Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

21 February 2010

Conversations in education are so thick with references to the Common Core Standards these days that one can hardly swing a virtual cat and not hit a blog post about them. All but two states are currently dancing with the math and literacy standards. Kentucky has already adopted them without having seen the final version. And while the hoopla will continue throughout the spring, something else has quietly started: a new set of national science frameworks are underway. "Once the framework is final, it will be used as the basis for teams from three national organizations—the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, a group formed by governors and business leaders—to collaborate on writing the standards." (from Work Begins on 'Next Generation' of Science Standards at Education Week)

Our state completely biffed its opportunity last year to do something positive with the state science standards. Instead of focusing on what was best for kids and the opportunity to deeply explore a set of fundamental concepts, we have a shotgun approach and an overwhelming amount of tediousness. This sad state should make me more excited at the prospect that we might get some "new" ones via the Common Core Standards initiative, but it doesn't.

First of all, the committee which is writing these new frameworks hasn't a single teacher. Scientists? Sure. People who actually understand what happens in classrooms and schools? Nope. I understand that there may be opportunity later for teachers to become involved, but if the process used to write math and literacy standards is any indication, there will be no educators included. Fail number two is simply the motivation behind this work. New standards will not lead to change in science literacy. You can only get there through instruction---and there is no money targeted for this.

If you live in a state where the Common Core Standards are on the table, be sure to ask your education leaders about the motivation in participating with this initiative. In our state, there has been no discussion about whether or not these standards and the ramifications of using them are in the best interests of children. Teachers participating on the review committees have told me that it has been made clear to them that the state is interested in the funding it might get by adopting these (or gaining funding freed up from other sources if the state doesn't have to create its own tests). Teachers in these groups feel the review committees are all for show---that neither state leadership nor the national groups are truly interested in feedback or comment about whether or not the state should move forward to adopting these. If this is true, I find this information deeply troubling.

I have to wonder if this is true in other states. Are we so out of balance in our education system, so overwhelmed with recession and unfunded mandates, so fixated on the bottom line, that the needs of kids have been completely pushed aside for the almighty dollar? I like the promise of a standards-based education---but it is useless without the needs of children being at the center of every decision along the way. From what I'm seeing and hearing, I'm very afraid that it isn't.

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Going...Going...Gone

29 November 2009

In September, I mentioned that I'd been reading Yong Zhao's Catching Up or Leading the Way, an exploration of the fervor toward standardization by the US in order to be more like China and India...while China and India are wanting their educational systems to be more like the US, valuing creativity and choice. I was excited to hear that he was going to be speaking at a conference I would be at in November. I ultimately ended up missing the event due to a funeral; however, our state government station replayed the speech Friday evening and I found several points as food for thought.

Zhao shared a story about kindergartners in India...and his own kindergartner. Bob Compton of Two Million Minutes fame told Zhao that he was inspired to make the movie after asking kindergartners in India what they wanted to be when they grew up. Those five year olds said things like scientist, engineer, and doctor. Big dreams, indeed. Zhao said he wondered if he should be worried, because his own kindergarten daughter wanted to be an elephant. Does this indicate that American kindergartners are already behind in international comparisons? Zhao doesn't think so. He believes it is a luxury to be able to dream of being an elephant---to really think that you can be anything you want to be. I find this to be a rather refreshing viewpoint...and, unfortunately, unusual these days.

FYI, the Chinese kinder said she wanted to grow up to be "a corrupt government official." I kinda like the blend of whimsy and observation of public service.

The primary point that Zhao seemed to be making was that the US doesn't need Common Core Standards. In fact, education doesn't need standards at all. I don't want to get into all of his points here (go visit his blog or read his book). What I do want to share is that his twist on things really made me think. I've always viewed academic standards as basically a good thing in the sense that there are some knowledge and skill pieces that every child should have (e.g. how to read and understand what is being read). Children who leave the public school system without these elements are at a significant disadvantage for quality of life as adults. This is not a new problem...and Zhao wonders if lack of standards is a problem at all. The first TIMSS-like study was in 1963---and US students (13-year olds were tested for this international comparison) were third from the bottom. Those students are well into adulthood now and the US hasn't suffered in terms of innovation nor collapsed under the weight of the perceived stupidity of those students. We also don't need standards, according to Zhao, because of the varying developmental rates among children. Is it appropriate to state that every child will reach the same benchmarks at the same time---and then assign intervention after intervention simply because the child isn't "ready" yet? Zhao equates standards with testing/accountability---which I think is a mistake. There is no denying the connection, but there are very different issues afoot with each. Unbridled zealotry for assessment is not the same as a list of learning goals.

And yet here we are a breath away from national standards---and the whispers of national assessments are not far behind. A friend at work was recently wondering if Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize winning reassessment of the Tragedy of the Commons might not have implications for education. The basic idea is that people who have a direct stake in a resource are the best at managing it. Once you make an assumption that people will do the wrong thing and encourage privatization or government regulation, things pretty much go downhill. If our children are an important resource, then are we doing them a disservice in moving away from localized curriculum? Are the qualities of innovation and creativity that the US educational system has fostered for so many years about to become extinct in the name of nationalized standards?

If you're so inclined, you can watch Zhao's presentation on the TVW website. His part of the program starts about 30 minutes in and lasts for about 50 minutes. See what ideas are engendered for you about whether or not our window of opportunity to reverse the national trend is going...going...gone.

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Taskmaster

14 October 2009

In the beginning, there was Bloom's Taxonomy for categorizing types of thinking. And it was---and continues to be---good. It provides a framework for educators to consider the rigor of the work provided to students. Generally speaking, Bloom's tends to be all about the verbs: identify, describe, explain, state, choose, evaluate, and so on.

But the assignments we provide in classrooms are more than verbs. They are also about objects: either the tasks we assign or the items students produce. And this is where Norman Webb with his Depth of Knowledge framework offers an alternative to Bloom's arrangement. It is a more holistic look at a learning target before determining cognitive demand.

For example, "identify" doesn't have to be part of the slacker Knowledge group of Bloom's. It would be if I ask a kid to identify the location of Ireland on a map of Europe. But, if I ask a student to identify a strategy which might resolve the civil conflict in Ireland, I've asked for something far more involved...something beyond mere Knowledge.

I am thinking about using Webb with the new standards for Educational Technology. Some targets are simple to assign to a classification (Recall, Skill/Concept, Strategic Thinking, Extended Thinking)...but I am struggling with others. For example, "Participate in an online community to understand a local or global issue." Is this a Level One target---because "understand a local or global issue" is the only cognitive piece represented...or is there some amount of demand on the student implied by "Participat[ing] in an online community..."?

How does one classify those targets and tasks involving intangibles like participation? Should these be included? Participation is one of those classroom values which is nearly impossible to standardize. What it looks like from grade to grade, teacher to teacher, and content area to content area can be very different. And while we might come to some sort of consensus about qualities of "good" participation, I still have to ask if there is any cognitive demand involved in the process. Could you write a task for it?

I don't expect any sort of elegant resolution to these questions. I may have to set them aside for now and concentrate on other issues. But if you have some insight to share on how we determine the depth of thinking associated with participating, engaging, and or collaborating, I hope you'll share it in the comments.

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Measuring Up

28 September 2009

Catching Up or Leading the Way is the most recent tome sent to me through my ASCD membership. Written by Yong Zhao, who was educated under the Chinese system, the book examines the whole "grass is always greener" machinations happening between the U.S. and China/India when it comes to education. In the west, we tend to believe that the hours, discipline, and testing present in the east represent a better system. After all, the Chinese are kicking ass and chewing bubble gum when it comes to international comparisons of student achievement. Zhao points out that the Chinese, on the other hand, are working to implement a more American approach because it allows for a workforce with more critical and creative thinking skills.

If you've been around the educational block, then the early chapters of the book will hold no surprises for you. Zhao does a nice job of summarizing the current American NCLB situation and how we got here. I'm curious to see where he goes from here in promoting "what schools can---and must---do to meet the challenges and opportunities brought about by globalization and technology."

What has me intrigued at this point in the book is Zhao's comparison between the benefits of biological diversity and diversity of talent in the workforce. He mentions the strength of populations which are not genetically identical. (Go, sex, go!) They are able to better adapt to changing environments. So, too, can countries adapt to changing economic times. I find this concept interesting, but Zhao has left out two important considerations.

First of all, while sexual reproduction results in variation and adaptability---asexual reproduction also has advantages. My students could never get that past "What fun would that be?" idea; however, the benefits include being able to become established in a new area quickly and jack up your population numbers in short order. You also save a lot of energy this way. No need for pesky mating dances or other displays. People who think lack of diversity is a species killer obviously haven't had to deal with dandelions in their yards.

If we take this a step farther and try to place it into Zhao's comparison between genetics and schools/workers, what does that get us? Is the standards-based education movement the amoeba of models?

Which brings me to my second thought on all of this. The argument that Zhao is making is that the standards movement is stamping out individuality and diversity of thinking---that in our bid to become more China-like in our systems we are losing the one thing that makes American education different: the belief in the individual...the can do. I believe there is some truth there---that the constant comparison by the US to other countries is leading to more of a focus on what we aren't, as opposed to building on strengths. An emphasis on testing is not a replacement for an emphasis on thinking. However, these are outcomes and are not the only possibilities. I also think that most teachers would claim that the standards movement is eliminating individuality and creativity in their instruction---not student thinking.

I do not believe that the [insert country of choice which outperforms US on international comparisons of student achievement] do it this way, therefore it must be the better way to teach X is the right starting place. It's knee-jerk and not purposeful. (And makes about as much sense as the Obama administration saying that we should lengthen the school day/year because that's what other countries do. Talk to me about what's best for kids, would you?) I do, however, think that the standards-based movement has the ability to ensure that students end up with choices. A student who is not expected to read, do math, write, and/or think scientifically ends up with very few choices as an adult. I really don't think this is the kind of diversity that we're after and will do nothing to break the cycle of poverty.

Zhao is right in that academic tests are not the only measure of a student's proficiency and talents; but standards are not inherently evil and not all testing is bad. It's what we do with them and why we do it that makes the difference. In the end, I keep coming back to instruction---that critical link between standards and assessment and the aspect most often ignored. It's the instruction where the magic happens with learning. It's the instruction where diversity of both teachers and students is honoured. And until it becomes part of the conversation, the rest of this discussion is no different than a "Mine's bigger than yours!" sort of argument among nations. Everyone knows that it's not the size of your (test scores; population) that matters, it's what you do with it. What's your position?

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Technology Literacy

01 September 2009

I was recently ruminating about the constriction of internet filters on teaching and learning in most classrooms. I wonder how this thinly-veiled censorship will impact students' ability to perform on the upcoming Technology Literacy NAEP. To be sure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is neither high-stakes (i.e. not tied to graduation or a school's/district's Adequate Yearly Progress) nor a part of most classrooms; however, it is one-way to get a comparative snapshot of learning across the 50 states.

An article in the last edition of Education Week by Sean Cavanagh (reg. req'd.) revealed that the first draft of the standards for the national assessment of technology literacy has been made available. The draft represents a "framework for the national assessment of technological literacy, the first to gauge students’ understanding of and skill in using a range of tools."

The computer-based National Assessment of Educational Progress in technological literacy, scheduled to be administered to a representative sample of the nation’s 4th, 8th, and 12th graders for the first time in 2012, will evaluate students’ understanding of technology tools and their design, the ways they can be used to gather information and communicate ideas, and their impact on society...

When it is made final, the framework will guide the design of the assessment. The draft defines technological literacy as the “general understanding of technology coupled with a capability to use, manage, and assess the technologies that are most relevant in one’s life, such as the information and communication technologies that are particularly salient in the world today.”

The committee embraced a broad definition of technology that ranges from automobiles to computers, including many of the tools that are used in daily life.

Students may be tested on their knowledge of the kinds of tools that are available and how they are used, along with their ability to apply technological concepts to solve problems. They may be given tasks that demonstrate their ability to use various technology platforms to communicate information or collect and analyze data, evaluate information, and suggest a technology solution to a given problem.

While the assessment is meant to gauge a broad range of skills that are considered essential to technological literacy, the test design may be limited in its ability to measure some areas, the draft states, such as the habits of mind and critical-thinking skills that are considered essential to a deeper understanding and use of technology.

“This is an important development, I can say that without reservations because technological literacy is such a critical element of being a successful 21st - century citizen,” said Valerie Greenhill, the director of strategic initiatives for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Tucson, Ariz.-based advocacy group. “The progression being made in the technology community away from the notion of just technology competence, such as how to use a computer, to … developing that literacy with the use of technology in daily life and in core academic subjects as well is incredibly important. To the extent that the NAEP is developing a framework that guides the development of these competencies is a welcome move.”

A number of states have implemented tests of technology or information literacy, and most have adopted the national K-12 standards in the field produced by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) committee that has been devising the framework has reviewed state technology standards, studies on assessing technology skills, and the guidelines and recommendations of ISTE and other organizations.

“We want students to understand that technology is not just computers,” said Senta Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, who co-chaired the framework committee. The center is based at WestEd, a research organization in San Francisco.

The goal, Ms. Raizen said at a meeting earlier this month where the draft was unveiled, is to understand “the human design world, where do things come from, where does our technology come from.”

She and others involved in the project say the material represented in the framework could be covered in science class, but also in subjects across the curriculum, such as mathematics, history, social studies, and language arts.

“We’ve seen movement for reading across the curriculum, writing across the curriculum,” Mr. Friedman said. “Well, technology across the curriculum makes as much sense as those do.”

Indeed. I have only given the draft a cursory review, but things look to be on the right track. I worry about the ability to assess many of the targets outside of the classroom---however, that does not make for poor targets. The ideas are general enough that they truly could be embedded with nearly any curriculum. And, most importantly (to me), they include the concept that technology is not just stuff. On the flipside, do teachers need another set of standards to think about? (No.) Will schools embrace technology standards? (Unlikely at the current time, given the focus on literacy/math and placement of filters.) But perhaps these are good "ammo" for those trying to beat down the filters and/or justify cell phones in their classrooms or any other of the myriad battles being fought betwixt those in the trenches and policy-makers outside. It's a start.

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You Heard It Here First

23 August 2009

In my previous job (the one that ended in June...not the one that ends this month), I was asked to think about what professional development might look like for Washington's new science standards. I believe in high-quality staff development...and working with educators is one of the things I do best. It's no secret that I am not a fan of the new standards; however, that does not mean that teachers shouldn't have the best support possible in trying to implement the beast. I had already seen enough poor PD offered around these standards. I knew that I could do better.

As I continued to think about creating some materials, I realized that there were quite a few challenges inherent in the task. First of all, the materials had to be appropriate K-12: there had to be places for teachers at all grade levels to connect. Secondly, any "stuff" had to be cheap and readily available---no special equipment and very little time/effort in preparation for those delivering the PD. Finally, there had to be a direct connection to the classroom. I know this last part seems obvious; but you and I both know that there is plenty of staff development floating around which does not provide time or opportunity for adult learners to apply what is relevant to their classrooms.

I struggled to come up with the perfect thing. And then...I did. An Inquiry activity involving no more than paperclips and paper...integrated with a Ray Bradbury story that framed the discussion...and tools for engaging with the standards that were flexible for every grade level. I captured my thoughts---and frankly, I think the basic plan is one of the very best I have ever created. I am sad that I will never get to present it.

I only made one mistake in this whole process: I told two people about my idea. And with me out of the picture (job-wise), these two people have decided to wholesale steal my idea and pass it off as their own. They are not ready to publish their version...but they are very close. You can be very sure that my name will not be credited anywhere in their information.

So, my friends, I am sharing my professional development experience with you. Although the references to the standards within are for WA, I'm quite sure every state has something on Inquiry and Forces/Motion. Just sub in your codes for ours.
I admit that these things are still a bit raw. There is always room for improvement. But I still think the basic concept is golden. I don't mind sharing, but I abhor outright stealing. Maybe it is a fine line these days in this digital world, but I would like to think that integrity transcends the medium. You may think this post represents sour grapes about my job, but I see this as a way to document the impending plagiarism. (And trust me, there is no way I want to work for those people again.) Just remember, you heard it here first.

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It's the Instruction, Stupid

13 June 2009

I keep seeing a lot of posts and articles about the drive for national standards for literacy and math (and perhaps science on down the road). Recently, Washington state has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to revise its math and science standards (and recommend "aligned" instructional materials).

I can't help but be a bit mystified by all of this.

I understand the purpose of a standards-based education for every child. What I don't understand is the assumption that better standards (whatever that means) will equal increases in student achievement. It comes from another false conclusion that the reason scores on student achievement measures are low is because there must be something wrong with the current academic standards.

Sorry, but that dog just won't hunt. Standards are all well and good in their place, but they are not some sort of magic bullet for student learning. Even before the days of NCLB, standards, and standardized testing, there was an achievement gap. The presence of those things does not seem to be making much more difference than their absence.

I have to wonder how much greater impact on students we could have if all the money and energy was actually spent on supporting good instruction. Just imagine what could be accomplished if the focus on creating national standards was repurposed into instructional coaching, time/money for teacher collaboration, or other practices that have a direct impact on kids. What if we left the standards and assessments we have in place long enough to get the instructional pieces determined?

At some point, we have to look seriously at classroom instruction. To only focus Legislative attention on the framework (standards, instructional materials) and output (testing), neglects the most important part of the process: what happens in a classroom between a teacher and students.

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Can We "Think Globally"?

03 April 2009

There was a discussion at work recently about some new "global" standards that are in development. These are not for the state, but will be put out by a private educational entity. Most people seemed really excited by the discussion. Me? Not so much.

I was remembering a former co-worker talking about a book or article he had read that made the case that the human brain just doesn't have the capacity to consider global ramifications of our actions. We were hunters and gatherers---we are adapted to focusing on local concerns and issues within our own territory. Even if technology is making the world "smaller," the fact is that most of us really do stay within a very small range. This doesn't mean that it is okay to be irresponsible with resources, but the basic understanding we need to have about our actions is that they have consequences (good and/or bad). That's it.

Can we teach children to "think globally"? Not little ones. Sure, they can learn geography and sociology/cultural information. But to actually conceptualize their relevance to the world at large? Well, you probably need some well-developed frontal lobes for that...so we're talking teenagers as the first potential batch of "global thinkers." And even then, do they have enough life experiences to make those connections?

At my advanced age, and with the advantages I've had in life, I'm not sure that even I can fully display an ability to think on such a large scale. I can wrap my mind around "actions/consequences." I understand that resources are finite. I have the capacity to make good choices within the locus of control that I have (including how I spend my money). Beyond that, I don't know how much more global I can be.

I'm just having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of having these targets. Do we need standards for being a global citizen? Do we need them just for American students...or do we expect Zimbabwe, Chile, Bosnia, and everyone else to have the exact same ones, too? If I live in a jungle in the Amazon, do I really need to think globally? Or do I just need to be responsible for myself and the environment around me? If everyone did this part, wouldn't we be acting globally? And wouldn't that be more important than just thinking about it?

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Standard Rhetoric

10 March 2009

In the not-too-distant future (i.e. around the end of the Legislative session next month), Washington state will have new science standards. They are being billed as a revision; however, they are a drastic departure in both content and format from the current/previous version. (If you're interested, you can see them here.) I know I'm just an old fart who doesn't like change, but I really don't like this new version. In my opinion, the old ones did a much better job of stating conceptual understanding and allowing for higher order thinking. I also have issues with some of the scientific inaccuracies (e.g. Explain that a balloon expands when you blow air into it because air fills up the container by pushing against the outside air.), but more importantly, several of the targets have nothing to do with academic concepts. Here are two examples from grades 4-5:
  • Work collaboratively with other students to carry out an investigation, selecting appropriate tools and demonstrating safe and careful use of equipment. (WTF? Are we endorsing group assessment instead of individual learning?)
  • Respond non-defensively to comments and questions about their investigation. (I don't even know where to begin with this one. Cultural bias? Ability to validly assess? I can't wait until some parent sues a school over this one.)
Setting this aside for the moment, it should be mentioned that these standards might not last very long...so perhaps I shouldn't get too worked up. The state supe has made some rumblings about looking at tossing our state's hat into the ring of national standards. According to Education Week, he isn't the only one:

Some schools deemed to be failing in one state would get passing grades in another under the No Child Left Behind law, a national study found.

The study underscores wide variation in academic standards from state to state. It was to be issued Thursday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The study comes as the Obama administration indicates it will encourage states to adopt common standards, an often controversial issue on which previous presidents have trod lightly.

"I know that talking about standards can make people nervous," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently.

"But the notion that we have 50 different goal posts doesn't make sense," Duncan said. "A high school diploma needs to mean something, no matter where it's from."

Every state, he said, needs standards that make kids college- and career-ready and are benchmarked against international standards.

The Fordham study measured test scores of 36 elementary and middle schools against accountability rules in 28 states.

It found the schools failed to meet yearly progress goals in states with more rigorous standards, such as Massachusetts. But they met yearly progress goals in states with lower standards, such as Arizona and Wisconsin.

No Child Left Behind is misleading, said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the nonprofit Fordham Foundation.

"It misleads people into thinking that we have a semblance of a national accountability system for public schools, and we actually don't," Finn said. "And it's produced results I would call unfair from one state to the next."

No Child Left Behind was championed by President George W. Bush and passed with broad bipartisan support, though it has since become hugely unpopular.

The law prods schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014. It is up to states to set yearly progress goals — "annual yearly progress," or AYP — and each state has its own standards and tests.

It is unlikely the Obama administration or Congress will try to force states to adopt the same standards.

Rather, they favor a carrot-and-stick approach that offers states funding to develop new standards and tests or offers more flexibility under No Child Left Behind.

The House Education Committee chairman, Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, called for incentives when Congress prepared to rewrite the law in 2007, an effort that subsequently stalled.

In the Senate, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander pushed legislation that offered to waive the rigid annual yearly progress structure in exchange for raising standards to national or international benchmarks.

And in the newly enacted economic stimulus bill, there is a $5 billion incentive fund for Duncan to reward states for, among other things, boosting the quality of standards and state tests.

Several states are moving in that direction; for example, 16 of them working with Achieve, a nonprofit founded by governors and corporate leaders, have adopted common math and English standards.

Any effort toward common standards is likely to have support from teachers' unions.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, wrote an op-ed piece Monday in The Washington Post arguing for national standards.

Like Duncan, she used a football analogy, comparing the patchwork of standards to a Super Bowl where the Pittsburgh Steelers must move the ball a full 10 yards but the Arizona Cardinals must go only 7.

"Every other industrialized nation has national standards," Weingarten said in an interview. "When you start thinking about how are we going to create a school system throughout the United States that helps enable kids to be prepared for college, prepared for life and prepared for work, you have to start with common standards," she said.

Nancy Flanagan has already conducted an excellent Thought Experiment about the idea of national standards. As I have reviewed the new standards for science here, I have had the same question she poses: Will these really change anything? The fact is, I don't. When classroom instruction changes, perhaps we will see differences in student learning. Also, after my recent experiences with educational "experts" lending their voice to conversations about science instruction, I'm turned off by the idea that these same people would likely be the type to be invited for a national level conversation...while teachers would be left out.

Over at ASCD, there is quite the slew of comments over a post relating to national standards.
A topic that has been making noise lately is whether the United States should develop national standards so that all schools would have a common core curriculum. The National Governors Association issued a report saying that not only should the United States adopt national standards, but international curriculum should also be incorporated so that students can be globally competitive.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is also calling for national standards, saying that nations performing better than the United States have national standards. Weingarten cites Minnesota's and Massachusetts's high performance on international assessments as proof that a common, rigorous curriculum would be a boon to all states.

According to recent reports, having national standards in place would allow students to compete with the rest of the world and can help strengthen the economy (smarter and skilled workers have better paying jobs). Because the world rapidly evolves due to technology, it is naive to think that the United States can continue to educate students without a set curriculum that will allow U.S. students to excel in their studies and make them competitive after completing school.
I encourage you to go have a look at what people are posting...because I get the impression that this discussion isn't going to subside anytime soon. If anything, we're just at the beginning of this rhetoric...and perhaps not too far from words becoming actions.

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The Evolution of Biology

02 May 2008

My hunch is that for most adults, memories of a high school biology class conjure up memories of major groups of living things and some dissections. Times have changed---mostly increasing the amount of molecular biology (proteins, DNA, genetics) and decreasing the emphasis on a survey of living things.

As I finish up the year with my students, I am discovering that this may be the first year in which I do not actually talk about living things in a holistic way. I don't think we're going to talk about plants, animals, fungi, and protists---and only have a cursory look at bacteria. Imagine biology without snips, snails, and puppy dog tails.

Part of the reason for this is simply the standards themselves. Believe it or not, phylogeny is not part of the science standards here in Washington. As I've focused this year on getting kids to meet the standards that we do have, there isn't going to be time for "extras." I've been reflecting on this, wondering if it's still biology without whole living things. I've decided that I'm okay with this. We're spending nearly all of the last quarter of the school year on human biology---and perhaps an understanding of body systems is more important in the long run than being able to tell the difference between three phyla of worms.

I've also been thinking about something I heard at WERA. The keynote speaker was Dean Fink and he was sharing some of his ideas around Leadership for Mortals. The part which really resonated with me was how we (educators) have confused standards with standardization. They are not the same thing. Although we expect all students to reach the standards, they do not all have to follow the same path to get there. Perhaps that is a good reminder for me, too. There can be many pathways to "biology." As our understanding of the field evolves on a daily basis, maybe the classroom needs to as well.

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Mathiness

Washington has (finally) finished its math standards revision---at least for k-8. This is the segment I'm most interested in, and I have to say that I like what I see. (You can learn more here about about the new standards, if you like.) The language has been cleaned up. It is very clear what a child should know and be able to do in terms of meeting the standards. Teachers no longer have to guess whether or not kids "understand" certain things. As an instructional coach working with elementary teachers in the realm of math, I feel much relieved about the new standards. (We'll see where the new curriculum choices lead us.)

In terms of math instruction, the New York Times recently reported a study suggesting that the fewer real-world examples of math used, the better. This might seem counter-intuitive to what we usually think about the relevance of learning, but it may be that students get caught up in remembering the "two trains leaving A and B..." parts and not so much in how speed and direction are important. A severe limitation of this study was that it was conducted with college age students. The authors want to generalize to younger students, but I'm not sure that this would bear out. It would be interesting to see, however, so I hope that more research is done.

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I Submit to You

08 December 2007

For those of you who read the header of this post and immediately imagined fuzzy handcuffs, you're going to be disappointed with the rest of this. Just click the "Back" button on your browser and move on with your day.

The header is taken from a presentation by Rick Stiggins. He used the phrase no less than 11 times in one hour. I was more of a purist in tracking this than the people at the next table---who also included all of his "I suggest to you..." and similar sentence starters and therefore had a much higher count at the end of the speech. Stiggy has not been a fav of mine for a long time (long story), but his keynote yesterday morning really ticked me off.

His basic call to arms was around report cards. In his mind they are hopeless and outdated because they don't communicate the depth and quality of information all possible stakeholders might need. Grades and report cards are dinosaurs.

Okay---I would agree that a single report card is highly unlikely to tell kids, parents, teachers, admins, community members, etc. everything possible about where a student is in terms of achievement. Ricky-baby, they aren't meant to do so. A report card is one out of a myriad of ways schools communicate with stakeholders about student progress. Every time a teacher provides supportive feedback, every time kids peer edit work, every time a teacher calls home to a parent or writes a letter of recommendation---communication happens. There is no need for a report card to be everything to everyone. (I shiver to picture what it would look like if it did.) Maybe the "communication system" Stiggy was wailing about needing (he really does like to yell into the microphone) is already available. We have way more data at our fingertips than what is found simply in report cards.

My second issue with His Stigginsness was his view of motivation. One of his basic assumptions is that every classroom environment is one of performance---and he provided not a single frame of reference to mastery classrooms. Achievement motivation theory has been the preeminent framework for studying student motivation for more than 20 years. Don't stand up there and claim some expertise in assessment and motivation and then give your listeners only half the picture because the other half undermines the point you want to make. Maybe it isn't a question of what report cards do or don't communicate. Maybe the big picture is really on what happens in the classroom environment on a daily basis that supports student learning. "Assessment for Learning" is all well and good---but you have to give it a context.

So, I submit to you that Stiggins' grasp of standards-based environments is rather flawed. Those of us in those environments are going to have to raise our voices.

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Is Less More?

20 November 2007

Many many moons ago, my dad and I went to a regional National Science Teachers' Association convention together. I was still very much a newbie at that point and it was fun to pal around with my dad doing grown-up teacher things. Mind you, he was a college prof, so we didn't attend a lot of the same sessions. It was at this convention that he was introduced to the concept of "Less is more." when it comes to teaching. I remember how he scoffed. I remember agreeing with him. There's so much to learn...why would you possibly leave anything out on purpose?

As I've moved into later stages of my career, I've started to find that maybe the whole "Less is more." idea has a lot going for it. I find myself honing in on what The Big Idea is for a unit and sticking with it. I am more willing to let go of the details in terms of what I expect kids to know...and less willing to allow kids to get away without constructing a few simple concepts around The Big Idea.

There are very few worksheets as compared to early in my career. Never do kids write out lists of definitions for each chapter. We do more thinking together as a group and then reflecting on our work in the notes. I am less about cramming as much information as possible into one class period and more about teaching one or two ideas as deeply as I can. I don't need to "baffle them with bullshit," as I often did early in the career---thinking that I was convincing them with my vast array of knowledge (rather than realizing I was just confusing the kids).

Even still, I feel like there is too much to teach. There are over 20 to help kids reach this year---and while previous teachers have definitely laid the groundwork, it is still my responsibility to lead them down the home stretch. Twenty standards in 36 weeks---standards which exclude a lot of what we old folks grew up with in biology (plants, animals, bacteria...). It's understandable that the more you know about your content area, the more you want to share it with others; but we have to remember that kids are just at the beginning of their learning. We don't need to overwhelm them. They have a lifetime to gain in knowledge, just as we have done. I can't help but think that even less would mean a lot more to our kids.

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Teaching to the Test

29 September 2007

I have a love-hate relationship with the phrase "teaching to the test." On one hand, I don't see a problem. If I'm teaching kids things which are different from what they will be tested on, what the heck am I doing? Shouldn't I be using class time to help kids learn the concepts I expect them to know when we get to the test?

It's the use of the phrase within the context of state-level exams that gets my goat. I can't speak for other states, but here in Washington, we don't know what's going to be on the test from year to year. We can only "teach to the standards," meaning that we help kids learn all the concepts...knowing that they won't be asked to demonstrate mastery of every single one. Teaching to the test gets a bad rap much of the time in this case. It conjures up visions of "drill and kill" in the classroom---something which can and does happen, but not in my classroom. When I work with kids on their expository writing skills (they are in love with But-Man this year), I am teaching to the test, in a sense. When they take the science WASL, they will need to be able write a thorough scientific conclusion. They aren't marked on their writing skills (there is a writing test for that), but the ideas they communicate. The "trick" is to help kids learn what information is important in a conclusion. This is the standard. Yes, I'm training them to demonstrate something for a test, but it is not drilled into them over and over out of context.

My students are about to take the first test of the year in my class. I use various summative forms of assessment---exams are just one piece of the puzzle. Several years ago, I started making my tests resemble the format kids would see on the science WASL. There is a scenario, consisting of a few sentences; a diagram or picture which relates to the scenario; and then some multiple-choice, short answer, and or extended response items which ask kids to use their knowledge within the context of the scenario. Am I "teaching to the test" by using this format? I suppose I am; however, I think it's unfair to expect students to be successful with the state test if the format is completely alien to them.

In the grand scheme of things, I am still learning (after 16+ years in the classroom) how to design good tests. The ones which come with the ancillary materials are often poor in quality---either because of the cognitive demand (only knowledge and basic comprehension questions) or because the items don't target the most important concepts. In building tests, I am getting better at organizing the items in terms of difficulty, balancing the points among selected response and short answer (to avoid gender bias), and targeting higher levels of thinking. I'm not just teaching to the test anymore---I'm using the test to teach me how to better prepare my kids.

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The Courage to Question

24 September 2007

I share an office with another science teacher. I've been having fun tweaking him by getting the students who stop by after hours to ask him questions. "Mr. So-and-So, is this a formative or summative assessment?" or "What are the learning targets for this assignment?" Mr. So-and-So is a good natured soul and has been a good sport about the questions kids have asked...even though neither the teacher nor the students have been entirely certain what the conversation was about. All of this has led to some interesting questions on his part---and we are having an ongoing dialog about grading practices.

Today, he asked if I thought the high school would ever have a standards-based report card like the elementary schools. I told him I didn't, even though I wish we would. When he asked why we wouldn't move that direction, I didn't tell him the real reason (Boss Lady 2.0 doesn't have the balls to start the conversation with secondary schools), but rather we moved into talking about why it was more difficult to develop for junior and senior level offerings. Our state standards only go through 10th grade (although there are some draft "college readiness" standards now available for math, language arts, and science which are meant to target 11th and 12th grades). The real crux, however, is that there would need to be some agreement among the teachers of those classes (such as chemistry and physics) about what content was most important.

These conversations should happen, regardless of what format the report card takes. Does it not seem odd that every chemistry teacher in the district makes a decision about what constitutes "chemistry," let alone what a passing grade means? My hunch is that most would agree about the basics: structure of an atom, chemical bonding and reactions, properties of matter. However, what about acids and bases? equilibrium? Is stoichiometry really that important---or it is the concepts that are meaningful? I would expect some fights here, but all with good purpose.

It's unlikely that any of this will happen within the district. There's not enough interest---people are very comfortable in doing the same old same old without having to think about why they've made the choices they have. While I doubt that very many babies would be tossed with the bathwater, I still believe that as professionals we should engage in this kind of thinking. If we can't explain to one another the value of what is taught, how will we ever convince students of the value of learning it?

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Assessments and the Single Teacher

23 August 2007

Clix has posted two excellent questions this morning. One in particular caught my eye:

About grading - I like the idea of not docking points for summative assignments turned in late, as the focus should be on learning AT ALL, not necessarily learning at the same time as everyone else. However, I can monitor work that is completed in class to be sure that it reflects that student's own mastery. How can I ensure the same level of validity on work that is finished at home? This actually applies both to late work and to make-up work, now that I think about it.

I am certainly thinking about how to make this kind of game plan work, too, in the sense that the answer needs to be manageable for the teacher. If you're a secondary teacher, you already feel beleaguered keeping up with the marking that you have...and depending upon your policy, you know the crush of late work that magically arrives in your inbox at the end of a reporting period. Sure, it's important to honor the differentiated needs of the students, but criminy...how can I possibly commit to even more grading?!

One thing I have been thinking about is student-teacher contracts. I want to do something based off of this resource I have which shows the relationship between Bloom's Taxonomy levels, "verbs" (such as describe, judge, compare...), and appropriate products. There is an additional page of just student products, too. Many many options for kids---although certainly not all are appropriate for every learning target. Is it too much, I wonder, to ask a student to individually have a quick conference about what standards are "not there yet," look at the tool together so that the student understands how it works, and then send them off with it and a contract to fill out and return within the next couple of days? Once the terms (timeline, teacher agrees with the product and level of work) have been decided, it's up to the kid to make things happen.

Ah, you point out, that doesn't really address the grading issue. You're still going to have miscellaneous things floating in for assessment. My hope is that by frontloading the terms of the contract, the grading would actually be simplified. The contract is already a bit of a rubric---you just need to see that what the kid submits meets the stated criteria.

I know Clix (and others) worry about parent or peer, um, "help" in completing things. My personal opinion is that parents are less of a concern in this respect for secondary assignments and having kids design their own assignment makes peer interference less of a concern. It's always going to be an issue. The only thing I can think of to put one's mind to rest is to just have a short conversation about the student work with the student either when they turn it in or at another point. (Maybe an appointment to discuss the work should be part of the contract.)

The fact is, there are always going to be extreme cases we teachers are going to have to sort out. I also think that having all of the answers ahead of time makes things a bit of a bore. :) Good thing being in the classroom is never dull. I will always have a lot to learn.

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Piecing Things Together

02 April 2007

Several of us from this district attended a presentation by Ken O'Connor last week. He is something of a guru in the land of standards-based grading and reporting, something my district is valiantly trying to implement. The workshop was also a type of preview for us. Ken is contracted to provide three days of inservice to our staff in the fall.

O'Connor has some good and thought-provoking information, but I have some concerns about having him set the tone with our staff now that I've seen how things work. First of all, one-third of our elementary schools have already read his book (which is more or less exactly the same as what he presents) and have experience with standards-based grading. They need something to help deepen their knowledge base and answer some of their more significant questions. The rest of the schools also are a bit beyond "Standards-Based Reporting 101." Not much, but perhaps enough to be pretty darned bored by this particular presentation. If we have all of our elementaries attend at the same time, I don't think that anyone's needs are going to be met.

As for secondary...yikes.

We asked Ken at dinner last week if he had a different approach with secondary staff who hadn't had any exposure to thinking about standards-based grading and reporting. He doesn't. And while we believe that secondary teachers should reflect on their current grading practices, I'm worried that what Ken is going to say is going to piss them off to the point where anything good in the message will be lost forever. I can see where teachers are going to get hung up on the reporting of non-academic behaviors and making those considerations separate from the learning. I really think that those of us who will be charged with facilitating things are going to have to seriously develop some structure around the day and provide Ken with a bit more direction. I don't know how well this will work. O'Connor seems to have a very small circle of comfort.

I know it's Spring Break and I have many more fun topics to ponder, but this one keeps popping up to the surface. The week after Break, I'll be learning more about how the staff shake-up in our department will impact what is on my plate...including our Back-to-School planning. I'd like to have a clear picture in mind of how all of this is going to fit together.

Don't forget to head over to the Best of Blog awards and vote! You can vote once each day.

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Auntie Em! Auntie Em! It's a Twister!

31 March 2007

One of the conference sessions I attended on Thursday was presented by a school district which is just a little bit farther into the throes of standards-based grading and reporting than ours is. Their biggest lesson learned (so far) is something that we are just starting to find out for ourselves: teachers are hungry for "stuff." This is what that district termed all of the different tools teachers want: alignment documents, assessments, rubrics, and so on.

Here's where my thinking diverges from the other district. They look at the development of stuff as being cyclical, moving between a need expressed by teachers and a document created to fill that need. I think it's more of an ever-increasing death spiral: a real twister. A Curriculum department isn't just scratching a teacher's itch. It's feeding a hunger that can't be filled. It begins with something like identifying aligned curriculum materials and creating guides for using them. But then there's a question about accompanying assessments for each reporting period...and rubrics. Then intervention/remediation materials are needed...but having things by reporting period isn't quite enough. It's too long of a time frame. Now teachers see the need to have these same tools unit by unit or even questions about common rubrics for the assignments contained within. When I think about this across all grade levels and content areas, my head hurts.

For those of you thinking that this looks like I have perpetual job security, I admit that it looks that way on the surface. But at the same time most teachers are saying that The District should provide these, they're also wanting the Curriculum department to be disbanded. Go figure.

But more importantly, what's so wrong with teachers asking for this "stuff"? If it frees up teacher time so that they can focus on instruction, isn't that a good thing? Absolutely. I agree that teachers should have these tools---there isn't anything wrong with this motivation...this need to grasp something solid while educational reform whirls around them. My concern is that some of our teachers have a different source of desire for these materials---and for them, nothing can satisfy it. These teachers want to be able to remove elements of subjectivity from their practices. What could be better than knowing without a doubt the performance level of every kid in the class and being able to justify and communicate this to outsiders without agony. I understand that want. I know I've had many restless nights pondering the evaluation of my students. At some point, however, we just have to realize that we're humans making judgements about the achievement of other humans. No matter how many tools we have or hours of training in using them are we ever going to be able to be completely objective about things. I'm hoping that teachers who act with the best of intentions on the part of their students (which is nearly every one) will learn to accept their humanness in this process and forgive themselves of any faults along the way. Perhaps they can find the eye of the storm around them and have some peace of mind in the classroom.

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Free For All

21 March 2007

It's about every kid, every day.

How many in the education system are working under a different philosophy? How many teachers out there are laboring under "What's easiest for me?" The number of legislators thinking about "How many voters like me?" Can we quantify the amount of administrators who pick their battles on things other than student learning happening in their buildings? How many times will the Union step in to say that as long as teachers are happy, it doesn't matter what kids learn?

Maybe the problem is with me...maybe my philosophy about being in education is all wrong. Perhaps what happens in the classroom is not supposed to be about kids at all.

I was thinking today about a grade level group of teachers at one school who are having a bit of a tantrum about the new science kits this year. In their defense, I will say that they are teaching at the grade level which has experienced the most significant change to its curriculum and that the kits represent some heavy duty learning. Not so much in their defense, I will say that this is the school where their literacy coach had chest pains after trying to deal with their tantrums and was taken away in an ambulance. The staff there has quite the reputation. To wit, there is talk of involuntary transfers out of that building to shake things up...and the Union has already told staff there that they're not going to prevent it. The staff doesn't see themselves as bad apples---and there are some teachers there who are a delight to work with. But the ones who wrote me today? Not so much.

They have another curriculum they want to teach instead. So, here's where I am sitting...
  • The alternate they propose does not consist of district approved materials. It's not bad science, but does not necessarily address the same standards as the kit they're boycotting.
  • It's not my job to monitor what is or isn't used in the classroom: that task belongs to the principal.
  • The principal at this school is a lame duck. Not only is she being moved to another building at the end of the year (as are several other admins), but her staff as a whole does not respect her.
  • The Union keeps having a fit over the concept of academic freedom for classrooms...never mind that the case law doesn't back them up.
  • The WAC (state code) states that teachers must teach the curriculum which is selected for them.
  • Boss Lady 2.0 is certain not to back me up on anything I say to these teachers.
  • The legislature seems to be rather fickle about what it wants in the science standards, as well as their assessment.
  • None of the above have a student-centered philosophy.
In my own mind, finding a way to get the teachers to teach the kit is a battle worth fighting. As long as kids are (currently) going to be held accountable for the information in these kits...as long as their ability to graduate is based upon their proficiency with the standards...then they need to have a curriculum that supports their learning. Whether or not I can convince the other parties involved in this free-for-all is another matter.

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Foolish Consistency

24 January 2007

Teachers who have been on the job for awhile tend to have a "wait and see" philosophy about things. It has grown out of several experiences where something old has suddenly become new again...not to mention wave after wave of reform. It seems easy to just ride out the tide and see what the next new thing will be, especially if you're not a fan of the current ideals.

Standards-based education has been around for over a decade now, and while it doesn't look like it's going away, the form it takes keeps shape shifting. Now that we have a loose grip on our state standards, it appears that there could be some rearranging of things. HB1288 was introduced, recommending that the state standards be reviewed in light of both national and international standards and any adjustments suggested by September 1, 2007. Meanwhile, the feds are also suggesting a look at some national standards. I can see some pros (does this mean the feds would have to bear all the costs for testing) and cons (we're too big of a country to have a common set of curricula) to this. I really just want legislators to leave things alone for a couple of years. I feel like the wound of education reform is never going to heal because lawmakers keep picking at it. Sheesh.

I'm a little nervous about the state direction. I cringe to think what teachers will say when they find out that all of the hard work they've put in to align their instruction with standards has to be changed yet again...not to mention all of the district monies used to buy aligned materials and so forth. Foolish consistency might be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it might also mean sustained focus in the classroom.

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Baby Steps

22 October 2006

We continue to inch toward standards based reporting for students in the elementary grades. A lot of the reason for the slow going is that we need to develop tools for teachers along with their understanding of how to use them. There was a long meeting on Friday with the various curriculum specialists and Boss Lady 2.0 to try and map out what we need to do in the next few years. During the meeting, I had a bit of an epiphany. I had been feeling rather despondent because there's no way I can do what has been done with Reading and Writing---and I really don't feel like it's the right thing, anyway. I want to shy away from relying upon summative assessments for teachers and students. So, here's what I mapped out while other areas were talking and planning.

Below is a chart representing the science kits third graders have, along with the 1 - 4 scoring guide. The boxes would contain information for teachers about which lessons were specific to our standards, along with a description of what a student performing at a 1, 2, or 3 would "look like" for those lessons. A "4" would represent knowledge that is not directly part of the standards, but that kids might have mastered in addition to the goals.







So far, so good...but this only represents content information. What about the scientific process? This information is not kit specific. These are skills students would acquire and refine throughout the year. They need to be benchmarked---in other words, the standards represent a goal for the end of the year, but teachers would want to be able student progress along the way. Our report card is being communicated to parents as a document that shows where students are in their progress---not how they compare to the end goal. This means that the tool for teachers' assessment needs to look a little different:














Again, each box should contain specific information about what a teacher would see or hear a student doing. I would hope that the entire document for a grade level would be no more than three pages. We have the math/science cadre this year---reps from every building for every grade level in the district. It's a perfect forum to gain input on the benchmarks. Those teachers will have the best idea of what's developmentally appropriate throughout a year.

The benefit to teachers is that they don't have to individually figure out what to use in order to score students. Keep in mind that every elementary teacher is having to score every student in science, social studies, reading, writing, math, communication, and art. It's a huge amount of information to manage and we need to be mindful of what is on their plates.

The benefit to the district is that in taking the guesswork out of scoring, we have a much better chance of getting agreement between classrooms and among schools. A "3" in Ms. Smith's class would mean the same as a "3" in Mr. Sosa's class. It doesn't mean that they have taught things identically---teachers still have the academic freedom to tailor instruction---but it does mean that the outcomes are the same.

I'll float this with Boss Lady 2.0 tomorrow afternoon and then with some teachers Tuesday morning. Depending upon their feedback, I'll see if I can at least get one grade level drafted and perhaps round up a teacher or two to field test some things this spring. Does anyone out there in the great wide blogosphere have any suggestions I should incorporate?

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So That Explains It

02 October 2006

Here's the new thing I learned today: there is no such thing as a learning disability in science. There are no IEP goals allowed as they relate to science...and there will be no alternative assessments for special needs students in the area of science (as there are for math, reading, and writing). Apparently, science concepts are readily and equally understandable by everyone, even Republicans and/or fundamentalists.

This brings up some interesting issues as the reauthorization rolls around and the Science Accountability Act becomes a real possibility. Since there can be no accommodations with science tests (apart from ones applied to all testing situations), what will happen with these students? What will schools do about their scores and lack of AYP when SPED students are held to a higher standard in science than they are in math, reading, and writing?

In some ways, I understand that the "no disability in science" (Is that like "no crying in baseball"?) thing, especially where content is concerned; however, the vast majority of our standards are process and skill-oriented, just as reading and writing and most of math. Our standards have grade-level appropriate benchmarks and spiraling ideas through the grade levels. Why is it reasonable to expect that a child who is allowed to have a 3rd grade proficiency in math and language arts when in 10th grade must have a 10th grade proficiency in science?

I will certainly be paying attention in different ways as science continues to grow in the public education eye. As there is no likelihood that the rules governing SPED will be altered to include science as an area of disability, we'll have to be even more creative about supporting our SPED kiddos.

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Hard Questions

02 July 2006

I've talked with lots of parents over the last couple of weeks---parents of kids who didn't pass the state test (WASL) this spring. Most of the kids missed it by that much, as Maxwell Smart used to say. Others were way below the mark. Regardless, there were several hard questions I was asked by parents.

The hardest of all? "How come my kid got a 'B' in Honors English, but didn't pass the Reading and Writing tests?" I also had a math version of this question asked this week: "How come the teacher didn't prepare my son for the test?"

The Honors English parent was angry---she admitted as much, because she didn't want me to think she was mad at me. But my answer didn't make her feel any better about things. What I had to say was that the teacher didn't choose to focus on the standards, and instead evaluated the student on different expectations from what the state said a 10th grader should know. Because the teacher didn't use the standards for instruction, her assessment of student skills wasn't close to the state assessment. You can imagine the follow-up question: "Why didn't she do that?" The only one who can answer that is the teacher, although the parent might also like to pose the question to the principal, who is responsible for monitoring the instruction.

To be fair, the 10th grade test should be a culmination of all of the efforts k - 10. It's easy to point to the 10th grade teacher, but there were lots of people along the way who should have been building student skills. I pointed this out to the Math Parent, who was mad not only about his kid not being prepared to pass, but also being stuck with a poor teacher (in his opinion) all year. Mr., you're going to have to call The Union on that one---they're the ones who protect bad teachers.

In two years, kids are going to have to pass the science test in order to get their diplomas. The best reason for me to do this summer work for the district is to get a "heads up" about what the interventions are going to look like before we have to be added to the mix. I've already been delivering a very unpopular message with teachers all year: if you can't document that you've done what you were required by state law to do (teach the standards assigned to you), parents can come back and sue you. Teachers don't like that idea. If you have your own personal idea of what "biology" should look like, then why would you bother seeing what the state thinks is important?

Parents are going to ask us a lot of hard questions in two short years. I hope I can help teachers see that they're going to have to be prepared to answer.

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One of these things is just like the others...

07 November 2005

I sometimes miss my days of watching Sesame Street. Things were pretty simple. It was easy to identify which "one of these things is not like the others."

Why am I thinking about more halcyon days? Well, I sat down to spend some time with the elementary science standards today. Perhaps this seems like a long overdue task for someone who's the "science specialist," but I'm not officially assigned to those grade levels...yet. Anyway, as I sat there to read through things this afternoon, here are some of the discoveries I made:

  • Grade 4: Identify and describe the state of water as solid, liquid, or gas in different situations.
  • Grade 2: Illustrate and tell about the properties of water as a solid and liquid.

Hmmm....a bit of difference...but not a whole lot. What about...

  • Kindergarten: Identify observable characteristics of living organisms (e.g. spiders have eight legs, birds have feathers, plants have roots, stems, leaves, seeds, flowers).
  • Grade 2: Observe and describe characteristics of living organisms (e.g. spiders have eight legs, birds have feathers, plants have roots, stems, leaves, seeds, flowers).

Is it just me, or wouldn't you think that "observe" would come before "identify"? Beyond that, how is a Grade 2 teacher supposed to clearly distinguish between what his/her kids can do vs. a kindergartner?

There are other items of interest contained within the standards. What on earth am I supposed to do with these?

I did have one giggle, though. There is a kindergarten goal associated with being able to identify, name, and draw external parts of the body. We provide incoming kindergartners with the outline of a dog and various parts to choose from and place appropriately on the dog. You'd be amazed where many 5-year olds put the elephant trunk. Ahem.

Rob, who's a longtime fan of this blog, left this comment yesterday: "The silly thing about this is that you're having to do it at all. Since every Science Goddess in every district is going to need similar tools, why haven't the people who developed the standards provided the tools to teach the standards? Who better than the developers of the standards to identify the 'Big Ideas' which they contain. I know, I know, I'm dreaming..."

I wish I knew. In the midst of my preparations to commit Hari-Kari over the elementary standards this afternoon, the reading specialist pointed out that the people at the state level don't seem to have a clue. It gives you a similar sense of disillusionment as when you found out that your parents didn't know it all. Aren't the people leading the state supposed to be more clued in?

So, I'll putter along with all of this and we'll see what happens. In the meantime, I have to revisit my Sesame Street so that I can perhaps better figure out which of the standards is "totally different."

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What's the Big Idea?

06 November 2005

One of the things on my "to do" list is to identify the "big ideas" contained within the standards and put them into friendly language (while maintaining the integrity of the concepts). I have some sort of chart pictured, so that teachers can see not only what they are responsible for, but how it fits with the overall K - 10 flow. I would also like to put together some sort of quick reference for teachers so that they know when kids (are supposed to) learn different things. If you've always taught atoms, but can see that it is assigned to another grade, perhaps it might be easier to focus on what your objectives are.

The second task is much simpler than the first. I'm really struggling with the whole graphic organizer thing for the big ideas. I know that it sounds like it should really be simple to do. But there are just so many standards---and I'm wanting to make things fit nicely on a page. It may be that these two things are just so much at odds that I will have to let go of the "one page" goal. My other problem is that things don't spiral nearly as nicely in science as they do in math, for example. I've seen a chart another state produced for calculus---and underneath are all the math standards that lead to up to a student's ability to be successful with calculus. It's a thing of beauty. This may well be a possibility for the process skills in science, but dealing with the three Life/Physical/Earth science strands makes it very messy for content.

What I do visualize down the road is a nice sheet to go with each science kit used at elementary. The sheet would provide alignment with relevant standards, point out the most vital concepts contained within, and other resources for teaching and assessment. Of course, the Big Idea would be right at the top. This sort of approach has been well-received in terms of the math expectations. It might be quite palatable for teachers to also have it in science.

In the meantime, if anyone has any great ideas for how to squeeze eleven years of content onto one page, I'd love to hear them!

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I Gotta Quit Looking for Work

04 November 2005

Did you ever read Hegel? (quite the challenge to attempt) One of his ideas was that "God" was the sum of all human knowledge...and God was growing. Maybe I am well and truly a Goddess by this view of things---because I keep acquiring information and my job is ever growing.

I have dipped my toes in the water of elementary science. So far, I'm just working with teachers at 3 (out of 14) elementaries. Each time I work with one staff member, I get called to come back and talk to more teachers. I don't mind taking my message to the masses. I'm glad people are hungry for delivering better science instruction...but some of this makes my head hurt.

Earlier this week, a teacher called and asked if I would work with her on developing a couple of inquiry lessons with the science kit she's starting with her 5th graders: Mixtures and Solutions. I grabbed the guide for this kit and thought it would be a simple matter to pick out some ideas to build on for the inquiry pieces.

I realized a few things as I did a quick overview of the kit. First of all, the concepts it targets are really designed for Grades 9 and 10---at least according to our standards. This is not to say that 5th graders couldn't do the activities in the kit, but there won't be any deep meaning developed to go along with the activities. At this point, kids haven't even been exposed to particles, much less atoms. Derived units (like density) are a middle school concept. Are they ready to take on saturation and concentration? How do kids do inquiry when they haven't sufficient background knowledge to start from---and there won't be something at the end to tie to their new learning?

Once I had my little fit about this, I realized it wouldn't do me any good. We might be able to address this problem in the future, but the teacher needs help now. So I managed to find a few things in the directions which would lend themselves to inquiry. It will really be process for its own sake. This isn't the best sort of solution, but it's a start.

This is just one kit. I haven't even looked much at the others. There are more than 20. From what I understand, most of them are really well designed. Many fit well with our state standards. I know that I will need to look more at this in the future...and that it will likely lead to a lot more questions and a lot more work.

Good thing this goddess has quite the appetite.

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Insanity at Work

27 October 2005

Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” On the other hand, you could go insane just from trying different things.

A group of biology teachers in the district has been working to organize the curriculum around the state standards. It would be simple enough to just find a few existing activities and call it good. Hey, photosynthesis is photosynthesis---who cares?

But the problem here is two-fold: one is that biology is the most failed class in the school; and two, the school has the lowest science WASL scores. Kids are struggling in science. To be fair, this is not just a biology teacher issue. There are other teachers in previous grade levels...but it is the biology teacher's name on the WASL report.

To prevent continuing insanity where grades and scores are concerned, the teachers are trying a different approach with a particular standard at the moment. I won't get into all the particulars of the set-up, but the overall plan is a very cool one. It is somewhat constructivist in the sense that there are investigations happening before vocabulary is attached---but the idea is really to make photosynthesis and cellular respiration more "real" to kids...to have them make some meaning around the idea of energy as it applies to living things.

Doing this is very different for teachers. I'm sure that it's unusual for many students, too. Anytime that you do something that's outside your regular comfort zone---which is read the textbook (in order), write definitions for vocabulary, answer section review questions, and do a few canned labs---you're going to be uneasy. And two weeks into this most recent unit, things are breaking down for a couple of teachers.

One is just reverting back to his usual thing...and then trying to add the new stuff in. As you might imagine, he's feeling overwhelmed and pressed for time. He hasn't made the shift from running a teacher-centered class to a student-centered class. Another teacher is relatively new to the profession and came from a place where every lesson was prescribed and provided for her. She hasn't had to do any significant planning and being without that scaffold is greatly upsetting to her at this point.

What are the options? One is just to go back and do what we always do. It feels good to us...but we know what it means to the kids. The other option is to keep moving forward, even if it's stressful---and recognize and ask for more support. There are some things that I can offer and do. We'll see what they choose to accept from me.

This is not going to be the last time this issue rears its head. This is only one group of teachers at a particular school...and they are farther ahead in their thinking than most of the science teachers in the district. What I have to do is think about anticipating some of these needs a bit better and how to help teachers transition what happens in their classrooms. It isn't easy. I have plenty of my own transitions to make and no roadmap to use.

But I can't go back. It's just too insane.

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Numbers Game

11 September 2005

I have been told that one of my areas of focus as district Science Goddess will be data analysis. Science testing is required by NCLB, but it is not factored into AYP...yet. (NCLB is up for renewal/revision next year and most people are betting that science will make the move into AYP territory.)

I have been provided with some basic testing data during the last two years, but now I actually have access to the databases and software in order to dig a little deeper. A preliminary glance at things reveals some rather frightening and thought-provoking results.

Just using the school I teach at as an example...


  • Only 3% of the 10th grade boys who were part of the Free and Reduced Lunch program met the standard in science (compared to 35% who weren't part of that program). And, perhaps I should just say 10th grade "boy," because 3% represents a single student. Girls fared better, but "FRL" girls met the standard at half the amount of the others (24.5% vs. 49.3%). Free and Reduced Lunch is one indicator of income...so, in other words, students from "poor" families did worse than those of middle class (or above).
  • Not a single African-American male met the standard in science (compared with 33.3% of Asian, 40% of Hispanics, and 30% of Whites). Oddly enough, African-American students of both sexes had the highest Reading scores of any subgroup...but were lowest in math, writing, and science.
  • In general, 43% of our girls met the science standard...but only 31% of our boys did. Boys did outperform girls on one strand of the standard, however girls were far and away stronger at everything else in science (especially "Inquiry"). Beyond that, girls beat the pants off the guys on all of the tests.

Other schools in my district show the same pattern, even if their particular numbers are a bit different.

Whether or not you like NCLB, it has caused us (meaning American educators) to really start taking a hard look at issues of equity. I personally believe that those conversations are long overdue, even if the structure of NCLB leaves much to be desired. Because we know that skin colour is just "skin deep," so why does it have such an enormous result in testing? And what do we do about that? We know that children who come to us from economically deprived backgrounds have fewer life experiences to draw from and that their background knowledge needs extensive support. How do we best do that to give them equal footing with their peers? Why does a Y chromosome apparently have so much influence over performance on standardized tests?

Or does it? Maybe it's the instruction. Well, more than "maybe." I really wonder what it is that we're doing in the classroom that creates some of these differences in the outcomes. What will I look for when I'm out at various schools? How can I help my colleagues address these differences and support student learning for all kids?

Lots of questions, I know. I am at the beginning of a journey for my district---and I'm not sure where it will lead. I have some numbers in my pocket and it's hard to divine a road map from them. Yes, kids are more than just numbers, but the data are signposts that some kids aren't getting what they deserve. Any Tour Guides out there?

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Ambitious Thoughts

21 August 2005

I've been doing some reading in the last couple of weeks. I had five new education-related books come my way and most of them are pretty good. In fact, one is just plain outstanding. It is "From Standards to Success" by Mark O'Shea. And if you're a teacher, administrator, curriculum specialist, or kin to those, you should see about getting your hands on a copy.

This book is the first one I've run across that has a no-nonsense plan for integrating the standards into the classroom. There are plenty of resources out there that tell you the standards are important and that using them is necessary for student achievement---but until now, I haven't seen one that tells you how to take those words and translate them into something practical.

One of the suggestions I like is to use Pacing Guides with the curricula. Basically, for each course, the standards are identified and then sequenced. The teachers then have this document that tells them what they should be working on with students and when. (The "how" is still up to the teacher.) This also allows for various "benchmark tests" throughout the year to see how students are progressing toward proficiency with the standards. For those of us in science who are only scheduled to get two sets of data in this regard before students take the 10th grade asessment, having our own benchmark exams could be extremely helpful.

Can I sell this idea to my colleagues? I'm not sure. It could be quite the fight if teachers think that Pacing Guides will mean that they are all lockstepped into teaching things the same way on the same date...which is not what the intention is at all. I'll bring it up at our meeting in another week and we'll see how many rocks get hurled in my direction.

My school district is willing to put its money where its mouth is. The two schools that currently have inadequate facilities for science are going to get remodeled next summer. (just the science areas---not the whole buildings) We are also going to be hiring more science teachers because full-year science will become a reality at all junior highs for all grade levels. My Boss Lady has allotted over $100,000 to spend on new materials for science. And more money is set aside for teachers to collaborate.

What are our teachers willing to do? This is no insult to the hard work that they have already taken on...or to suggest that they're slackers. But I know that I get "territorial" about what happens in my classroom. Are they willing to set aside some of their more personal projects to build a common plan? Can they shift their thinking to view the future from the perspective of their students? I'm hopeful that we can find a way to do that---and all without any teacher feeling that their individuality has been lost in the shuffle.

It's going to be a very big year for science in the district. Better fasten my seatbelt.

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Eggs-periments with Inquiry

28 May 2005

The biology teachers (most of us, anyway) at my school have been doing some work with our curriculum. Now that the state has provided us with a roadmap of content, what should we do? It's also been a good time to talk about aligning expectations in one another's courses. The process has been slow, but has generated good discussion and collaboration.

One of the ideas generated was that for each Grade Level Expectation (GLE) we teach, there would be an inquiry-style investigation that would last for a good portion of the unit. This would not, of course, be the sole lab experiment. We were looking for a way to ensure that students had the necessary time and experience to develop "good" questions and design ways to test them. There would be a couple of choices for these inquiry strands of a unit, depending upon a teacher's strengths and interests.

We have a very enthusiastic teacher (Julio) on our staff. Now, it's true that we're all pretty passionate about teaching science, but this guy...well, I always think of him as a puppy. He has a very high energy level and is always on the move. Julio is constantly looking for ways to outdo himself in terms of lessons, which occasionally leads to some nutty things: kissing a sea anemone in order to feel the sting...setting himself on fire (while wearing his lab coat) in order to demonstrate safety (he had a kid use the fire blanket to put him out)...and so on. Julio is older than me, but has less teaching experience. This is his second career---and he is developing into a fine professional.

It was suggested that we use egg osmosis as an inquiry strand. If you haven't seen or done this, you can play along at home. Just take an egg and put it in vinegar in order to remove the shell. Afterwards, you'll be left with a giant cell encased in a membrane. Now, put it in some karo syrup overnight. Or try a glass of water. Or salt water. Whatever you like---and observe what happens to your "cell." Osmosis is a fairly simple concept (water moves across a membrane to where there's less water), but kids have a very difficult time with it.

Julio took it upon himself to write up a lesson plan for using egg osmosis as an inquiry strand. And in true fashion, it was over the top and only really made sense to him. But I just couldn't stand to poop on it after he presented it to the rest of us. Instead, I took his work and reformatted it into the Inquiry Cycle. I just did a skeleton outline and sent him an e-mail starting with "I wonder if something like this would work..." He liked the idea and is off and running with it again---and I think it will be eggs-ceptional this time.

The moral of this story, for me, was how to use my Science Goddess power in a different way...and a way that I'd like to do a lot more often starting next year. My colleagues don't need me for content knowledge. They're experts in that. What they need, as Wes pointed out to me, is for someone to spend the time reading the professional literature and learning how to dig deeply into curriculum and instruction so that classroom teachers have a resource in me. They're teaching 150 kids a day. Many have families and other obligations. They don't have the time or headspace to do everything---and here is where I can lighten their load a bit. I really find that eggs-citing. :)

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When will the madness end? (Retirement?)

17 May 2005

I was supposed to have a 4-hour meeting today with the math curriculum specialist and the literacy specialist in order to look at areas where standards in our various specialties overlap. The idea is to help "unburden" elementary teachers by showing them that if they're teaching something like "organizing information," that such a skill can be found in all areas. They needn't memorize all three sets of standards (with more on the way). Meanwhile, secondary teachers tend to be too compartmentalized. "I'm a math teacher...why should I give a rip about the reading standards...that's the English department's job." Putting together a document linking some of the big ideas might start some meaningful dialogue between teachers at that level.

But, we're all meeting-ed out. It's the end of the year and all three of us are beyond the definition of "overworked" and regardless of what the calendar shows, it seems there's no end in sight. So, we chatted about some ideas for an hour and called it good. We did come up with a fantastic idea to use...and I'll be the one to flesh it out. After all, next school year is only 3 months away.

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