School Employees Are a Reflection of Our Community Values

Frequently the focus is on teachers and compensation when we talk about K-12 education and contracts. On occasion we forget about education as a social contract that involves all members of the community in which it occurs. As we have watched classroom instruction of our children turn into a commodity to be traded on, the services that surround supporting children in their education are becoming privatized as well. Basic services like keeping the classrooms safe and clean, serving lunch, and transporting children to and from school are being bid on by outside companies.

Both the School Superintendents Association and the National Education Association have recognized issues with outsourcing. An in-depth policy brief co-authored by the Education Public Interest Center and the Educational Policy Research Institute cite data and numerous anecdotes about how outsourcing has hurt schools and students across various states. Research conducted in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and here in Minnesota show that outsourcing is not the best value for schools or their communities in many cases.

There can be great variability in how companies and school districts negotiate their contracts and relative cost-to-quality ratios, but in all cases it means districts are no longer unilaterally in control. Third parties interested in making a profit off children’s educational experience are now part of the decision making process about how often to perform maintenance on school buses, the quality of food served at lunch, and the chemicals used to clean the drinking fountains.

Outsourcing to a third party can come with drawbacks, such as the school district divestment of equipment in the form of selling off bus fleets or cafeteria equipment. There can also be a divestment of employee quality and experience if school districts do not fight to retain their employees when they outsource.

Take cafeteria workers for example; they must have food service skills that would make them employable in any restaurant or fast food establishment. But there are additional expectations placed upon those who work with children. Some are mandated, like the ability to pass a background check that allows for work with children or to pass a food safety course. Some are an outgrowth of district policy, like mandatory attendance at training sessions for bullying or sexual harassment.

Other worker expectations and qualities are not so easily prescribed, like the ability to relate to children or the genuine desire to make food both nutritious and palatable, but they matter. And luckily, they are easy to detect in a potential employee when someone with the same skill set is involved with the hiring. There is a difference between an employee who works in the education sector serving food and a food service employee who happens to work in the education sector.

American education has always contained a socialization aspect that teaches children the expectations of their behavior and role in society. They learn about their obligations to their community, state, and country. And they learn through both direct and indirect messages how much those in power care about the quality of their educational experience. Frequent staff turnover due poor compensation, poorly maintained school buses, and low quality food let children know their value to their community.

When given a choice, districts that value the skills and training their employees bring to the table retain them. We should be funding schools in a way that allows them to put the values the community and their staff into practice in all aspects of the school atmosphere.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education 

First Steps in Evaluating Family Involvement

There’s no question that families play an important role in students’ lives and learning. It turns out, though, that there are lots of questions about how different kinds of involvement affect students. A recent summary of existing research offers a starting place for answering those questions, though it has some clear limitations and leaves many questions unanswered.

The research (written by professors at the University of Texas and at Duke, and covered in The Atlantic) finds that some involvement -- like regularly reading aloud to young children -- has a clear positive effect on standardized test scores, while other steps -- like helping children complete their homework -- can wind up having no effect or even being counterproductive.

Of course, if you read that last sentence and frowned at the use of standardized test scores as the primary measurement, you have a point. Many of the benefits of family involvement won’t show up directly in test scores but are still deeply meaningful to children, schools, and even communities. Still, looking at test scores is a better starting point than raw guesswork at identifying the effects of family involvement.

Another very important finding from the research, unrelated to test scores, demolishes the myth that families of color, including African-American and Latino families, don’t value education as highly as white families. According to The Atlantic’s description, “Across race, class, and education level, the vast majority of American parents report that they speak with their kids about the importance of good grades and hope that they will attend college.”

With that said, class still matters when translating those values into reality. Children from upper-middle class and wealthy households simply have access to more opportunities, experiences, and connections that make a college education more likely. This is where our school system is important, as it can -- if managed properly -- help more students get to similar or alternative resources that lead to success after high school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education 

The School Board as Justice League

When voting in school board elections this year, voters across Minnesota must keep in mind what they want their school board to look like. Although I’m sure the authors themselves wouldn’t put it like this, a recent report suggests that key features of a school board can be compared to the Justice League (or other superhero teams like the Avengers).

Just as the Justice League brings together different heroes – Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc. – school boards assemble groups of people who wield immense power. School district budgets can rival city budgets in size, and in many areas, the school district is one of the biggest employers. The (sometimes) mild-mannered citizens who end up on the school board can dramatically influence the lives of students, teachers, and other school workers, as well as families, local employers, and communities in general.

New research from the Fordham Institute as part of a larger project in conjunction with the Center for American Progress presents numerous findings about how school board’s members backgrounds and priorities do – and do not – affect areas like academic performance. For example, boards that prioritize student academics do in fact see better outcomes. Interestingly, districts that elect school board members during general elections tend to have better academic outcomes than those that elect “off cycle.”

Also, people with more professional experience in education aren’t necessarily better informed than other board members. However, the report doesn’t address how professional experience can improve decision-making. Clark Kent might not know The Daily Planet’s budget backward and forward, but he’ll be better than non-reporters at distinguishing boneheaded publishing fads from meaningful change.

Another finding concerns who school board members represent. While districts that elected most or all of their members at large tended to have better outcomes than those that elected members by particular wards in the district, wards offer other advantages. A major criticism of school boards and super-teams alike is that they tend to be disproportionately white. A ward system helps improve the diversity of the board, which has its own advantages.

In the end, it’s important that our school boards reflect a range of experiences and expertise. If the Justice League only had seven copies of the Flash, they’d be good at addressing problems that required a lot of speed, but not so good at things outside that narrow focus. We need Wonder Woman and Hal Jordan in the mix, too.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Minnesota Elections 

History Day: The power of project-based learning

For all the standardization, testing, and negativity we pour on public school students, we have not completely dampened their spirits. Minnesota's 2014 Regional History Day competition at Minneapolis' Anwatin Middle School reminded me of this.

History Day is a national academic competition for students in grades 6-12, and the Minnesota Historical Society sponsors it locally. Every year there is a new theme; this year, it was “Rights and Responsibilities.” Working from that theme, and within the structure of their social studies classes, students must choose a historical event to cover and come up with a unique way to “show what they know.” Often, students create huge poster board presentations; others do performances or documentaries, or write an essay.

I was at the regional competition with my seventh grader and her friend, who worked tirelessly for weeks pulling together a poster board presentation connected to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. They agonized over a topic, doing extensive research, how to present their work clearly and effectively to a wide audience. I took them to “History Day Hullabaloo” events hosted at various libraries to help students work on their projects.

This is the work we should be asking all of our students, from the earliest ages on up, to engage in. It is the work that makes school a powerful place to be.

When we walked into Anwatin Middle School on the day of the competition, I was surprised and delighted to see hundreds of giddy, bouncing students of all backgrounds proudly setting up their History Day projects.

There was a nervous girl getting ready to do a performance about Blackface theater. There were smiling students, taking pictures of each other. My eyes began tearing. There is still a love and excitement for learning despite all of the rigid, drill and kill instruction and memorization that standardized testing demands.

My daughter’s classmate, newly arrived from South Africa, created a towering display about Apartheid that made a clear impression on her classmates.

As I walked the crowded rows of students, the variety of topics struck me -- from child labor laws to Angela Davis, from the 1970 Minneapolis Teacher Strike to education pioneer Michael Dowling’s work, and a moving look at the 1920 Duluth lynchings.

The creativity, critical thinking, and independent learning I saw at History Day was palpable and inspiring. With the spring standardized testing season upon us, will we be able to say the same thing about the rows of students who must sit silently, often for hours, in front of a computer screen, answering questions a testing company has generated?

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Curriculum 

Rethinking “Data-Driven”

Outside of a few contexts, the phrase “data-driven decision making” would provoke either yawns or vague anxieties brought on by images of spreadsheets and regression lines. In education, however, the phrase will get the blood pumping. Sometimes the rush will be one of excitement, as the term has become a touchstone for some people looking for more emphasis on outcomes and rigor in schools. For others, the heart will pound with anger, not excitement. These are the people who have seen “data-driven decision making” used to justify excessive use of standardized tests, the adoption of narrow and limited curricula, and the focus on “bubble students” close to arbitrary cutpoint for “proficiency” at the expense of other students.

A reevaluation seems in order.

At its core, the idea behind using information about student performance to improve instruction is sound. Most of the people advocating for “data-driven decision making” are really asking for informed decision making on the part of teachers. (There are also some -- a small but powerful collection of advocates -- who see this as a tool for closing neighborhood schools, advancing a competition-and-punishment agenda at the school and classroom levels, and generally messing with teachers’ unions.)

The thing is, most teachers are deeply committed to the idea of informed decision-making in their classrooms. The real discussion here is about how to make sure they’re collecting the best information possible and continuously improving their effectiveness and their students’ performance. Unfortunately, that work gets derailed when we confuse data for information and let decontextualized data points drive our work. We should be constructing information from data points and using it in the service of the work, not jerking spasmodically in reaction to the latest round of standardized tests.

These ideas come out in a recent Education Week blog post, where school administrator Ben Daley explains his resistance to “data-driven” improvement since, “too often the only data anyone is ever talking about is student performance on poorly constructed end-of-year standardized tests.” He contrasts that with a teacher-led research approach that uses a broader range of information sources to guide more direct improvements in how classes operate.

“Data-driven” comes with many meanings. Implying that teachers are averse to informed decision-making is insulting to many, and being too kneejerk in our reactions to standardized tests isn’t helpful. We need to ensure teachers and administrators have the freedom and support they need to put many sources of data to use in the right way.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Student Assessment 


Redirect Your STEM Worries

Sometimes, it feels like the U.S. has been in a perpetual state of panic over its science and technology skills shortage. From the early days of Sputnik freakouts to the current agonizing over our middle-of-the-pack math and science scores on international tests, we’ve got a serious case of science anxiety. However, the direction of our fears may be misplaced.

That’s the thrust of a recent piece in The Atlantic and a less-recent feature from last summer at IEEE Spectrum, the publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Both point out that we’re producing more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates from college than we have jobs for them to take. There are obviously variations in this, and certain fields go through times of shortage and surplus, but in the aggregate, we’re overproducing STEM graduates at the bachelor’s-and-higher level. A substantial share of STEM jobs require some postsecondary education short of a bachelor’s degree, and that is an area that might need more attention.

Broadly speaking, though, our goal shouldn’t be to push more and more students into STEM fields out of concern over their employability. Instead, we need to recalibrate our thinking about STEM education. I’d suggest the following:

We live in a shiny age of glittering technology, and it’s easy to let the high times of Silicon Valley color our understanding of the science and technology workforce. As the folks in Rochester watching IBM ship jobs overseas can tell you, though, having a background in science and technology or a job at a tech-related business is no guarantee of the Google lifestyle. We need more nuance in our discussion of STEM education.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum 


Ditch the Points!

The best first-week exercise I ever did with my students was asking my ninth graders to propose, debate, and agree on a metaphor for school that we would use to shape our class. I offered a couple of examples, which they were prohibited from using. One example was, “School is a job, where students do work in exchange for grades.” This was a metaphor that made sense to a lot of my students, but I had a very particular reason for discouraging it.

A recent article at The Atlantic illustrates the difference between point-based grades and standards-based grades. Standards-based grading replaces the conventional points-and-letters system with statements of student proficiency on each standard. Done right, it allows for a much more nuanced view of student proficiency and makes it easier to figure out where individual students need help.

After my first year of teaching, I shifted to a more standards-based approach. Students still got points and letter grades, since that’s what the school demanded. My own tracking, however, didn’t focus on those grades, and instead tracked how well students were mastering the particular objectives I’d set out.

One key feature of that approach which doesn’t get much discussion in the piece from The Atlantic is the importance of having good rubrics for assessing proficiency. An effective rubric clearly delineates levels of proficiency. My seniors, for example, assessed their weekly writing assignment using the same rubric I then used for grading. It was a way of reinforcing what we were there to do. It was also much clearer than “Tell me how many points you deserve, and why,” which doesn’t offer the same shared reference for proficiency.

When we treat grading as about points rather than mastery, we train students to try to maximize those points rather than their own learning. As The Atlantic’s piece points out, with many links, the points-based approach, “undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students' peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.”

That’s why I wouldn’t let my students say that school is a job where they got paid in grades. They eventually settled on boot camp as their class metaphor, with my role as the teacher being to give them tougher and tougher obstacles to help them get stronger (as English students). It’s definitely not a metaphor I would have picked on my own, but it worked a lot better for us than paying students with grades.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Student Assessment 

Robo-Teacher 2.0: The Sidekick

Nearly two years ago, I wrote about the development of essay grading software, and I offered some pretty strong criticism of the idea of automated grading. While my concerns still hold, there is evidence that teachers and students are increasingly growing comfortable with auto-grading, but only as a supplemental precursor to real teacher feedback. Think of it like the teacher’s robotic sidekick, a sort of R2-D2 for writing.

I know, I know, I’m the guy who compares education tech to Star Trek, not Star Wars. But R2-D2 is a reasonable analogy for the way auto-graders are being used to good effect right now. For those of you in need of a refresher, R2 is the blue-and-white, barrel-shaped droid that produces all manner of squeals and beeps to communicate. You don’t always know how to fix what’s wrong when R2 squawks at you, but there’s a decent chance there’s something wrong.

That at least is my interpretation of the way educators and students are getting mileage out of e-graders. Relying only on the e-graders doesn’t make for particularly effective grading, and it sure doesn’t make for emotionally meaningful feedback for students. As a quick check for things like potential grammar errors or clarity problems, though, the tools can be useful. Screw up your commas and you get squawked at (figuratively, not literally), giving you a chance to fix the problems before you turn in the final draft. The software is installed on school computers, and more powerful than simple spelling and grammar checks that already exist.

This can be beneficial for overworked teachers, who have my deepest sympathies. A high school teacher can easily wind up with 140 papers to grade in one shot, which can be a daunting task. If students have already self-corrected a lot of the more mundane problems with the help of an e-grader, the teacher can offer more meaningful feedback on the rest of the piece, including its logical consistency, use of appropriate sources, etc.

Of course, there are lots of factors to weigh in considering this. How effective and accurate is the e-grader? How are students being prepared to use it to maximum effect? How expensive is it? Do the costs of the program and the reduced quality of the learning experience outweigh the costs and benefits of smaller classes?

We know we want students to write more, and they need useful feedback when they do so. Finding ways to use technology in that sidekick role (and not as a replacement for a teacher) offers one path forward on that front.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Technology 

The Fractured Demands of School Accountability

At first blush, holding schools accountable for their students’ performance sounds like an easy enough task, but as we’re finding out, the process is far from simple. One possible bill in the Minnesota state senate illustrates some of the complexity.

At present, Minnesota uses the Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR), which is largely a combination of different test-score based calculations. This is used to sort schools into different categories based on overall student proficiency as well as well as progress towards closing test score gaps. The system is, in general, less punitive than the No Child Left Behind law, and has lifted some of the pressure to close schools. SF 836, a bill which was raised last session and seems poised to come back this session, would change that, at least for charter schools.

Specifically, the bill would empower charter school authorizers to close schools that spend at least three years in 25th percentile of the MMR ratings. There are several exceptions which, taken together, show how tricky this topic is:

Schools in that last group could find themselves participating in a more nuanced accountability system, as proposed in a different bill, HF 1108. These include, but are not limited to, schools serving high numbers of dropouts or students with histories of substance abuse, and it’s reasonable to suggest that an alternative measurement approach would be appropriate.

The core of the issue is this: The MMR rating, while an improvement over the previous system, is still not enough to encapsulate a school’s performance in a single number. It is still unclear whether an appropriately comprehensive and flexible system can be devised, and also unclear whether such a system could be sustained without creating perverse incentives that warp school behavior.

We need to keep evaluating the quality and appropriateness of our tools for measuring schools if we are to some day have a genuinely helpful accountability system.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Student Assessment 

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The Gritty Teacher

“Grit” is a term rapidly on its way to meaningless buzzword status, but before it gets there, we can learn something from applying the concept to teachers as well as to students. Recent research suggests, intuitively enough, that grit, or “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” is a key factor in teacher effectiveness and retention. What to do with that information is a larger question.

The researchers are quick to dismiss the idea that grit should be the sole or primary factor in weighing teacher hiring, though they do suggest it be considered alongside many other variables. This makes sense, especially if administrators can find a useful way of assessing a candidate’s grit during the hiring process. For their part, the researchers applied a coding system to the resumes of novice teachers in an “unnamed teacher-training organization.” (One suspects the resume coding approach will only work until a critical mass of applicants figure out how to write resumes that maximize their apparent grittiness.)

Perhaps more important than simply hiring right is figuring out how to help new teachers develop grit. The researchers acknowledge that there is not much literature available right now on how to train and support teachers in building their grit, but they also stress the importance of doing so. That will be a longer term project for schools of education, alternative teacher preparation organizations, and administrators alike.

In the meantime, the researchers recommend placing the teachers with the most grit in the highest need environments, and -- significantly -- supporting those teachers once they’re there. The researchers acknowledge the extraordinary difficulty of being a new teacher, and especially being new in a high-needs school. They emphasize that survival tactics are not enough, and that teachers need, “organizational contexts in schools that allow teachers and students to be successful.”

This last point is worth elaborating on further. As quoted in Education Week, one of the researchers said, “Even the best teachers can struggle when they work in schools where there is a lack of order and discipline, no coherent leadership, limited opportunities for feedback, and a culture of low expectations for students. School contexts can support teachers to maximize their potential or undercut their efforts.”

This is another case where a (frustratingly slow) school-by-school, district-by-district approach will be needed. We must ensure our schools have the capacity they need to get this done.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Teachers 

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