time Thursday morning and used it to catch up on two interesting papers on value-added assessment and teacher evaluation--the Jesse Rothstein piece using North Carolina data and the Koedel-Betts replication-and-more with San Diego data.

Speaking very roughly, Rothstein used a clever falsification test: if the assignment of students to fifth grade is random, then you shouldn't be able to use fifth-grade teachers to predict test-score gains in fourth grade. At least with the set of data he used in North Carolina, you could predict a good chunk of the variation in fourth-grade test gains knowing who the fifth grade teachers were, which means that a central assumption of many value-added models are problematic.

Cory Koedel and Julian Betts's paper replicated and extended the analysis using data from San Diego. They were able to confirm with different data that using a single year's worth of data led to severe problems with the assumption of close-to-random assignment. They also claimed that using more than one year's worth of data smoothed out the problems.

Apart from the specifics of this new aspect of the value-added measure debate, it pushed my nose once again into the fact that any accountability system has to address the fact of messy data.

Let's face it: we will never have data that are so accurate that we can worry about whether the basis for a measure is cesium or ytterbium. Generally, the rhetoric around accountability systems has been either "well, they're good enough and better than not acting" or "toss out anything with flaws," though we're getting some new approaches, or rather older approaches introduced into national debate, as with the June Broader, Bolder Approach paper and this week's paper on accountability from the Education Equality Project.

Now that we have the response by the Education Equality Project to the Broader, Approach on accountability more specifically, we can see the nature of the debate taking shape. Broader, Bolder is pushing testing-and-inspections, while Education Equality is pushing value-added measures. Incidentally, or perhaps not, the EEP report mentioned Diane Ravitch in four paragraphs (the same number of paragraphs I spotted with references to President Obama) while including this backhanded, unfootnoted reference to the Broader, Bolder Approach:

While many of these same advocates criticize both the quality and utility of current math and reading assessments in state accountability systems, they are curiously blithe about the ability of states and districts to create a multi-billion dollar system of trained inspectors--who would be responsible for equitably assessing the nation's 95,000 schools on a regular basis on nearly every dimension of school performance imaginable, no matter how ill-defined.

I find it telling that the Education Equality Project folks couldn't bring themselves to acknowledge the Broader, Bolder Approach openly or the work of others on inspection systems (such as Thomas Wilson). Listen up, EEP folks: Acknowledging the work of others is essentially a requirement for debate these days. Ignoring the work of your intellectual opponents is not the best way to maintain your own credibility. I understand the politics: the references to Ravitch indicate that EEP (and Klein) see her as a much bigger threat than Broader, Bolder. This is a perfect setup for Ravitch's new book, whose title is modeled after Jane Jacobs's fight with Robert Moses. So I don't think in the end that the EEP gang is doing themselves much of a favor by ignoring BBA.

Let's return to the substance: is there a way to think coherently about using mediocre data that exist while acknowledging we need better systems and working towards them? I think the answer is yes, especially if you divide the messiness of test data into separate problems (which are not exhaustive categories but are my first stab at this): problems when data cover a too-small part of what's important in schooling, and problems when the data are of questionable trustworthiness.

Data that cover too little

As Daniel Koretz explains, no test currently in existence can measure everything in the curriculum. The circumscribed nature of any assessment may be tied to the format of a test (a paper and pencil test cannot assess the ability to look through a microscope and identify what's on a slide), to test specifications (which limits what a test measures within a subject), or to subjects covered by a testing system. Some of the options:

  • Don't worry. Don't worry about or dismiss the possibility of a narrowed curriculum. Advantage: simple. Easy to spin in a political context. Disadvantage: does not comport with the concerns of millions of parents concerned about a narrowed curriculum.
  • Toss. Decide that the negative consequences of accountability outweigh any use of limited-purpose testing. Advantage: simple. Easy to spin in a political context. Disadvantage: does not comport with the thoughts of millions of parents concerned about the quality of their children's schooling.
  • Supplement. Add more information, either by expanding the testing or by expanding the sources of information. Advantage: easy to justify in the abstract. Disadvantages: requires more spending for assessment purposes, either for testing or for the type of inspection system Wilson and BBA advocate (though inspections are not nearly as expensive as the EEP report claims without a shred of evidence). If the supplementation proposal is for more testing, this will concern some proportion of parents who do not like the extent of testing as it currently exists.

Data that are of questionable trustworthiness

I'm using the term trustworthiness instead of reliability because the latter is a term of art in measurement, and I mean the category to address how accurately a particular measure tells us something about student outcomes or any plausible causal connection to programs or personnel. There are a number of reasons why we would not trust a particular measure to be an accurate picture of what happens in a school, ranging from test conditions or technical problems to test-specification predictability (i.e., teaching to the test over several years) and the global questions of causality.

The debate about value-added measures is part of a longer discussion about the trustworthiness of test scores as an indication of teacher quality and a response to arguments that status indicators are neither a fair nor accurate way to judge teachers who may have very different types of students. What we're learning is a confirmation of what I wrote almost 4 years ago: as Harvey Goldstein would say, growth models are not the Holy Grail of assessment. Since there is no Holy Grail of measurement, how do we use data that we know are of limited trustworthiness (even if we don't know in advance exactly what those limits are)?

  • Don't worry. Don't worry about or dismiss the possibility of making the wrong decision from untrustworthy data. Advantage: simple. Easy to spin in a political
    context. Disadvantage: does not comport with the credibility problems of historical error in testing and the considerable research on the limits of test scores.
  • Toss. Decide that the flaws of testing outweigh any use of messy data. Advantage: simple in concept. Easy to spin in a political context. Easy to argue if it's a partial toss justified for technical reasons (e.g., small numbers of students tested). Disadvantage: does not comport with the thoughts of millions of parents concerned about the quality of their children's schooling. More difficult in practice if it's a partial toss (i.e., if you toss some data because a student is an English language learner, because of small numbers tested, or for other reasons).
  • Make a new model. Growth (value-added) models are the prime example of changing a formula in response to concerns about trustworthiness (in this case, global issues about achievement status measures). Advantage: makes sense in the abstract. Disadvantage: more complicated models can undermine both transparency and understanding, and claims about superiority of different models become more difficult to evaluate as the models become more complex. There ain't no such thing* as a perfect model specification.
  • Retest, recalculate, or continue to accumulate data until you have trustworthy data. Treat testing as the equivalent of a blood-pressure measurement: if you suspect that a measurement is not to be trusted, take the blood pressure test the student again in a few minutes months/another year. Advantage: can wave hands broadly and talk about "multiple years of data" and refer to some research on multiple years of data. Disadvantage: Retesting/reassessment works best with a certain density of data points, and the critical density will depend on context. This works with some versions of formative assessment, where one questionable datum can be balanced out by longer trends. It's more problematic with annual testing, for a variety of reasons, though that can reduce uncertainties.
  • Model the trustworthiness as a formal uncertainty. Decide that information is usable if there is a way to accommodate the mess. Advantage: makes sense in the abstract. Disadvantage: The choices are not easy, and there are consequences of the way of modeling uncertainty you choose: adjusting cut scores/data presentation by measurement/standard errors, using fuzzy-set algorithms, Bayesian reasoning, or political mechanisms to reduce the influence of a specific measure when trustworthiness decreases.

Even if you haven't read Accountability Frankenstein, you have probably already sussed out my view that both "don't worry" and "toss" are poor choices in addressing messy data. All other options should be on the table, usable for different circumstances and in different ways. Least explored? The last idea, modeling trustworthiness problems as formal uncertainty. I'm going to part from measurement researchers and say that the modeling should go beyond standard errors and measurement errors, or rather head in a different direction. There is no way to use standard errors or measurement errors to address issues of trustworthiness that go beyond sampling and reliability issues, or to structure a process to balance the inherently value-laden and political issues involved here.

The difficulty in looking coldly at messy and mediocre data generally revolves around the human tendency to prefer impressions of confidence and certainty over uncertainty, even when a rational examination and background knowledge should lead one to recognize the problems in trusting a set of data. One side of that coin is an emphasis on point estimates and firmly-drawn classification lines. The other side is to decide that one should entirely ignore messy and mediocre data because of the flaws. Neither is an appropriate response to the problem.

* A literary reference (to Heinlein), not an illiteracism.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Testing and the False Promise of Educational Improvement

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg moves toward near certain reelection, an interesting article appeared in the New York Times last week, looking at his stewardship of the public school system: The numbers look impressive. This year, 82 percent of city students passed statewide tests in math and 69 percent in English, up from 42 and 38 percent, respectively, in 2002. Staten Island and Queens have seen dramatic rises in comparison to other New York counties, and even the lowly Bronx is improving. And the racial gap has declined when measured by the number of students passing.

Yet the numbers are deceiving when one delves deeper. For one thing, it appears that the increase in passing rates relates more to making the tests easier rather than any real improvement in student performance. For another, the actual racial gap in scores has not changed much. This was made clear when looking at the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that eighth graders showed little improvement in reading or math. So what’s the story? As with many neoliberal reforms, testing justifies a shift to a curriculum based on testing, narrowed away from a broader, more holistic approach. Yet the tests don’t really measure student performance or what they’re learning in a real sense. The push to hold schools accountable leads state leaders to simply cook the books and make sure they are showing improvement – even if it means little. The improvements then legitimates the very system the tests themselves are undermining.

So what is lost in the process? Art and music have fallen by the wayside. Culturally-relevant, engaging curriculum is sidelined (and in New York City, Bloomberg has instituted using the same textbooks and curriculum throughout the entire system). Progressive approaches to pedagogy are eliminated, as the lowest performing students are simply taught to take and pass the tests, by any means possible. Gone is civics education or broadening the mind. And in a period when obesity and Type II diabetes are on the rise, physical education is seriously curtailed. In the end, the neoliberal push for accountability ensures that all that is taught are basic skills and “core competencies,” leaving little room to address student’s social, emotional, physical and intellectual growth. Little time is left to bring joy and passion into the educational process. And even less is allotted to ensure that youth develop real critical thinking skills that can serve themselves and society in making the world a better place.

The push toward accountability and statistical success has essentially undermined the original goals of public schooling – to create an educated, informed public that can actively participate in society and democracy and to serve as the great equalizer that will make America a true meritocracy. In the process, NYC becomes a perfect exemplar of the old adage by Benjamin Disrael that there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

Reforming Juvenile Justice

An editorial in today's New York Times discusses a successful effort to reduce the number of children sent to detention facilities:

Closely supervising young offenders, instead of incarcerating them, did not increase the youth crime rate or the risk to public safety. Similar programs have since been adopted in 110 jurisdictions in 27 states and the District of Columbia. According to a new study from the foundation, the results have been astonishing: Many jurisdictions have managed to cut the number of children in detention by half or more; in many, the youth crime rate has declined. . . .

Communities that have been most faithful to the new model have registered the most impressive results, with some districts locking up only about a quarter of the number of youngsters as before. These efforts show that it is possible to treat children humanely without compromising public safety and deserve to be replicated nationwide.

I don't know this work well, but this is a critically important issue.

The most important predictor of whether a child will become a "delinquent" is whether this child has been sent to detention.

This work is sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and more information is here (use the headings in the left-hand column to navigate this information). See discussion of results here.

Again, focusing on education and pedagogy as a solution to "educational" problems is, I believe, a recipe for defeat.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Your Brain on Chaos

No, I don't understand this either. But it seems important and cool:
HAVE you ever experienced that eerie feeling of a thought popping into your head as if from nowhere, with no clue as to why you had that particular idea at that particular time? You may think that such fleeting thoughts, however random they seem, must be the product of predictable and rational processes. After all, the brain cannot be random, can it? Surely it processes information using ordered, logical operations, like a powerful computer?

Actually, no. In reality, your brain operates on the edge of chaos. Though much of the time it runs in an orderly and stable way, every now and again it suddenly and unpredictably lurches into a blizzard of noise.

Neuroscientists have long suspected as much. Only recently, however, have they come up with proof that brains work this way. Now they are trying to work out why. Some believe that near-chaotic states may be crucial to memory, and could explain why some people are smarter than others.

In technical terms, systems on the edge of chaos are said to be in a state of "self-organised criticality". These systems are right on the boundary between stable, orderly behaviour - such as a swinging pendulum - and the unpredictable world of chaos, as exemplified by turbulence.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A teacher explains why she is leaving

originally posted at Daily Kos

It happens all the time. People come into teaching, full of enthusiasm, sometimes accompanied by real talent. But they do not stay. After all, we lose half of those entering into teaching before they start their sixth year, the bulk of those before they start their fourth. There are lots of reasons. Some, like those entering through programs like Teach for America, never intended to make a career of it. Others find they cannot handle the pressures, or live on the salaries.

I could give you statistics, but that is often not effective. I remind you that Stalin said that the death of millions was a statistic, but the death of an individual was a tragedy. So let5's look at a tragedy, the death of a teaching career, after the magical three-year mark, of a gifted teacher who is able to explain why she is leaving.

Sarah Fine puts it bluntly in the title of her Washington Post op ed: Schools Need Teachers Like Me. I Just Can't Stay. Please read the whole thing. It won't take long. Then we'll talk.

It is rarely one reason when a person who is dedicated to the ideal of teaching chooses to abandon the profession. Money is certainly part of it. The job can be hard, and the term "burnout" is often applicable, but not because of the difficulty of the job, at least, the part of the job that involved dealing with students, even the most difficult students.

Fine acknowledges that her own story is not unique, writing
In 2005, the year I started teaching, nearly a third of new teachers in the District of Columbia were recent college graduates who had enrolled in Teach for America or the D.C. Teaching Fellows program. Statistics suggest that many of these recruits have already moved on. Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded "no excuses" charter schools, turnover is often much higher.
One reason not directly addressed in Fine's piece is that most urban charter schools are not unionized. For better or worse, that means that the teaching staff lacks the protections a union can give them, making them subject to abusive or unrealistic demands by administrations. We see this in the paragraph following what I have already quoted from Fine, who has already told us that she uses the term "burnout" as as a kind of shorthand:
When I talk about the long hours, for example, what I mean is that, over the course of four years, my school's administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries. More and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported. One afternoon this spring, when my often apathetic 10th-graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class "seated and silent." It took everything I had to hold back my tears of frustration.

Here I would interject that some of what troubled her about her own situation is becoming increasingly the case in public schools that are unionized as well. The idea of micromanagement - especially in ways that interfere with the teachers' ability to really connect with the students, are among the most troubling problems teachers encounter. We see it in canned lessons, rigid pacing guides used to require everyone to be on the same page at the same time.

The idea that decisions are made behind closed doors is also something we all encounter. Or, if the doors are not closed, the voices of those of us in the classroom are not included when the decisions are being made. Fine writes about spending weeks with fellow teachers revising a curriculum proposal only to see it rejected by her administration without even looking at it. We see this now on a national scale: on July 27 I posted Education: what is wrong with this picture? in which I pointed out that the panels involved in drafting new national standards for English and Math and the support panels included a grand total of one classroom teacher and no participation by the professional organizations for the two curricular areas.

Fine is a gifted writer. She acknowledges her frustration in not being able to reach all her students, and worries about those who fall through the cracks. As a teacher myself, that draws me to her, because even after 14 years I still wrestle with the same worries. That demonstrates the kind of caring that is usually essential to reaching the most difficult students. And reading the description of the classroom, where we realize that she herself - not her school - provided the library of young adult literature for her students, that she honored them by posting their efforts at poetry, it is easy to see her as the kind of teacher who draws students to what she asks, who is effective in having her students go beyond their comfort levels. And even while expressing pride in her students effective performance on the required external test does not make up for the sense of failing students who did not succeed.

That kind of frustration can break a lesser teacher, even one with the support of her administration. If one enters the profession wanting to make a difference,or as Fine puts it,
it only seemed right that I "give back" after spending 22 years in a suburban, Ivy League bubble
those failures can cut very deeply, that can be devastating to on'e moral and sense of purpose. Even as one struggles with the sense of failure for those one did not reach, being able to persist, to try to adjust, to maintain one's effort on behalf of those students one is reaching, is critical if we are going to make a difference in the lives of the people served by the kind of school in which Fine taught. Note that I said people, not children or students. In many cases it is by what we do for those in our classroom that also inspires and sustains the adult members of their families, who seeing possibilities opening up for their children are inspired to overcome inertia and despair and themselves try to make a difference in their own lives.

What Fine describes as most devastating is the lack of respect for the profession. She reminds us that
Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it.
Here the problem is more widespread than many are willing to recognize. All professions have underachievers, and/or people who perhaps should be encouraged to leave the profession. That is certainly true of elected legislators, it is very true of lawyers (remember, that profession includes the likes of Orly Taitz), we have seen how true it was of bankers, and far too many in medical fields are more concerned with the money they make than with the real health of their patients. Yet no other profession is subject to the constant drumbeat of criticism, to the palpable lack of respect for the profession. Even a president who claims to be committed to improving education is prone to the kind of rhetoric that paints with brush strokes far too broad.

It is true in teaching, as in other fields, that some are far more effective in reaching their students, in having those students succeed no matter what measure you use - score on external tests, persistence in doing work, developing the ability to work independently in the domain. Our approach should not be to incentivize those teachers, but rather to use them to help understand how and why they are more successful, and thus to empower other teachers to greater success. Instead we see arguments for merit pay for teachers based at least in part on performance on test scores, including statements and actions by our President and his Secretary of Education, ignoring all the evidence both in education and in other fields of the ineffectiveness - and sometimes the destructiveness - of merit pay as a means of improving overall performance in the field.

Our Secretary of Education is not only insisting upon using student test performance as a key factor in making such merit pay decisions, he is also insisting upon states expanding the use of charter schools, despite a clear lack of evidence that they are any more effective overall in teaching students, as a recently released study at Stanford made clear.

Fine taught in a charter school. It is dangerous to make policy by anecdote, and in referencing her experience, it is not my intent to do so. But she illustrates very clearly that merely setting up a charter does not overcome many of the problems inherent in education, particularly in situations such as inner city minority neighborhoods. Students will arrive absent the skills and knowledge one should be able to expect at that grade level. Issues of family dysfunction, poverty, nutrition and health, are not overcome by magically doing away with the normal structure of the traditional public school, including having unions to protect the rights of the teachers. Many charters are able to select out the more difficult to educate students, or the ones whose families are not seen as being as "supportive" of the school and its mission. The hours worked by their teachers are often not sustainable, which also contributes to high turnover of staff which undercuts the effectiveness of the school.

Some charters are more successful, especially those able to develop and maintain a clear sense of mission, one which is a product of a group effort of the entire staff, not just of one person. The flexibility that allows that to happen in a charter is key. And perhaps we should acknowledge that, and rather than insisting states merely allow or even mandate more charters, start trying to give a similar flexibility to "traditional" public schools so that they can meet the needs of the students in their classes.

In any case, teaching is a key to the success of our students. We have known about the high turnover among teachers for many years. It has been an important issue since before I began my own Master of Arts in Teaching program in 1994, and it has gotten worse in the decade and a half since. If we cannot develop and maintain a sufficient core of competent or better teachers, we will not overcome the crisis of education that we currently face, which is far more than the issue of international economic competition, an issue which receives too much attention at the expense of things far more basic. We will not be educating our young people to be participants in the representative democracy we pretend to be. We will not be empowering each student to pursue that which most energizes them for work or even for avocation. We will not be equipping our students to be able to learn on their own, to be willing to take intellectual risks.

All of that requires teachers. I am about to start my 15th year of teaching. I am still learning how to be more effective for the students in my care. By all counts I am at least a pretty good teacher, more than minimally competent even on my occasional bad days - and remember, teachers are human, and like those in other fields we have days where we are not as effective.

Fine closes her piece like this:
Having a base of teachers who teach for more than a token few years is critical to school reform. It helps principals and school leaders develop trusting relationships with teachers. It helps teachers collaborate with one another. Most of all, it helps students. A teacher with experience is not always a good teacher, but a good teacher is always better after a few years of experience. As my former principal not-so-subtly put it: "The kids don't need one-year wonders. There is no such thing as a one-year wonder."

Four-year wonders are better than nothing, but still not enough.

We need to listen to the voices of teachers. Effective organizations regularly do exit interviews of those leaving, hoping thereby to be able to make adjustments to improve conditions for those remaining. We do not as a regular practice do this in education. We should. Learning why people leave is critical information.

Sarah Fine has done her own exit interview. She has taken the time and used her expressive gifts to explain her decision to leave teaching. He piece appears in the newspaper serving our national capital city. It is unfortunately that so many involved in educational policy are not in town to read it.

But we can. We can pass it on. We can reflect upon what we learn from her, and perhaps thereby from many like her who leave the teaching profession far too soon.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

I Learned it at the Movies

I learned it at the movies
When the psychologists tested all the students a week later, the verdict for classroom movies was one thumb up, one thumb down. Watching the films did clearly help the students learn more—but only when the information was the same in both text and film. Apparently the vividness of the film—and simply having a second version of the same facts—did help the students create stronger memories of the material. But when the information in the film and the reading were contradictory—that is, when the film was inaccurate—the students were more likely to recall the film’s distorted version. What’s more, they were very confident in their memories, even though they were wrong. This happened even when the students were warned that filmmakers often play fast and loose with the facts.

So should films be banned from the classroom? Not necessarily, and here’s why. As the psychologists report on-line in the journal Psychological Science, a good teacher can trump a movie's shortcomings. They found that when teachers gave the very detailed warnings about inaccuracies in the film version, the students got it. But those warnings had to be very precise, something like: Pay attention when you watch the film and you’ll see that the filmmaker has changed the nationality of the hero from French to American, which is not the way it was. With such warnings, the students apparently “tagged” the information as false in the minds—and remembered the accurate version when quizzed later on.

In this sense, the movie’s distorted version of history can be used as a teachable moment.* Students learn the truth by identifying the mistakes and labeling them, so their take-away learning is: the film says this, but in fact it’s that. Not a bad way to learn, assuming the classroom teacher knows enough to point out what’s this and that.


The truth about grit
Modern science builds the case for an old-fashioned virtue - and uncovers new secrets to success.
In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new - “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked - the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going. ....

I’d bet that there isn’t a single highly successful person who hasn’t depended on grit,” says Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped pioneer the study of grit. “Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do.”

The hope among scientists is that a better understanding of grit will allow educators to teach the skill in schools and lead to a generation of grittier children. Parents, of course, have a big role to play as well, since there’s evidence that even offhand comments - such as how a child is praised - can significantly influence the manner in which kids respond to challenges. And it’s not just educators and parents who are interested in grit: the United States Army has supported much of the research, as it searches for new methods of identifying who is best suited for the stress of the battlefield.

h/t Neuroanthropology

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

From the AACTE Weekly Briefs

Teacher Training Faces Overhaul From the Indianapolis Star

Proposed rules being unveiled today would give Indiana teachers a new mandate: what you teach matters more than how you teach. A broad series of changes proposed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett would require even elementary education majors to minor in core subjects such as math, English, science, art or social studies while limiting undergraduate coursework in education. The proposal also would relax the amount of training required of principals and superintendents.

Good news for EPB!

We posted an article that we thought you and your readers might be
interested in having a look at, "100 Best Blogs for Teachers of the
Future" I am happy to let you know that your site has been
included in this list.

Thanks for your time!

Amber Johnson