Universal Design

10 January 2010

In most public school classrooms in the US, it isn't unusual to have at least one student on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 Plan. These plans identify accommodations for students with one or more disabilities so that they may fully participate in the educational program offered at the school. Over the years, I've learned a lot about how to adjust curriculum, instruction, and assessment in the classroom for students with these plans---but I have to admit that until recently, I hadn't thought about accessibility on a large scale. In many circles (both inside and outside of education), the term Universal Design is used to refer to "solutions...that are usable and effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities."

What are the costs and benefits of using technology to achieve Universal Design?

As our state moves to a testing model that is computer-based, some have pointed out that there are great possibilities for Universal Design. It is relatively simple for all students (not just those who are blind or have reading disabilities) to plug in headphones and listen to the test. Although not currently under discussion, color options for text/graphics, the ability to magnify text, layout of questions to encourage focus, are all examples of ways we could change the testing experience for students. (I thought this idea on color-coding for the color blind was intriguing, and believe the symbols would be useful for nearly all students.) It doesn't change the content or structure of the test---only the way it can be presented.

I have already had several inquiries from the special education community in our state about our upcoming technology assessments. And why not? They have not always been included with the conversations, perhaps due to the view that students' IEPs could cover any accommodations as opposed to the test itself being flexible. I cannot guarantee that we will develop assessments that can be used by every possible group, but I will guarantee that Universal Design will be a consideration throughout the process.

With the possibilities that come with technology, there are also costs to consider. One of the most interesting articles I've run across in this regard was in the New York Times this week. It asks, "With New Technologies, Do Blind People Lose More Than They Gain?" The article is centered around the illiteracy developing in the blind because Braille is no longer as necessary as it once was. When you can have a computer read all your text, why learn to read yourself? Beyond that is an interesting cultural commentary from within the blind community as to those "elite" who use Braille vs. those who don't (and tend to suffer economically).

This makes me wonder about other possible pitfalls to increasing access and where the balance is. In our zeal to design universally, are we neglecting other considerations along the way?

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Advocating for Fairness

01 January 2009

from Married to the Sea


A couple of articles in the New York Times have caught my eye and had me thinking some more about the roles of equal and fair in education. The first article, All's Fair in the Middle School Scramble, describes the efforts of many parents to ensure that their children get into the "right" middle school within the public education system.

As the Bloomberg administration has created hundreds of new schools, centralized the admissions process and publicized the options, there is a wave of panic among many parents of fifth graders facing the next step. And throughout the country, middle school is increasingly seen as a kind of educational black hole where raging hormones, changes in how youngsters learn and a dearth of great teachers can collide to send test scores plummeting.

Many parents fear that picking the wrong school could dash their children’s chances for a top high school or college.

For the moment, let's set aside the whole "good teacher = good test score" aspect, as well as the one related to "middle school kids are excused from learning due to hormones." The real gist of the article is that parents and kids are working hard to be selective, but what isn't stated is that these are families who know how to navigate the system and have the luxury of being able to do so. How many working class moms can go on tours of eleven different prospective middle schools? Know who might best advise them? And so forth. Is it "fair" that some families do and others don't? Should this be a concern of the public schools?

I have known many teachers over the years who assumed that because some parents didn't show up for Open House or Parent-Teacher Conferences that the parents didn't care about their children or their education. My experiences working with families living in poverty provides a very different perspective. Those parents love their kids just as much as anyone else. But when you are dependent upon bus schedules and jobs where you only earn your minimum wage for the hours you are actually working---well, options for having time to go to the school (let alone find ways to get there and back) are limited, at best. What's more important---going to Open House...or staying on the job to earn a few more dollars to feed your children?

The second piece I looked at was the changes to College Board policy which will allow students to pick and choose which SAT scores colleges see. The article outlines a variety of perspectives and the rift this policy is creating between the College Board, schools, and colleges; but, again, it is the missing component that raises my interest. The advantage for this policy lies clearly with those who can afford to pay to take the test multiple times, get coaching/tutoring/prep classes, and so forth. I do know that students of poverty can take the SAT at a reduced rate...but I can't help but think that with the current economy, there could well be quite a large lower middle-class population that isn't poor enough to qualify for assistance, but for whom taking the SAT at all (let alone 2 or more times) would be a luxury.

The admission practices of a particular college or university may well be "equal" in their expectations, but are they encouraging unfair advantages? Are middle schools starting to be in a similar boat? I'm really okay with the whole idea that "Life isn't fair." I know that there will always be individuals who milk a system for all its worth without a thought for others. College admissions have been gamed for ages---selecting SAT scores won't change that.

What I'm worried about here is the system enabling---maybe even encouraging---that behavior. Are we just giving equal and fair lip service? Shouldn't every child have access to a determined advocate? It might not be the parent, for whatever reason, but the assumption at this point seems to be that because kids have parents (equal) that the playing field is automatically level (fair) for every child.

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When Advocacy Ends

06 November 2008

I've worked with all sorts of parents over the years. I expect them to advocate for their children...and I also expect that advocacy will evolve over the years. Supporting your seven-year old should be different from supporting your seventeen-year old. It doesn't mean that your love for the child changes. Instead, parents should be looking to help students develop problem-solving skills throughout the years. I always worried the most about those rare students who had parents that excused everything---who had children who could do no wrong. I wondered what would happen to these kids in the workplace. Was mommy going to show up and tell the kid's boss that s/he shouldn't expect the worker to show up on time every day or focus on their job instead of playing games?

For other students, however, there is a different kind of transition. I'm talking here about students with 504 plans or who have IEPs (and are high-functioning). These children often have highly-involved parents (and not necessarily in a bad or overindulgent way)...but once they leave the cocoon of the public school system, they don't always have access to the accommodations that they have been previously given.

There was a recent article in the WaPo about students in this situation who are trying to transition from high school to college.

A generation of students accustomed to receiving help for special learning needs is entering college. The percentage of students identified with learning disabilities who graduate from high school and go on to four-year colleges jumped from one in 100 in 1987 to about one in nine last year. And those who go on to any kind of post-secondary education went from a third to almost three-quarters by 2003. But some are finding that the transition isn't easy.

Many students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or memory troubles have had years of education shaped by intense parental support, involved teachers and legally mandated school safety nets.

But what colleges must do is far less defined legally, and professors and administrators at some schools seem to remain skeptical about the needs that students might have. Schools must provide assistance to students, but only if the students disclose their disabilities.

Most students don't. Some are tired of being labeled. Some are unable to afford the extensive and recent cognitive testing that most colleges require as proof of disability. Some just don't get around to it until they start failing classes, at which point it's often too late to salvage the semester.

Even if colleges and parents continue to provide support, I still wonder if there is some sort of point where these accommodations end. While I am sure that the ADA could have an impact on employment---are there employers out there who will oblige Attention Deficit Disorder? Or will there be an assumption that a 30-year old has acquired the self-management skills to work in their chosen career? Is society at large as tolerant as we must be within the confines of the public school system? If not, what do we do to ensure that when advocacy from outside ends, students are ready to move forward on their own?

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Do You See What I See

31 May 2008

Two data points does not a trend make, I realize; but, I still find the information interesting. (Click on the image for a larger view.) Light blue circles represent gender performance at the school, red diamonds show district information, and the dark blue triangles show statewide data.

With two years worth of data to look at, the third grade girls at my school have achievement that mirrors what is happening elsewhere. But the boys? It's not looking good, is it? It's downright eye-catching...and not in a good way. Fourth and fifth grade pictures are not a whole lot rosier when you put up the gender info side by side.

Do you want even more food for thought? While 75% of the school's third grade males met the standard in math in 2006, this same cohort only had 40.9% pass when they were fourth graders in 2007. Fifth grade data will be available in the fall. Wanna bet their scores are not improved? In the areas of fourth grade Reading and fifth grade Science, not a single boy in the whole school exceeded the standards (Level 4). This is especially interesting because not a single fourth grade girl in the school was at a Level 1 in Reading.

With only two years of data to consider, it's already starting to feel like something isn't quite right. There is no grade or subject area in the school where boys increased their achievement. Ouch.

I haven't shown this information to the staff yet. They are working on plans for next year and have done a bit of data work. The school tends to focus things at a classroom level, but I'm thinking it's time to pull back and look at things more holistically. My hunch is that discipline data will reveal that boys spend a lot more time in the office than girls. Are our expectations that unfriendly to males, I wonder? Should we be concerned? What will we do to make things more gender equitable?

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Growing Children, Shrinking Budgets

21 April 2008

At least once a week when I arrive at my afternoon job, I can smell the school lunch from the parking lot. The intense aroma of garlic wafted across as it simmered in spaghetti sauce this past Monday...the seasoned breading on the chicken bits greeted me on Thursday. I have to say that I have had this experience nowhere else. The school lunch actually smells appealing. (I can only imagine how breakfast must be since I am not there in the mornings.) Considering that ~85% of our kids are eligible for free/reduced lunch, it's a good thing that the food can stimulate the senses as well as fill the stomach. No food is actually cooked in our school---the bulk of the work is done elsewhere in the district and then trucked over to us. Warming ovens (or refrigerators) keep the food in a ready state for everyone until serving time. The lunchroom is a buzzing place. Kids know how to enter their number into the keypads, pick up their trays, and get their food. For those of you who haven't been in a school cafeteria as of late, you will notice that milk no longer comes in cartons. It actually comes in bags like the one pictured above. You'll just have to imagine the scene with hungry children stabbing straws into these.

I have been thinking about the importance of our lunchroom because of some recent articles about the federal school lunch program. Susan Levine has a new book out with a historical perspective on the program (full review can be found here):

Nutrition advocates who wanted to see all children, rich and poor, fed nutritious lunches had to settle for “a school lunch program that was designed primarily as an outlet for surplus food.” Though the program would benefit millions of children, it was not especially well designed. In great part, the food that came to lunchrooms consisted of whatever happened to be in surplus at the moment, be it dried beans, beets, or butter. The program was housed in the Department of Agriculture, so farmers’ interests came first, and the Department did little to oversee states’ operation of their lunch programs. Indeed, from their perches on the Senate agriculture committee, Russell and his colleague, Allen Ellender, saw to it that states’ rights were defended from federal intrusion. State and local officials were free to set whatever criteria they pleased for participation in the program.

More fundamentally, and perhaps surprisingly, the program simply was not designed to feed all the children that needed to be fed. Federal appropriations were not pegged to the number of needy children, and states were required to contribute matching funds, which often were raised by charging pupils for lunch. The program provided no aid to old schools that lacked cafeterias. So, many nonwhite, poor, and undernourished students in crumbling schools did without while white, middle-class kids in new buildings were able to purchase meals on the cheap.

Unfortunately, Levine’s narrative concludes without giving the reader a good sense of how well the school lunch program currently operates. We read that in the 1970s, it was turned into an entitlement program and put on permanent appropriation. We also learn that the feds’ underfunding of the program provoked local officials to start contracting out cafeteria operations to private providers, like Sodexho. The feds also get called out for loosening regulations to permit junk food vendors into the schools.

But the reader does not get the sense that the program now works better than it ever did. Which it does. Agricultural interests, though potent, no longer dominate the program. Today, most of the federal support for the program comes in the form of cash, not surplus food. Administrative tweaks have helped to reduce discrimination and create more uniform operations nationwide.


Still, the program is not what it could be. Since Levine wrote a straight history, she did not include any suggestions for improving the program. So, for the sake of provoking discussion, please allow me to suggest a few possible reforms. First, make the National School Lunch Program free to all children. This would wipe out the stigma that deters children from participating in the program, and would also save localities heaps of paperwork. Second, decouple the program from the surplus commodity program entirely. Children should eat food that is good for them, not what farm lobbyists want them to eat. Third, require the federal government to pay the full cost of the meals served and forbid schools from having vending machines and ala carte dining. No parent of any sense allows her kid to choose pizza over broccoli and to graze on junk food each day. Why should schools? Fourth, have the federal government deliver the federal school lunch dollars directly to each child in the form of a meal debit card, good for one school lunch per day. This would cut reams of red tape and goad schools into serving desirable meals that meet current national nutritional standards.


Meanwhile, over at the WaPo, the current economic considerations of the program are raising some concerns about just how much families who pay can actually afford for a school lunch.

Each year Uncle Sam, in an effort to ensure the neediest children get healthy meals, gives schools a little more cash to help feed students. But school officials nationwide say the federal share hasn't kept pace with rising costs. This year, the U.S. Agriculture Department is giving schools $2.47 per lunch to serve free meals to children from the poorest families, up from $2.40 last year, a 3 percent increase. In the same time, milk prices rose about 17 percent and bread nearly 12 percent.

The federal government provides $2.07 per meal for students eligible for a reduced-price lunch and 23 cents a meal for students who pay full price. Schools also receive some foods, including meat, cheese and canned goods, purchased by the federal government.

School meal programs across the country are run somewhat like restaurants, relying on federal and state subsidies and profits from meal and snack sales and catering services to buy food and pay workers. Rising labor costs, coupled with the recent push for healthier meals, which has meant serving higher-priced foods such as whole grain breads and fresh vegetables, has squeezed budgets. Soaring food prices make it even harder to break even. "We do not want to serve our students highly refined sugar and flour products, which are more affordable," Parham told the House Education and Labor Committee, "but we are continually being pushed down this path."

Matt has a much better summary of all of this than I could hope to write here. At the moment, I'm just trying to think about what all of this will mean with the youngsters I work with each day. Will it mean smaller servings? Less nutritional food? Fewer students eligible for meals? For some of our kids, the breakfast and lunch served by the school is all they get to eat. We have kids who try to hoard leftovers (although the rule is that no food is allowed to leave the cafeteria) because they're just plain hungry...and it's a long time between Friday's lunch and Monday's breakfast. Is this what a 7-year old brain needs to be focusing on?

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Those People

05 April 2008

One of the schools I work at serves a large number of families who are living below the poverty line (about 85% of our kids qualify for the federal free/reduced lunch program). I am ever more impressed by the resilience of our students and their families. Parents who attend family events often arrive with their lunch pails (having just gotten off from work for the day) and look so very weary. I wonder if I am the first person to smile at some of them and look them in the eye that day. I could care less about the number of teeth they're missing, the well-worn clothes, or any other sign of difficult days they've had. What I do care about is that they love their children and want the best for them. No matter how hard things have been, these parents still show up at the school door to support their kids. I find that incredibly touching. It makes me all the more determined to make sure that while their children are in our charge during the day that they have the best classroom experiences we can give them.

Others in the community are not of this mind. There is an assumption that people living in poverty do so by choice (although some do invariably prefer the welfare route). If "those people" would just make some sort of effort (and get off of drugs/alcohol...and quit beating their children), that they wouldn't always be just one step ahead of the landlord. This misguided view point was reinforced for me in the comments section of an article in the on-line version of the local paper. The article was about a plan to transform the public housing neighbourhood in my school's attendance area into a multi-income level area. Here is one comment:

I, for one, am against this conversion. I say keep [that housing] a slum and keep the scum and crap of [our town] confined to one area. They are easier to keep under control if they are consolidated to one area of town. This makes the job of the police easier. Instead of the police running all over town to fix problems caused by these drug addicts, drug dealers, and general scourges of society, they could just camp out in [the public housing]. Ghettos raise property values elsewhere in the city. Letting these proven degenerates out into the city will only lower the property values of decent people.

I wish I could say that this particular view is rare. It's not. At my school, we are often reminded about how much the larger community discounts "those people." Here is another take on things from that same comment section:

I'm sorry to hear that you feel that I am scum and crap. I am a single mother of two children living on a limited income in [public housing]. I pay my bills on time. I do not do drugs or drink, nor have I broken the law and had the police come to my home. On top of it all I serve my country one weekend a month and did serve my country for over 8 years full time. I am a decent person. Not everyone in [public housing] are drug addicts, drug dealers, and general scourges of society. Many of us do not make enough money to live elsewhere without help. Maybe if more people took the time to find out who the residents of [public housing] are they would not be so quick to judge us because of where we live than for who we are.

I had to cheer at that. Not everyone in that position has the self-confidence to stand up, but this woman does. And there are any number more of people like her living there who are in the same situation. They are "those people," and I'm very happy working with them and for their children. I don't see myself as being able to solve the social problems that they find themselves in, but I'm not interested in making assumptions about why they're there or kicking them just because they're down. I admit that my lifestyle isn't much like theirs. We likely don't have a lot in common in terms of our backgrounds. What we do have in common, however, is that we're all doing the best we can for ourselves and the children in the school. That makes "those people" my people, too.

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Wee Ones

25 March 2008

According to the Perry Preschool Study, "eight dollars was saved for every dollar invested in early learning, as the costs of remedial education, special education, abuse and neglect, health care, school drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, crime and incarceration were all significantly reduced." As I can think of no school district who isn't constantly fussing about their budgets, the investment in early childhood programs would appear to be a no-brainer (or at least a small brainer). The problem is, of course, that in a money-tight time, we are asking schools to spend money on both ends of the spectrum: invest in pre-K/K to prevent future problems and also attempt to fix the issues in older students that we were unable to address at an earlier time. If you have to toss one of these out in order to make your budget boat float, it is often the wee ones who get the boot. We'll get back to them later.

But let's say that a school district recognizes and supports the need for investing in a strong early childhood program, what qualities should they include? In "Creating the Best Pre-Kindergartens," Lawrence Schweinhart of Education Week identifies five primary (no pun intended) characteristics:
  1. Include children living in low-income families or otherwise at risk of school failure. Long-term effects have seldom been looked for and have yet to be found for children not in these circumstances, although there are arguments for serving them as well. For example, a recent study by William T. Gormley Jr. of Oklahoma’s state prekindergartens, which are open to all children, found short-term effects on participants’ school achievement that were large enough to promise long-term effects. Prekindergartens open to all children also enjoy a wider political base than a targeted program, and still include the children who are most in need.
  2. Have enough qualified teachers and provide them with ongoing support. Qualified teachers are critical to the success of any educational program, a principle now embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In early-childhood settings, being qualified is taken to mean having a teaching certificate based on a bachelor’s degree in education, child development, or a related field. Because research is constantly informing us about how young children learn and can best be taught, it is also important that early-childhood teachers receive curriculum-based supervision and continuing professional development. Systematic in-service training, in which teachers learn research-based, practical classroom strategies, also helps ensure that young children are having the educational experiences that contribute most to their development. So that pupils receive sufficient individual attention, highly effective prekindergarten classes have two qualified adults—a teacher and an assistant teacher—for every 16 to 20 4-year-olds. Although having qualified teachers, a low child-to-teacher ratio, and ongoing professional development may cost more, cutting back on these components would threaten program effectiveness as well as the return on investment.
  3. Use a validated, interactive child-development curriculum. Such a curriculum enables children as well as teachers to have a hand in designing their own learning activities. It focuses not just on reading and mathematics, but on all aspects of children’s development—cognitive, language, social, emotional, motivational, artistic, and physical. And it has evidence of its effectiveness. Implementing such a curriculum requires serious interactive training, study, and practice, particularly for teachers who have little experience with this type of education.
  4. Have teachers spend substantial amounts of time with parents, educating them about their children’s development and how they can extend classroom learning experiences into their homes. All the programs in the long-term studies worked with parents. In fact, in the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, teachers spent half their work time engaged in such activities. As child care beyond part-day prekindergarten has become more widespread, parent-outreach efforts also need to include other caregivers, in centers and homes, who spend time daily with enrolled children.
  5. Confirm results through continuous assessment of program quality and children’s development of school readiness. Good curriculum and good assessment go hand in hand. Prekindergartens striving to be highly effective need to replicate the policies and practices of a program found to be highly effective, including the five ingredients listed here. The proof that this is being done lies in program-implementation assessment, a system for measuring how well a program carries out administrative and teaching standards. A program assessor uses standard protocols to observe classrooms and the school, and to interview teachers and others about the various aspects of program quality. The results can then be used for program improvement. Systematic observation and testing measure prekindergarten children’s development of school readiness. With an interactive child-development curriculum, systematic observation fits better than testing, because it records children’s usual behavior rather than requiring them to respond on cue in a particular time and place. Program administrators and teachers who know how children are doing on such assessments will be able to use this information to monitor the children’s progress and attune their teaching to it.
I have to say that I really like the last point. Kindergartners do not have a very long attention span---testing and/or progress monitoring these children is a ridiculous task if the test is timed. A moment of staring off into space can mean that a child is inappropriately identified as needing assistance because she didn't answer enough questions within the time allotted. Shouldn't we care more that the kid can answer them? But I digress.

What I really want us to take away from all of this is that if we really care about making social change---breaking the cycle of poverty and establishing equity---we need to do this from the very beginning. At the start of 2008, 1 in every 100 Americans was in prison: a record high. While we can't give up on any member of our society, I can't help but wonder what might have happened if we'd given each of these people a better beginning when they were wee ones.

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Their Loss Is Your Gain

13 March 2008

When I scored AP Biology exams, I used to be grateful for every empty test booklet that passed through my hands. Sure, it was easy to score, but more importantly, every low-scoring student was of help to my own kids. Because only ~60% of the test-takers can "pass" the test, there is a rather Darwinian feel to things. You not only compete against your own classmates to be in the top portion of the draw, you have to compete against every other student. And as prepared as I might help my students to be, I was never adverse to any help that came in the form of an uncaring student from another class. I was reminded of this when reading a New York Times story about how the projected changes in the demographics of high school graduates will make it easier for other students to get into college.

Projections show that by next year or the year after, the annual number of high school graduates in the United States will peak at about 2.9 million after a 15-year climb. The number is then expected to decline until about 2015. Most universities expect this to translate into fewer applications and less selectivity, with most students probably finding it easier to get into college. The demographic changes include sharp geographic, social and economic variations. Experts anticipate, for example, a decline in affluent high school graduates, and an increase in poor and working-class ones. In response, colleges and universities are already increasing their recruitment of students in high-growth states and expanding their financial-aid offerings to low-income students with academic potential.

Nationally, the population decline is projected to be relatively gentle, with the number of high school graduates expected to fall in the Northeast and Midwest, while continuing to increase in the South and Southwest.

The number of white high school graduates will go down nationally, and the number of African-American graduates will remain relatively steady. But the number of Hispanic and Asian-American graduates will increase sharply, according to projections by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, whose demographic estimates are highly regarded by admissions officials.

For those of us working with students who are of late junior high/early high school age, this is a great opportunity for those kids. Keep your eyes on students with potential who might have struggled to make the next step in their education---and see if you can't help them take advantage of this change in the admissions market.

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Renewing Habits

29 August 2007

A new school year is upon us. Have you let your Education Carnival reading slip over the summer? Today's a great day to get back into the routine of things. Matt Tabor has put together a delightful end of summer read. Won't it feel good to be regular again?

If the Carnival isn't enough for you, or if you prefer a bit of an appetizer before you head over to the feast, here are an article which recently caught my eye:

Massachusetts is struggling with closing the achievement gap. Not news, you say? Well, this is about teachers. More than half of minority teachers in that state are failing the teacher certification exam.

Education officials say the gap is making it harder to bring more diversity to the state's teaching ranks.

The problem is so persistent that a special state task force of teachers, state education officials and hiring directors has been set up to find out why minorities don't do better on the tests.

Sally Diaz, a vice president at Emmanuel College in Boston and a member of the panel, said one test shouldn't make or break a career.

"One of the fallouts which is particularly upsetting in our experience across the colleges is fewer and fewer students of color are even going into teaching because word has gotten out that these tests are very difficult for them," she said.

Some minority applicants say the tests includes questions that white applicants and those with liberal arts backgrounds can more readily identify with, such as questions about ancient literature or investing in the stock market.

Diversity among staff---as well as cultural proficiency skills---are major issues in many schools and districts these days. I don't believe in lowering the bar for certification, but we also need to look at the barriers (perceived and real) that may be present and keeping people from entering the profession.

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Equal and Fair 2007

21 August 2007

I don't think I'm alone in saying that I am a teacher who has struggled to appropriately distinguish between the terms equal and fair. I was moved to post about this a little over two years ago in reference to an AP teacher who believed entry into AP classes should be competitive. Recently, I've been thinking about these concepts because of my interest in standards-based grading. Like one of the participants mentioned over on the edubloggers wiki discussion of standards-based grading, a teacher may view giving a student a zero for a late assignment as fair. The other students turned in their work on time---how can it be fair to allow another student more time and the equal opportunity for a grade? I think that these kinds of concerns are among the biggest barriers to adoption of the standards-based philosophy at the secondary level.

I've been reading Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom by Rick Wormeli. I like this example he gives in order to illustrate the difference between equal and fair:

Two students are seated at the back of the classroom. One of them is nearsighted and cannot see anything clearly that is more than a few feet away. He wears glasses. The teacher asks both students to read, record, and learn the same information written in small print on the front board, on the opposite side of the room. In order to make things equal, however, the teacher removes the nearsighted child's glasses and asks both students to get started. The child needing glasses squints but can't read anything on the board.

The idea here, of course, is that the teacher has made the conditions equal (as well as the expectations for learning), but unfair in the sense that one student is at a disadvantage: s/he needs some "scaffolding" in order to meet the expectations set by the teacher. Okay, I think I have a better grip on things.

Next question: Will kids have the same understanding of equal and fair?

Yes, I know I can help them shape these; but I'm thinking about the perspectives they may hold at the beginning. I certainly understand how I have looked at it as a teacher. I also have had plenty of experience with the familiar teen whine of "That's not faaaiiirr." Can I help them see that although my expectations for all of them are equal (they must meet the standards), that to be fair I will respect their individual differences in getting there? Will I have a lot of hurt feelings to sort out if some students have additional opportunities to show what they know? Will they understand that it's fair for students to earn grades in different ways---and honor my discretion to do that? Should be interesting for us to find out.

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Bonus Carnival

15 August 2007

I usually take the easy way out on Wednesdays and just direct my readers to the current Carnival of Education. I am certainly doing that---and it's a great Carnival to spend some time with---but I saw an article yesterday that caught my eye. I thought I might share it, too.

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post is reporting the results of a study in which "researchers examined what happened to 4,248 families that were randomly given or denied federal housing vouchers to move out of their high-poverty neighborhoods." Interestingly enough, seven years later, it was determined that changing neighbourhoods for families did not lead to higher student achievement.

Some critics, and the researchers themselves, suggest that the new neighborhoods may not have been good enough to make a difference. Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Moving to Opportunity program, one group of families received vouchers that could be used only to move to neighborhoods with poverty rates below 10 percent, one group got vouchers without that restriction and one group did not receive vouchers. Families with the restricted vouchers moved to neighborhoods with poverty rates averaging 12.6 percent lower than those of similar families that did not move, but not the most affluent suburbs with the highest-performing schools.

"There is a wide body of evidence going back several decades to suggest that low-income students perform better in middle-class schools," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation. "But, in practice, Moving to Opportunity was more like moving to mediocrity."

Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson said that although the families that were studied moved to neighborhoods that weren't as poor, they still had many disadvantages. Three-fifths of the families relocated to neighborhoods that were still "highly racially segregated," he said, and "as many as 41 percent of those who entered low-poverty neighborhoods subsequently moved back to more-disadvantaged neighborhoods."..

They cite several possible explanations why students' performance did not improve when their families moved to less poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York areas. Some families returned to poorer neighborhoods after sampling a more middle-class environment. "For many families who remained in their new tracts, the poverty rate in their neighborhood increased around them," the researchers said.

Stefanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who wrote the second report based on interviews of Moving to Opportunity families in Baltimore, said many of the parents had little faith that better teaching in better schools would help their children. They felt it was up to their children to make education work.

I'm still pondering what all of this might mean. Student achievement is such a network of factors. Teacher quality is said to have the largest impact---and many studies have claimed that children in high-poverty areas have fewer highly qualified teachers than students in other areas. So, if moving kids to a place where there are (ostensibly) better teachers didn't raise achievement, what's the deal? Did the last statement in the article (up to children to make education work) represent a factor which over-rode what happened in the classroom? Was moving the family away from its known environment and support system too much "culture shock" to overcome? What do we do in order to ensure that all students have access to a high quality education?

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Speaking in Tongues

14 August 2007

I had an interesting thing happen at the post office last week. I was there to prepare the mailing of a birthday gift to Canada. While I was standing there sorting out the forms and other information, an older woman approached me with a stack of mail. She gestured that she needed help with her mail. As it turned out, she was a native Spanish speaker (my hunch is she was from somewhere in Central America). She could sound out the words written in English on the envelopes, but didn't understand what they meant. When she discovered that I knew a bit of Spanish, she was quite happy to make me go through the entire stack of mail with her. Between my pigeon Spanish and her pigeon English, we managed rather well; however, I was clueless how to translate "air miles" and "credit card offer" into Spanish, much less the survey the postal service wanted her to complete. "Basura" (Trash), we decided for that one. Amongst her mail was her green card (I got lots of hugs from this stranger for that), some information on health insurance, and a transponder for her car window which would eliminate having to stop to pay a bridge toll. That particular piece of the conversation was a stretch to manage, mainly because I felt so naughty in the process. You see, although "coche" is "car" in Spanish, along the Tex-Mex border, it means something very different: it's a slang word for the, um, physical act of love. (Family blog, remember?) I kept expecting someone to come over and wash my mouth out with soap for telling this woman what to do with her sticker.

This experience brought a smile to my face, and also a reminder about the English Language Learners (ELL) I have had over the years. I have had only a couple of them while living in Washington. My time in the post office called to mind that particular stage in language acquisition where one may understand a great deal of the "new" language being spoken to them, but doesn't feel comfortable enough in their own facility with it to use it. This lady and I were both at that point. I understood her Spanish quite well---but I had a difficult time stringing together the right responses. My mind was a big foggy (that may have something to do with the mixing in my mind with French words). She understood my English, but didn't use many words of her own in that language.

I remember one particular ELL student I had when I taught in New Mexico. She was incredibly bright and was so frustrated with her inability to communicate. When we did labs, she followed the diagrams and pictures and was far better at problem solving issues than her partners. Ryan recently wrote about the War on the Gifted and one of the things his post called to my mind was the ineffective identification process we have in place. I tried to get this young woman tested for the gifted program to no avail: the placement tests weren't available in Spanish and no one wanted to find a way to make accommodations. I hated that this child was excluded from consideration of services merely because she hadn't become proficient in English yet.

There are some great edubloggers around who teach World Languages. (I know...we usually refer to them as "Foreign Languages," but during my early days in this district, one of the schools had a portable that had "Forign Languages" stenciled on it---and we referred to it as the "friggin' language portable." I'm trying to be more pc with the terminology.) I think that even a year or two of coursework is something which helps students expand their horizons and gives them some tools which allow them to seek to understand---not judge---other people and cultures. (Not to mention impromptu conversations at the post office.) Speaking in tongues should be an asset, not a hindrance, for our students and us.

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The Decider

27 July 2007

I talk about grades off and on here. I find grading practices and how grades are used to be something interesting to ponder. For the last day or so, I've been thinking about grades as gatekeepers---and if they aren't used in that manner, who/what should The Decider be (if any) about what classes students are allowed to take?

So here's the problem which generated my recent round of wondering: too many kids are failing chemistry at one of the area schools. The solution? Heavily weed out kids who signed up this spring (for next fall's class) based on their previous grades...and then weed again in the fall based on scores from two tests. I have to say that this kind of thinking really sets my teeth on edge, but I bit my tongue during the conversation because I felt like I needed to think about my reaction a bit more. I don't like the idea of using grades as gatekeepers, because the grades reported for incoming students don't tell you anything more than just a letter. Does the letter represent a kid who attended every day? Frequently "participated"? A kid who knows the material, but handed in all his/her work late and therefore received a C? Is this a kid who is good at memorization and could ace the tests without any sort of real learning? Or, is this a student who really does or does not understand the material? There is no way to tell...and yet if you're going to use this magic letter to determine who will or will not be successful in chemistry---how can you know?

My other problems with this argument are twofold. One is simply that having chemistry on a transcript is a gatekeeper in and of itself. It's something college admissions staff looks for, even if the grade isn't so hot. It means the student has chosen something challenging and rigorous---there is reason to believe that the kid could make it in college. So, in keeping kids from taking chemistry in high school, you're also making it harder for them to get into college. Secondly, the assumption is that all of the kids who are failing chemistry are doing so because it's completely their doing. I have no doubt that this argument will hold up for some of that population. Some kids may not have the facility with algebra to be successful with chemistry. Others have significant attendance issues---and aren't able to learn the material on their own. But I don't think we can paint this entire group with one brush. At some point, is it not also worthwhile to step back and look at the curriculum? Concepts taught? Instruction and assessments? Is it possible to offer some sort of support program for kids who are struggling instead of making it ohsoclear that you don't think they can do it?

I understand wanting to prevent some heartache on the part of a student who is failing miserably. I'm just not convinced that grades are the way to go in order to prevent this. So, what would be?

I'm thinking that the parents and students are the logical choices here. If a kid wants to try chemistry, then why not? Perhaps the kid has been a goof-off in the past and is making a commitment to his/her studies. Maybe there's been some family drama in the last year and now that personal lives are stabilizing, school performance will, too. Only the student can know for sure what s/he is willing to take on. It's true that they need to make an informed decision---look carefully at the pre-requisite skills and topics covered (No, you don't get to blow things up every day) and evaluate that in light of what they know about themselves. Talk to other students and parents about their experiences.

My previous Boss Lady was a champion of getting the gates off of course enrollment. These hurdles schools place in terms of grades and pre-requisite courses are one source of the achievement gap, especially in terms of our children who come from poverty. Schools need to be places that are more associated with "Yes, you can!" than "No, we don't think you can...so don't." In the end, I'm still left trying to balance all of that---the intentions of staff to place students, the needs of kids, and the role of grades. It is easy to think of extreme examples, but I'm looking for any overall gestalt here. What should the policy be about who/what is The Decider?

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Equity in Education

18 December 2006

From the Cincinnati Enquirer:

"Little progress noted on education law goals" was the headline of an article in the Nov. 20 Enquirer. The article states that the gaps between African-Americans and whites are showing very few signs of closing.

The gap is only between children who have good early childhood experiences and those who lack this experience. Equity begins at the moment of conception. The mother who eats right and stays away from drugs has an advantage of producing a healthy child. The mother who smokes, takes other drugs, and does not get the right nutrition may produce a child who at birth is at a disadvantage.

Equity means that both children had the same advantage from the moment of conception.

Children in a language-rich environment, from the moment of birth, come to our schools ready for the challenges we present to him. Children without this experience are not given the opportunity to catch up because of the "No Child Left Behind" law.

Equity means giving each child what he needs. It means moving each child ahead and presenting new challenges to make his education experience a successful one. There will be gaps, not because of the color of the skin, but because children do not get what they need at home.

There will be gaps because teachers have to treat every kindergarten child as if they all came in with the same skills.

There will be gaps because good education practices are set aside, recess is abandoned, art and music are not important, and getting ready to take many tests is nothing but drill work without understanding.

There is a gap between what research tells us about developmentally appropriate practices and what educators are allowed to do for children.

There is no equity because equity does not mean that we treat all children the same - it means that we give each child what he needs.

I don't agree with this view of "equity in education." It's really not about what kids come in with---we know that every one of them is different. It's about not using those factors to deny access to opportunities when kids are at school. To me, it isn't equitable that only white and asian kids take AP Chem in our district. It isn't equitable that students from low-income backgrounds generally perform worse on tests of basic skills than other students. NCLB, for all of its faults, is the reason schools are now so concerned about equity. Students are definitely given the chance to "catch up."

What the author seems to talking about in the article is really differentiation in the classroom, not equity. Differentiation includes the ideas of readiness and engaging instruction. It also appears that she doesn't believe that all kids can achieve because of differences that begin with conception---something I find rather disturbing to hear from another teacher. Not every child will have the same ultimate goals, but they should all be able to have the same basic tools to apply to wherever their dreams lead. That seems equitable to me.

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Jesus Is Coming...Look Busy

06 October 2006

Did you ever have a "Come to Jesus" meeting? These don't take place in a revival tent and they aren't run by fundies . They are when the boss is ready to straighten out a few crooked paths. The idiom refers to the epiphany the others should have (if they know what's good for them) while the boss redirects things.

I feel one of these meetings coming on in my office. One specialist has pushed things too far with everyone: teachers, principals, and definitely the rest of us in Curriculum. Not only is she getting major pushback from all of these parties, but Boss Lady 2.0 has a more balanced and practical outlook about things. What happens in the classroom---especially at the elementary level---should be about more than improving writing instruction.

Schools, departments, and districts are like families. Dysfunctional ones, perhaps, but still everyone has a role. There are golden children and black sheep, parents ready to take you to the woodshed, and nurturing ones who wish to spoil you. There is a lot of harumphing that things "aren't fair." Maybe life isn't meant to be, but schools are currently charged with establishing equity.

It isn't fair or equitable that six writing coaches received $30K of conference monies and $12K of professional books over the summer while the rest of Curriculum (math, science, reading) received about $5K total...and are not allowed to make any book purchases this year. While the majority of kids are not able to meet the standards in math and science while 90% do in reading and 86% do in writing, the writing program gets coaches, 6 subs a day (for 159 days)---math and science get no coaches and 6 subs a day for a combined total of 21 days (which we fought bitterly to get). It's not fair that there are seven people whose jobs are completely devoted to k-6 writing...and a single .8 person allotted for all of k-12 science.

I don't have any illusions about the upcoming shakeup. I know that I will be asked to give and make adjustments, too. It's only fair that we all do what we can to support teachers and kids...but I have to say that the rest of us in Curriculum are already shouting "Hallelujah!" at the idea of this meeting. It's about time everyone came to Jesus.

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Intents and Purposes

28 August 2006

The rah-rah back to school speaker this morning was not the most dynamic person, but had many important thoughts to share. I was grateful for her words because they are a perfect lead-in to the major topic of my morning session with high school science teachers tomorrow morning: equity.
  • Why do students of all backgrounds take advanced courses in junior high...but not in high school? How come mainly white or asian males are found in the most rigorous of science courses at tenth grade?
  • If we say that we have high expectations for all students, why are children of poverty at our high schools nowhere to be found in upper level courses?
  • Since we are ostensibly working toward college readiness for every student, why are we seeing such a dramatic dropoff in the number of kids taking the SAT?
I'm guessing that these conversations aren't going to be pretty. I will need to keep telling teachers that none of these things implies that they are treating any of these subgroups differently...but that really isn't the point. The point is that every kid who walks through our doors has a unique background that we have to connect with. And we're not getting the job done right now.

It will be all too easy to let teachers slip into the blame game. It's true, there are lots of outside forces at work. We don't have any control over what happens outside of our classrooms. But again, that's not the point. The point is, what are teachers prepared to do with the time and resources that they do manage?

For all intents and purposes, we're in the business of educating every child, every day. Maybe tomorrow we can take a step toward really walking that talk.

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New News and Old News

06 July 2006

A reporter came to hang out with our math kiddos this morning. We're grateful for the good publicity for the program and I think the students liked the attention. The teachers and I are anxious to see the finished article, which should be available in Saturday's paper. New news is good news in this case.

I was struck this morning by just how diverse the two classes of students are. I "created" the sections by grouping kids according to their WASL scores. This program is really meant to support students within a narrow range of scores and while we certainly didn't want to turn away any student in need, we had some concerns about holding back/slowing down the learning of the kids who were targeted to be there.

Student scores aren't stamped on foreheads, so none of them know the basis for their class assignments (unless they figured it out on their own---we aren't advertising this feature). They're all working through the same curriculum, albeit at different paces. Can you imagine what is readily noticeable when you enter the classrooms? One class is very pale...the other has several students of color. I'll bet you can guess which one is comprised of the higher performing students.

The teachers and I talked about this some after classes today. It's news to no one that ethnicity is an issue in achievement. Yes, we know it shouldn't be---kids are kids and tests are stringently evaluated for bias here. But the reality is simply that there is an achievement gap and we have to deal with that. Old news, I know.

I will say that this newly developed curriculum we're using and change to the instructional style for the math seminar appears to be very engaging for our lower performing group. As compared to the mighty whities in the next room, this class has a lot of energy: they talk about the problems, want help, ask questions, and really get into things---even though some of the tasks are frustrating (given their ability level). I think this bodes well for future applications.

I don't know if the reporter noticed these same things today. Her focus seemed to be on the individual perspective rather than the group dynamics. She was there to cover an event rather than provide analysis of it. I guess we'll find out on Saturday what's news to her.

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Buying the Cow

28 June 2006

Did you mother ever try encouraging you to keep chaste by asking "Why would anyone buy a cow when they can get the milk for free?" The imagery this conjures up is mildly disturbing, but I suppose there is something to ponder there. If you have something of value, will others treasure it if they don't have to earn it?

Paul Edelman is encouraging teachers to sell what they normally share for nothing: their very best lesson plans.

The site, teacherspayteachers.com, aims to be an eBay for educators. For a $29.95 yearly fee, sellers can post their work and set their prices. Buyers rate the products.

"It's a way to pat teachers on the back, to value what they do," Edelman said. "They create the material night after night. The best way to value that is to put a price on it."

Lots of Web sites offer lesson plans that can be purchased or downloaded for free. Yet Edelman says they don't cover a fraction of what teachers themselves have come up with. By offering them a way to make a buck, the 33-year-old former teacher says he's found a niche.

He's banking on it. Edelman cashed in his retirement fund and maxed his credit cards to launch the business in April. He keeps 15 percent of every sale, but he knows the only way he will really make money is by getting "teacher-authors" to pay the membership fee.

I'm not quite sure what to think about this idea. On one hand, I understand the investment of time, thought, and purpose into crafting something of high quality in the classroom. All of those things are worth something. But on the other hand, we're talking about the needs of kids here. And if you have something that truly gets to the heart of learning, wouldn't you want kids to have access to that through their teachers? Will this site be just another "gate" that keeps the best instruction out of the hands of the poorest classrooms?

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Put a Cork in It

26 February 2006


My district used to pride itself on the fact that schools could do their own things. Want a different bell schedule? No problem. A day each week where you could start late or end early in order to give teachers some common planning time? Done deal. Develop a special program? Go for it.

In some ways, this sounds positively Utopic. There was so much freedom. The problem was that there was no accountability---either for explaining why implementing something new would support student learning nor any evidence supplied to show whether or not a particular program was effective. Meanwhile, there developed a bit of sibling rivalry between the various buildings. "How come they get to do that? Why is the district giving them money?" Throw in the standards-based reform movement and you've got a mess on your hands.

Slowly, but surely, district programs are being implemented. The weird thing about all of this is simply that teachers have to be sold on certain ideas...there's a lot of talk about "buy-in." I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but in what other profession or career area does this have to happen? If I was working in a office environment and my boss said that we were going to start a new program for our customers, what would happen if I said, "No"? Could I flip burgers at Mickey D's and have any system for doing my job that I wanted? Why do educators have to be cajoled and get to do as they please, especially if they don't agree with their bosses?

This is also happening at a school level. One of our junior high schools made a decision to offer an "advanced" class to 7th graders this year---and use the 10th grade book. The other schools want to know if they can do that next year. Of course, they can't, and it's going to be darned hard to make the first school understand that they have to stop.

Anyway, the genie of teacher choice is out of the bottle here...and it's darned difficult to get put back in.

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Good Teaching Repackaged

03 February 2006

I got to travel a bit today and go to a training on inclusion strategies and standards-based education. I had been looking forward to this workshop for some time as I get a lot of questions about how to modify science for our "speds."

The presenter was dynamic and the handouts wonderful. However, nearly every idea put forward was just that of good teaching: using music, color, movement, memory aids (like mnemonic devices), and so on. I was pleasantly surprised. This makes it so much easier of a "sell" to the staff I work with.

The district focus this year was/is supposed to be on instruction. Like most places, we put on a good show of things in August to get people pumped up, but there hasn't been as much follow through as would be appropriate. It's hard for all of us to overcome our inertia in how we do business...and yet, if we could somehow internalize that there are certain things that help our speds and low SES kids achieve, maybe we could be more purposeful in making these strategies the norm. We just have to repackage ourselves a little differently.

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Equal vs. Fair

29 July 2005

I subscribe to a few listservs. I find the one sponsored by the College Board for AP Biology to be particularly good. Help on almost any topic (no matter how obscure the question) is just a click away. I have several folders full of suggestions on making the required labs run more smoothly, ways to demonstrate or model information for kids, and so on. There are always all sorts of discussion threads running at once, although a few seem to repeat from year to year.

One of these threads has to do with pre-requisites for taking AP Biology. There are a variety of schools of thought here. The College Board recommends that students have taken chemistry prior to AP Bio, and many schools follow this suggestion (my school was one of them). Some schools have no pre-requisite requirements. Others have several. The push in my district is to remove any "gates" for upper division courses. If a kid wants to try a class, let him/her do so. In some ways, I have no problem with this. Perhaps a certain lack in their academic background is a handicap, but I can think of plenty of kids I've had who have had the proper course "pedigree" but didn't want to make an effort to apply it. I'm happy to have the kid who wants to try to make a go of the class, regardless of their previous preparation.

Today, one of the members of the listserv posted these thoughts about doing away with pre-requisites:

Why do we need to be more inclusive for those kids who want in to AP classes? This mindset really bothers me. Our policy is too lenient as it is at having a 90% in Bio 1 and passing Chem 1 to get into AP Bio. It should be tougher than that. These kids need a taste of reality. Should we let anyone into med school who wants? What about law school? NO. They have to learn that you have to earn spots in certain cases. It should be an honor to get into the class and the kids who get in should feel a sense of pride about it, not look across the room at some kid who shouldn’t be in there. I am sorry if I offended anyone, but this mindset that this country is moving towards of making everything equal just fires me up. There is a huge difference between equal and fair. I agree with being fair, but everything will not always be equal.

Hmmm...

Stepping back to take a look at the larger picture, I can't quite agree with this particular view of "equal vs. fair." It is absolutely true that there are limited numbers of spots for different post-graduate programs, but why should a high school class be as competitive as med school? Is it "fair" that many students nationwide have been "tracked" away from more rigorous curriculum because of their skin colour and/or socio-economic status---and now they can't get out because they weren't allowed to take the pre-requisite courses? (Are these the kids who "shouldn't be there" that the other students will have to look at?) Is it "fair" to tell a kid that because they slacked off their studies when they were 14 and didn't get a certain grade in a class that they should be prohibited from showing they can and want to apply themselves to their studies? It's true, not everything will be equal. But I would like to think that we could at least level the playing field a bit and make it fair for students of all backgrounds.

My Boss Lady in Curriculum is an exceptional woman and I am learning a lot from her. One of the things that I have liked is watching her listen to someone on a rant about which classes are appropriate for which students (in their opinions). She actively listens. She shows concern. And then she simply states that we have to teach the kids who show up. We can't control how much money their families have...or how much time they spend on homework...or what they eat. What we can control is what happens in our classrooms during the moments those kids are in there. What will you do to make the most of that time for them? And how can I support you?

Like it or not, she's right. Every kid deserves the opportunity for a rigorous education. This does not mean that every kid needs to take AP Biology, only that we need to be in the business of helping kids find their potential---not keep them from doing so. All things being equal, that seems pretty fair to me.

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What's in a Name?

02 June 2005

Talk to any teacher, and I'd bet that s/he will tell you that there are some "bad" names. Names that send a chill up the spine. Names that when seen on your class roster at the beginning of the year make you want to beg the counselor to create a different schedule. And I'm not talking about the last names of kids---I'm talking about their first names.

One of my cohorts recently became an aunt. Her sister had the baby names all picked out...and if the kid was a girl, she would be named "Harley." My friend and her mother (who are both teachers) pleaded with the mom-to-be to use another name. Why? Too many bad experiences with students named "Harley." They just couldn't stand the idea of a family member with that name. (Luck was on their side. The baby was a boy.)

Some interesting research published recently seems to indicate that a student's name does play a role in the classroom in terms of teacher expectations. This Miami Herald article will give you the full details (id: bugmenot[at]123[dot]com; password: june2005). Some highlights include
  • Teachers have lower expectations for students with names like Da'Quan because they assume the parents who choose names with unusual letter combinations and apostrophes are poorly educated. But teachers did not have the same low expectations for siblings with more mainstream names.
  • The research goes beyond distinctly black names. In other papers also on track to being published, it is asserted that girls of all races with feminine-sounding names, such as Rebecca or Elizabeth, are less likely to enroll in high-level math and science classes.
  • Studies have also found 263 ways to spell Caitlin or Katelynn, mostly among white parents. The further away someone gets from the two most common spellings, the more likely the girl is to have trouble reading when she reaches third or fourth grade.

But why? There are all sorts of possibilities and the article does get at some of them. I really think it has a lot to do with the previous experiences of a teacher. If the first "Caitlynn" you have also happens to have some spelling problems, you may assume that Kaitlinn will, too. Did Du'Quan have a mother with little education or income? Maybe Shaniqua will have the same. And those Fry kids? Holy terrors, I tell you. I had two of them...and five more are coming up through the system. Better hope you don't get one of those. Better hope you get a "Phan" instead because all those kids are geniuses.

None of these are reasonable. As teachers, we shouldn't have a bias against a student because of their name---any more than we should for their gender, skin colour, or religious preference. But it's out there and I have certainly been guilty of the "name game." (Even a Science Goddess occasionally has some superstitions.) I think I will be far more aware of it in the future.

One thing I have tried in the last few years is to have students turn in papers with a "code word" at the top, instead of their name. That way, when I mark them, I rarely know which kid wrote a paper. And it's a simple way to remove any expectations I have based on previous performance to a current assignment. (But now I wonder if I have some expectations based on the code word they choose!)

It's unreasonable to expect that every person be able to be unbiased in their approach to all relationships. We're human. We look for patterns and then apply them to try to make sense of the world. But if we can raise our awareness of some of the more unintentional biases (as with names), perhaps we can make a bit more of a difference.

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Science in (Con)Text

08 May 2005

I received a link to this article earlier in the week. It points out some of the very unscientific things that can be found in current science textbooks. Some of the information is rather frightening:
  • A chapter on climate in a fifth-grade science textbook in the Discovery Works series, published by Houghton Mifflin (2000), opens with a Native American explanation for the changing seasons: "Crow moon is the name given to spring because that is when the crows return. April is the month of Sprouting Grass Moon." Students meander through three pages of Algonquin lore before they learn that climate is affected by the rotation and tilt of Earth--not by the return of the crows.
  • Al Roker, the affable black NBC weatherman, is hailed as a great scientist in one book in the Discovery Works series. It is common to find Marie Curie given a picture and half a page of text, but her husband, Pierre, who shared a Nobel Prize with her, relegated to the role of supportive spouse.
  • Jews have been awarded 22 percent of all Nobel Prizes in science, but readers of Houghton Mifflin's fifth-grade textbooks won't get wind of that. Navajo physicist Fred Begay, however, merits half a page for his study of Navajo medicine. Albert Einstein isn't mentioned. Biologist Clifton Poodry has made no noteworthy scientific discoveries, but he was born on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian reservation, so his picture is shown in Glenco/McGraw-Hill's Life Science (2002), a middle-school biology textbook. The head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, and Nobel Laureates James Watson, Maurice H.F. Wilkins, and Francis Crick aren't named.

Now, I'm not frightened by the idea of diversity in textbooks. I believe that it's way past time that we included more than just dead white guys in the pantheon of science. I want my students of colour, students from various religious backgrounds, and students with disabilities to know that those attributes do not limit their choices in life. The role of being a scientist is not relegated to those with pale skin, tonsorial challenges, and a penis. However, those who might fit that description and who made significant contributions shouldn't be ignored in the name of multiculturalism. How does that help a student become scientifically literate? It seems to me that there are plenty of women/minorities who might be better suited for fabulous examples in textbooks instead of Al Roker.

As if the previous information weren't depressing enough, consider the following:

A study commissioned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in 2001 found 500 pages of scientific error in 12 middle-school textbooks used by 85 percent of the students in the country. One misstates Newton's first law of motion. Another says humans can't hear elephants. Another confuses "gravity" with "gravitational acceleration." Another shows the equator running through the United States.

In my district, we have several issues like this with textbooks. The current Earth Science tome shows the Earth orbiting the sun in the opposite direction. (I know, just tell the kids to turn their books upside down.) Our biology book is pathetic---we've been keeping a running list of all its failings. We will be looking at adopting new materials for Life Science, Earth Science, and Physical Science next year. I'm not too hopeful that we will find much better than we have now, especially if this report by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science is correct.

What's a Science Goddess to do? Well, I'm not quite ready to write a textbook. And, more and more teachers are moving away from a text based science course, which will also help. I suppose that as teachers in my district look at materials next year, we will just have to be as judicious as possible in choosing materials that are factual. We can't count on the publishers to have done their homework on that front. We will also need to be on the lookout for a program that represents diversity not for the sake of trying to include people of colour and faith---but people of colour and faith who should be recognized for their scientific work (not their work on a morning show). And, finally, we will need to find a program that is more inquiry based, so that students can learn on their own what constitutes "good science." If anyone has some good suggestions, please send them my way.

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Soapbox

30 April 2005

At lunch with my colleagues a couple of days ago, I started to get up on my soapbox about something: Kids are not teaching tools.

What triggered this was a discussion about the number of honors sophomore biology sections for next year. For the last 8 years or so, we have run either 2 or 3 (based on what students sign up for). Next year, there are 4.

Why the big deal? It's because honors' classes are typically filled with "nice kids." Yes, a lot of them are bright, too, but we don't have any "gates" on honors' classes. Any kid, regardless of his/her course history or grades, can sign up for an honors class. I end up with students with IEPs, 504 plans, ESL students, and all sorts of variations in between. It's true that you would find fewer of those students in an honors class vs. regular class, but it isn't as if all honors' students are the cream of the crop.

Teachers of regular biology courses tend to feel that their classes would be "nicer" if fewer students were enrolled in an honors class. They believe their ratio of kids who do their homework, pay rapt attention, and who can read a set of lab instructions would increase...and therefore, their teaching day would be better. These teachers never provide a reason why it would be in the best interests of the student to take regular bio vs. honors bio.

I'm sorry, but kids are not teaching tools. Kids should not be placed in your class in order to make your day better. That's not why they're there. It's not that I don't understand a teacher's frustration with a difficult class and/or challenging students. I've had my share of those---and I have to tell you, most of them involved honors' students or classes.

Will we have 4 sections of sophomore honors biology at our school next year? I think we will. For one thing, the incoming class is significantly larger than previous classes. We would have to have more sections of science as is. (Our department currently has 5.8 science teachers and next year, we will need 6.3.) The administration is also not wild about the idea of offering fewer sections than kids have asked to enroll in. How do you decide which kids don't get the class---especially when there are no entry requirements? Who is going to call a parent and say, "You're kid can't take honors because Mr. X wants a nicer classroom environment."?

The other part of this is that I'm trying to disengage myself from my department, as I will only be teaching one class there next year. Honors biology will no longer be part of my world, and so I must leave others to make those decisions. I didn't do the whole soapbox routine at lunch the other day. I'm hopeful that my colleagues will come to their own realizations about the prospective "purpose" of kids in our classrooms...and that whatever that may be, it does not include the concept that kids are teaching tools. They aren't.

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Number Crunching

13 April 2005

Seems like every few days, more surveys and data are released about how well the public education system in America is preparing students for the future. Here is another:

"As many as 40 percent of the nation's high school graduates say they are inadequately prepared to deal with the demands of employment and postsecondary education, according to a recently released national survey of nearly 1,500 recent high school graduates, 400 employers and 300 college instructors. The survey is the basis for the report "Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?" The survey was commissioned by Achieve, Inc. in Washington, D.C., and conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies of Washington, D.C.

Among the findings:
  • More than 80% of high school graduates say they would work harder and take tougher courses if they could do high school over again.
  • Eight in 10 recent graduates say that they would have worked harder if their high school had demanded more of them.
  • A majority of graduates who took Algebra 2 in high school say they feel more prepared for the math they need in college or on the job.
  • Employers estimate that 39% of recent high school graduates are unprepared for the expectations they face in entry-level jobs. Employers also estimate that an even larger proportion (45%) of recent workforce entrants is not adequately prepared to advance beyond entry-level jobs.

To view the entire report or a PowerPoint Summary, go to www.achieve.org."

These sorts of things could be depressing. Or, you could go have a look at this post over at Pratie Place regarding how America has nearly always bemoaned the poor state its youngsters are in.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) turns 40 years old this week. We've known for a long time that "Johnny can't read." Recent renewals of this Act (a/k/a "No Child Left Behind") have been aimed at ensuring that Johnny---regardless of what gender, colour of skin, or socioeconomic status s/he may be---has an opportunity to acquire the basics and be challenged.

Want more to think about?

The New York Times published a story today about the "Northwest Evaluation Association study involving a 'broad but not nationally representative' sample of pupils in 23 states, student math and reading scores have improved somewhat under NCLB, but within grades, over the course of the school year, students made less academic progress than they did before the law was implemented. Researchers found minority students' growth lagged behind that of whites, a troubling trend which, they said, could widen the achievement gap."

Huh?

Makes me wonder that no matter what we do in public ed, we can't really get every Johnny reading (even when Johnny has center stage). What's the answer then? We've tried for decades to have an "educated" populace. Will there ever be a time when we achieve this?

I can't imagine that we'll quit trying. After all, we're not allowed to or the feds will give us even less support than they do now. But perhaps we need to be realistic. We can't just point fingers at the schools, tell them the source of ill, and that they'd better shape up. We'll have to take on some other larger societal issues, like poverty and universal healthcare. How is a kid who doesn't come from a home where there's money to buy food or provide medical aid supposed to concentrate on reading, writing, math, and science?

Schools will continue to plug along, just as we always have. In a moral sense, it is unacceptable to determine that 100% of kids will acquire basic skills (and then some). Which kids would you choose to leave uneducated? Who decides? And yet, the reality is simply that some kids will not get what they need, in spite of our efforts. Schools don't need more numbers...we need more solutions.

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Paging John Stuart Mill

19 March 2005

I've always felt that Utilitarianism has had a great influence in the shaping of American education. Are we not, as educators, working for the "greater good for the greatest number"? Do we not insist that in spite of one child's unhappiness at being at school one day is morally okay because overall happiness from education will result?

I was thinking about this again after reading this study published by "The Common Good" last year. According to their research:
  • "The present legal environment undermines order in schools by enabling students and parents to threaten a lawsuit over virtually anything," said CG Chair Philip K. Howard. "The legal system must strike a better balance between the claimed rights of individuals and the legitimate interests of society as a whole."
  • Public Agenda President Ruth Wooden noted, "At a time when the achievement stakes for students have never been higher, the fact is that in school after school, a minority of students who routinely challenge legitimate school rules and authority are preventing the majority of students from learning and teachers from teaching."

Ah, seems like some students and parents aren't acting with utilitarian-like motives.

I have found many such instances throughout my career. They took the form of a student who required much of my time and effort during each class period that s/he was present. With 30 students in a room, many of whom were at least somewhat eager to learn, why did they have to have a peer who did everything possible to take away their opportunity? Does one student's "right" to an education outweigh the "rights" of 29 others in the room?

The answer sometimes is "yes," but only if it is for SPED kids. We have kids who routinely beat adults in the building, as well as fellow students. There are others who bring weapons. Still more who disrupt learning in classes in other ways. But it doesn't matter, because as long as that child's actions can be related to his/her disability---his/her rights to attend school will always outweigh the safety and academic environment of others. Please keep in mind that only a few SPED'dies out there act in these ways. The vast majority are as delightful to have in class as any other student.

However, according to the poll conducted by The Common Good, "76% of teachers say that special education students who misbehave are often treated too lightly, even when their misbehavior has nothing to do with their disability."

SPED students comprise 14% of the student population in my district. What about the other 86%? Are they all angels in the classroom? I think the proportion of students who come to school in order to learn far outweighs the few who don't. But we still have to deal with those few. And many of them have lawyers at the ready in case we might suggest that they change their behaviour to suit the "needs of the many."

What do we do about this? For one thing, I think that teachers and schools shouldn't be afraid to discipline a student as long as (a) the "punishment" is reasonable and (b) there is a well-documented history of the student's behaviour. Even teachers who have well-established classroom routines and management strategies have to deal with nearly unmanageable students at some point. There needs to be some sort of alternative educational environment for those students. I'm just "utilitarian" enough to believe that the 29 other kiddos sitting in a class represent the "greater good."

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Ethical Dilemma

14 March 2005

Some of you have been haunting this blog long enough that you might remember me talking about a plan that my department has. You see, NCLB requires that districts test students in science at 3 points in their scholastic journey---but, whether or not scores improve isn't factored into "Adequate Yearly Progress." In other words, while we have to test kids, it's okay to "leave them behind" in the case of science. Washington state, however, will require passing the science test as a graduation requirement for the class of 2010. My district---and certainly the building I work in---are scrambling to see what we can do to help kids meet the standards. Science is not used to being accountable.

But, back to my department. On Wednesday, we will hold the first of two "tutoring" sessions for kids who are in danger of not meeting the standard. Not all of the kids---just those that are so close that they would benefit from just a little boost.

There are 2 people in my building who are fuming over this. (One of the teachers is part-time in my department...both of them teach math.) It's completely unethical to do this! In tutoring these kids, you are consciously neglecting the students at the lower end! I sort of understand where they're coming from. We do need to do what we can to move all kids toward proficiency with the standards. But this "tutoring" is only one part of our overall plan for helping kids. Frankly, I think we're sort of revolutionary. How much money do schools pour out each year for low end (SPED) and high end (gifted, AP, etc.) kids? When was the last time we looked at the ones in the middle and lent them some support?

All of the kids who are participating on Wednesday have been asked. Each teacher has talked to the students about what their strengths and weaknesses are and why we think they might benefit. Nearly every kid we identified (through data) has been interested---and relieved. They want to succeed and seem genuinely grateful for some extra attention. Should we leave them to their own devices merely because of parity issues...because the "low" kids aren't getting the same presentation?

Part of me feels like lashing out at my naysaying colleagues. When was the last time the math department sat down and looked at data on current students and strategized to help them? I want to tell them, "You go to your church and we'll go to ours," in terms of how we address student needs. I want to tell my students to blow off the math WASL---but won't, since scores will be on their transcripts.

What I will tell my kids is that I care about whether or not they have the knowledge and skills to pass the WASL next month. And it's not because the scores are reported under my name or because there is some sort of pressure from upper echalons for improvement. It is because I believe that if they can kick butt on that test, those kids will know how to apply science to their daily lives. These are the kids who will read a research study in the paper and determine for themselves whether or not it is reasonable. These are the kids who will be able to ask intelligent questions of their healthcare providers. These are the kids who can think critically about information. Is there anything so wrong with that?

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