Friday, December 30, 2011

Thoughts on NCLB Reauthorization

Unfortunately, most likely, Congressional reauthorization of NCLB will I suspect follow the usual approach: lobbyist wishes accepted automatically by members of Congress - with eventual meaningless compromised legislation passed following bitter party infighting. Why should this legislation be any different from others?

So, in this posting, I'm offering a few of my thoughts - believing a few educators might see them, event comment on them possibly, at most:

1. It's not the standardized test that's bad; it's the format of the test and uses of the test that are bad. The reliance on facts recall must be expanded to allow evaluation of the capability to use and build upon those CORE facts (I.e., the level of effective learning). The most important uses of the test outcomes need to be assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each student's effective learning capabilities as well as input to system discussions of refinement of learning objectives and pedagogy. Less valuable but possible input (but not only input) to system or state or even teacher / administrator effectiveness might also be uses for outcomes - AS LONG AS THE METHODOLOGY FOR SUCH USE IS TESTED AND VERIFIED AS APPROPRIATE.

2. The legislation should clearly and directly prohibit any teaching to the test. Teachers should know and utilize the testing format in the classroom assessment to familiarize students with the format. Also, parents and families should know of the testing times to optimize honest participation. Such efforts need to be documented. No other "links" to the tests should be allowed.

3. At a minimum, each grade, school, or system should be required to document curricular / pedagogical guidelines (based on core standards) as well as the procedures used and outcomes developed by community discussions and planning involving any and all interested parties. These guidelines, compatible with the core standards should be required to be based upon published and accepted learning research with references provided.

4. The development of school, system, or state curriculum plans should be prohibited. Following the efforts suggested in #3 above with considerations made and documented relative to student needs, teachers should develop individual pedagogical approaches for the students involved. Careful attention to and development of appropriate assessment must be made, used, evaluated, and documented as to meaning and usefulness of approaches taken and input to subsequent revision of approaches.

5. The efforts of schools outlined above should first be analyzed by the individual teachers with regard to their self-assessment of progress and suggestions for revision. Subsequently, the teacher effort documentation and documentation should be first reviewed WITH (not just by) administrators. Following an administrator summary of school / system status and development of school / system recommended areas for improvement, all materials to date should be reviewed by at least sub-groups from the community effort of #3 above periodically for another community-wide effort as in #3.

6. Having now closed the loop, this process should be continued following the stepwise procedure outlined.

7. The subjects assessed should go beyond mathematics, reading / writing and include at a minimum science / engineering, history / civics, and geography / ecology. Not subject to standardized testing but maybe portfolio development, topics such as art, physical education, and personal financial capability should be subject to regular review as well.

8. Emphasis should be on encouraging all involved by celebrating improvement and contributing to broader and increased improvement. The only punative or negative impact should be for those who will not or cannot engage in personal improvement.

I can almost hear the cries and/or laughter already: How in the world will we ever have time to do these things even if we agree it would be a good approach? I will argue that motivated engagement by everyone involved can make it happen. Consider the following:

A. I maintain that many teachers already routinely do many of the things I've suggested. The additional time needed will come from time NOT needed to deal with the distractions: based upon reaserch in learning and involving efforts that will motivate student engagement, less attention will be necessary to deal with the negative items.

B. My experiences suggest that, yes, these suggestions will take effort initially but subsequent revisions will be less demanding. AND the improved student effective learning by ever increasing numbers of students will make it less burdensome.

C. Not every step should be done each year for sure; remember that the goal is improved student learning. It is certain that such efforts will always be "works in progress" AND that it is the rate of individual / school / system / state improvement that matters most. All involved should be given meaningful time to allow for false starts or failures. What really matters is that the documentation of planning, implementation, assessment, and refinement enables all aspects to be reviewed for effectiveness. Of course, teacher-level efforts should be made yearly or even more frequently. Administration informal feedback might occur more frequently with formal review maybe every two or three years. Sub-groups from the larger interested community might also be involved more frequently but should engage formally every four or six years. Community reports should then be prepared for each formal review and sent to the state for statewide considerations.

D. With formal community reports every four or six years, likely done by sub-groups of the larger community, there should be ample time to stagger the timeline for each subject area - further reducing the demands on time from any one set of individuals or groups / sub-groups.



Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Teach to the Test?

For some time now, I (and I'm sure you as well) have encountered blog postings and articles that lament the TEACHING TO THE TEST - the justifiably maligned standardized test. It seems that both teachers and administrators believe absolutely that such an approach is mandated! AND I'm sure it is in many cases.

The question to me at least is WHY? The research that makes most sense to me suggests that EFFECTIVELY LEARNING THE MATERIAL is the best approach to doing well in any measure of learning (including even standardized tests)! Consider the following:

1. Probably the most important contributor to effective learning is motivation. If you haven't read and studied Dan Pink's book, "Drive," do yourself a favor and pu that at the top of your list of things to do. There is nothing in teaching to the test that will provide student motivation to learn!

2. Unless you are preparing for a quiz show such as Jeopardy, there is very little to be gained by knowing large quantities of facts. AND, from my observations, I'd suggest an equally important if not more important capability on Jeopardy is the ability to "ring in" quickly! There must be an honest determination of CORE KNOWLEDGE for each subject and each grade level. By the way, to me at least, that is an important effort required but for sure NOT simply a listing of the core national standards.

3. IF THE CLASS TIME USED to push facts and teach to the test is eliminated, there is now significant time to facilitate effective learning! To me that points to significant inquiry / open-ended problem solving in all subjects. Ask any one (including educators) how they really learn material and they will tell you it's by using / applying that material to solving interesting assignments AND the inevitable "instructing" others about the material presuming students are expected to work on groups on the assignments.

A personal recollection: A number of years ago on public radio heard while in the car, I learned about an elementary school in Florida. It seems that the school had scored near the bottom among Florida schools on the fourth or fifth grade standardized math test. Wishing to improve their ranking, the principal / school board found some money and employed the teachers over the summer in efforts to improve the mathematics materials and pedagogy hopefully improving the school ranking. After the summer effort, really only two significant changes were made. First, the concentration of emphasis on the standardized test was eliminated. Parents were told of the dates to improve attendance, etc., and students gained experience with the test formate through other assessment for grades. Second, the existing math period was divided into two periods and placed at different places in the schedule (NOT adjacent to each other). One period was used for facilitating core knowledge. The other period was used for math applications. THE OBJECTIVE OF EITHER PERIOD COULD NOT BE ADDRESSED IN THE OTHER PERIOD - regardless of any apparent need to do so! Students were forced to struggle with ongoing assignments, waiting to the next period to correct their issues. Not surprising to me at least, the school performance on the standardized test improved significantly - near the middle of the ranking the first year! Only changes in subsequent years: reduced "core knowledge" period length, added to the "application" period. And the scores continue to improve each year. My read: The student motivation and effective learning improved because of the interesting (to them) assignments in the applications. AS IS TRUE FOR ANY PERSON OF ANY AGE, IF THEY ARE ENGAGED IN MEANINGFUL AND THUS FUN ACTIVITIES, THEY WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO SUCCEED AND WILL DO IT WILLINGLY. AND THEY WILL SUCCESSFULLY LEARN THAT NEEDED MATERIAL - good standardized test scores being a byproduct.

SO WHAT'S THE REAL STORY? Is the mandate to teach to the test or is it to get acceptable standardized test scores? If it's the latter, then the former is absolutely the wrong approach. Either way, what's required is to do what that school in Florida did: Bring the interested parties together and work to find the BETTER ALTERNATIVE (another must read from Stephen Covey noted in a previous blog posting).

To me, the greatest travesty is accepting the inevitable mandate of teaching to the test! The students most especially are being hurt - and thus so is all of our and the country's futures. As cyber friends such as Peter DeWitt, John Merrow, and Walt Gardner (as well as the previously mentioned Dan Pink and Stephen Covey) have routinely and repeatedly pointed out, there are better approaches to effective learning and acceptable test scores. Anything less that full efforts to change the learning culture and approach to accomplish effective learning is unacceptable. I for one am ready to join with any of you in this effort - just let me know when, where, and how and I'm in! I'll keep,you informed of my intentions and efforts as well.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Teachers, Students, and Science in Elementary Grades

There appears to me that there is a significant misalignment between the often clear interest of students regarding science topics and the often equally clear uneasiness of teachers regarding facilitating classes.

For the students, their natural curiosity is high. We parents (and now for me, grandparents) frequently face a series of questions usually including "WHY ..." from the moment the youngsters learn to say the word. Through visits to the library for books, recordings, movies, and programs, to museums for demonstrations and hands-on activities, and though programs now available on cable television, parents and families can provide sources for some of those questions. As the youngsters learn to read, they themselves can begin to find the answers themselves.

A personal example: I was invited into one of our grandchildren's classrooms. As I always do, I asked if the teacher wanted me to continue on the current topic or study or consider some topic of my choice (I prefer actually the former but follow the teacher's wishes). In this case, the teacher said they were dealing with the state standards on "the sun and moon" if I might wish to use that topic. I decided to follow the teacher's wishes - with a broadening to talk about the solar system in general to some degree. As I started my visit, I used questions to generate discussion as I typically do. When a significant number of the students began providing good information in response to those questions, AND then went further to discuss material beyond the questions, our time together went by quickly, I actually learned a few new things, and I was impressed by the students' knowledge and their willingness to share it. As I was preparing to leave, I asked the teacher if indeed she had broadened the subject beyond the sun and moon. She said she had not and also said she too was impressed. She noted this happened from time to time AS A RESULT OF THE STUDENTS ADDRESSING ON THEIR OWN THEIR CURIOSITY!

Though she did not express any apprehension about the students expanding the discussion beyond her prepared material as apparently happened with some frequency, I believe it is that apprehension that is the source of many teachers' beliefs that they are not prepared. It's probably not the preparation, I believe, for the following reason. Every teacher's education must include the science requirements for high school graduation and for the general education requirements for college graduation. The material in those required courses are far beyond the science required for facilitating elementary science classes. I believe the apprehension is associated with THE FEAR OF GETTING STUDENT QUESTIONS FOR WHICH THEY DON'T KNOW THE ANSWERS.

There is no way any teacher (myself included of course) can know every answer; DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT! Turn the question, EVEN IF THE ANSWER IS KNOWN, into an inquiry opportunity. Ask the students to use available resources to seek relevant information and then work with them to organize and understand that information to begin to approach answers. If you don't know the answer from the start, just tell them and then work together. If a student gets information at home, remind the class of the source as you include it in the search. If there is conflicting information, use it for what it is: an opportunity to explore explanations as to which is more correct. Maybe in some circumstances, either could be correct. RELAX, BE A LEARNER WITH THE STUDENTS, FACILITATE THEIR (AND MAYBE YOUR) SKILLS TO DEVELOP EXPLANATIONS, AND ALL LEARN TOGETHER.

The good news is that enabling students to actively participate in knowledge building (rather than simply acting as sponges trying to absorb information you provide) will help with their intrinsic motivation for learning, for addressing their curiosity, and for sparking their curiosity. They will be much more comfortable with open-ended inquiry projects - through which their effective learning and problem-solving skills will be further developed. They will be much more likely to engage in efforts outside of class, expanding and deepening their learning. They will be much more enthusiastics about other classes - learning to read better because they want to satisfy their curiosity, learning the math skills so they can more creatively address inquiry projects, etc.

One caution: If you are apprehensive, don't try a complete overhaul all at once. Start with a topic you are most comfortable with and try the new approaches. Do the types of information gathering and organizing ahead of time to be better prepared to facilitate those skills development. Reach out to higher education institutions near by for assistance; some at least will be supportive. Check various organization websites and blogs for answers to questions and concerns (I'm a member of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) elementary list serve; you will get lots of assistance from that group for your questions). Talk with high school science teachers about the possibility of HS students willing to assist you. AND ABOVE ALL, THREE THINGS: (1) continually self-assess how things are going and address items as appropriate; (2) make sure your assessment of student learning involves use of the knowledge gained as well as the skills learned; and (3) relax and enjoy yourself! It may be far from obvious at this point but I believe you will come to enjoy science class if you give it a chance.

As always, I look forward to your comments and to the further exploring of this topic together.