Friday, October 30, 2009

Where Professional Development IS an Inside Job

I agree wholeheartedly with Anthony Cody. Professional development should be an inside job. Within the Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS)it is.

Mr. Cody details the advantages to using local teachers to conduct professional development over outsiders.

1.The local has credibility. The participants know the presenter has actually taught and understands the challenges they face in their local context.
2.The local is available after the presentation to be an ongoing resource.
3.The local's expertise is recognized and affirmed, as opposed to being ignored.

Outside consultants should be brought in only when their particular knowledge is essential and lacking within the system. And these consultants should seek to collaborate with local teacher leaders so they can connect with existing practices and expertise. Their goal should be to invite the growth of local knowledge and skills so that teachers can lead the work as it develops going forward.

In most cases, however, local teachers should be considered the first and best choice for professional development within a district. If they are not experienced in leading their colleagues, they should receive support and training in this arena. The assumption that “outsiders always know best” should be replaced with the assumption that our teachers are the greatest experts we have available day-in and day-out in teaching our students. Developing their leadership is our best chance to drive sustained improvement in our schools.

I will add one more advantage to using locals for professional development. They are a lot cheaper.

When I was the local presenter, I did it for free---in the sense I was already being paid for the time, just like my audience was being paid to participate.

When I was the outsider, the district paid me transportation, hotel, and presentation fee. One workshop can easily cost a district $1000.

Your district can make it an inside job too. Teachers who would like to present should submit a presentation proposal to the district office. Even better than proposal trickling in one-by-one, a group of teachers in a school could create a package proposal. The only drawback is that some districts have already signed agreements with outside contractors. At least that is how my local district responded to my insider proposal.

But once those contracts expire, districts would be unlikely to renew once they realize the potential right at home, IF they have a sheaf of local proposals in hand. If just one or two teachers submit proposals, the district is likely to renew the outsider's contract. So teachers, get it together, and propose professional development truly relevant to your teaching circumstances. Go for it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Difference Between High Expectations and Harsh Mandates

A couple weeks ago I wrote about my role in raising academic achievement in one school. I had had a discouraging day and I wanted to encourage myself by reliving an accomplishment. So I was gratified to find I had prefigured Joann Yatvin's understanding of the Pygmalion effect. Well said, Ms. Yatvin.

The discrepancy between the Pygmalion researchers’ concept of high expectations and that of today’s reformers stems from the multiple meanings of the word “expectation.” To the researchers, it meant the power of belief to influence the behavior of others. To the reformers, it means the power of authority to exact compliance from underlings.

I did not announce to any of the students, “You WILL be studying algebra in the eighth grade.” Those kinds of so-called high expectations back fire.

What I did everyday is communicate to my students in a myriad of subtle ways that I believed in them, I believed in their abilities and I believed in their worthiness. My entire education philosophy could probably be summed up by a version of the Golden Rule. I thought, “If these were my kids, what would I do?” One parent reported to me that her daughter told her, “My teacher is so smart. If she thinks I'm smart, too, then I must be.”

That said, I raise a hearty amen to this comment:
As a lifelong educator, I am not so starry-eyed as to think that believing in students is all that teachers and schools have to do to enable them to succeed. Every school needs a strong curriculum, high-quality materials, well-planned instruction, extra-help options, and meaningful assessments.

Effective education is about meeting the need of the students, not pundits, politicians or even educators.

schools must appeal to and support the strengths of students, not play on their fears and weaknesses.

Schools are meant to be wellsprings of vigor, interest, exploration, growth, and illumination. Rigor, the word so often used by reformers to describe what schools should emphasize, is more properly the companion of harshness, inflexibility, and oppression. It is time to change the current conception of high expectations back to its original meaning.

Any former student of mine who happens to read what Ms. Yatvin says about rigor will chuckle. They will remember the many times I said that rigorous doesn't mean studying “hard;” it means studying right.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Making Lessons Sizzle"

I usually post short essays, but today I am going to depart from the usual and post nothing but a solitary link to Elizabeth Stein's article in teacher Magazine. I invite you to see how many of her seven tips you can incorporate into your teaching this next week (or maybe you already have lessons that sizzle) and report back with the results.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

4 Difficult Students and How to Handle Them

Have you ever noticed that it seems the harder you push back against difficult students, the more resolute they become? As strange as it may seem, resisting difficult students strengthens their behavior. Any first year teacher knows that no amount of scolding, detentions, whatever, work? It 's like they get on a destructive path and their egos become committed to seeing it through, sometimes to the point of expulsion from school. Even then, they will say the teacher or the principal had it in for them.

They complain to family and friends that their teacher doesn't like them. It may even be true. I had teachers who did not like me. It did not stop me from getting a begrudging A in their class anyway. Now we all know we cannot change anybody. We can only change ourselves. We know this,but somehow it doesn't stop us from trying anyway.

A strange thing about human behavior is that the more we try to change a person, the more set in their ways the difficult person becomes. So give it up. Someone said the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same things that never work.

At the same time, teachers cannot allow anarchy in their classrooms. Here is one approach to the dilemma. “Fighting” difficult students only makes them more difficult, so turn their behavior to a productive purpose.

1. The one who argues and loudly
After butting heads with Jeremy, a seventh grader, a few times, I realized he was simply argumentative. One day as he was warming up to another major class disruption, I took him out into the hall.

“What's up with all this argument?” I asked him.
“I not arguing,” he answered. “I'm an independent thinker. I have my own opinions about things.” (With that I knew he had come out of some of that phony critical-thinking curriculum that's out there, mixed in with some of that phony self-esteem stuff). I started with his own words.

“Okay, the whole point of education is to teach people to think, so I am really happy you value thinking and want to learn how to think. Of course, people need to develop opinions, but people also need to be able to logically defend their opinions.”

“That's what I'm doing, he rejoined. “I'm defending my opinion.”

“Well, actually what you are doing is just repeating your opinion, only more loudly. With every repeat, you get louder and louder until you are shouting.”

Jeremy nodded.

“So here's the deal. The way you defend you opinion is by showing with facts and logic why your opinion is justified. For example, if I have a silly opinion like smoking cigarettes is good for health, just because I can say that louder than you can does not make the opinion right. Being an independent thinker does not mean be able to shout down everyone.”

Jeremy nodded again.

I went on. “Next time you feel your opinion is being challenged, find one additional fact or piece of logic and share that in a voice lower than mine. That will also help your classmates learn to defend their opinions. Can we do that?”

Jeremy agreed. “We'll have a secret symbol. When you are starting to get loud, I”ll put my finger to my lips. Then you will know you are falling into your old habit, okay.”

It worked. Not instantly, and not without a little backsliding at first.

2. The one who throws your words at you.

This is the student who prefaces an objection with an accusatory “but you said...” or “you didn't say...”
Double challenge: when his buddies back him up. Sometimes the student is honestly misremembering. Sometimes the student is hoping that since teachers talk so much, day in and day out, you will not possibly remember what you said. (Interestingly, this amazing audio memory of students does not seem to help them with tests). Sometimes you really did forget what you said.

Getting into an argument about what you said or didn't say is pointless. You need to know what you said. Most the of the time, the student is objecting to your enforcement of a class policy or points lost for not meeting one or more criteria of an assignment. You prepared by not only clearly verbally presenting the class policies and assignments, but also every students has the policies and assignments in writing. Calmly point out the relevant chapter and verse.

If the student is still being difficult, and especially in the company of friends, you may want to separate him from his support group to have the discussion. Or you may realize that the students are expressing a sense of powerlessness. Then discuss the objective of the policy or assignment, get agreement with the objective, and SINCERELY ask the students how they would like to go about reaching the objective. Finally, sincerely consider their views, and possibly modify the policy or assignment.

3. The one who complains all the time.

Make these students your eyes and ears on the classroom. Students observe all the time that stuff goes on right under the noses of teachers and the teachers don't do anything about it. I once had a pair of students extorting money from their classmates everyday for weeks right under my nose. I knew something was going on. I once observe one student passing money to another. The body language was off and I asked what was going on. The victim said he had borrowed money the previous week and was paying it back. Students do not understand that teachers may have suspicions, but they usually they have to catch the perpetrators before they can do anything. The students almost always know about the problem for a long time.

The foregoing was just an example. Some students complain about all kinds of things, some trivial, some serious. Very often, their complaints have a measure of validity and it is very distressing to be blown off as “disgruntled.” We all have heard bosses dismiss a worker's complaint with an airy “You can't pay any attention to her. She's just a disgruntled employee.” So enlist the complainers as your confidential insiders and have them report to you directly. Take what they say seriously.

4. The one who resists authority
This student does not want to be ordered around. Truth be told, none of us wants to be ordered around. We all resent it. We especially resent orders whose only apparent reason is “because I said so.” If education is partly about passing on a democratic society and democratic values, taking an authoritarian stance creates dissonance, and sometimes even hostility. An authoritarian approach, especially if perceived as arbitrary, disrespects the students. Some of these students stereotypically see all teachers as representatives of offensive arbitrary fiats.

See point number 2. Give them autonomy. Surveys have shown that autonomy is a number one predictor of job satisfaction. When the boss says, “Here's what needs to be done. You figure out how to do it and report back to me,” employees are happy and motivated. Students enjoy the respect autonomy bestows. If you are talking, for example, about an assignment, tell them, “Here are the requirements of the assignment because here's is what the assignment intends to accomplish. You are welcome to accomplish the requirements of the assignment you own way as long as you meet the following conditions...”

Sometimes, making the effort to avoid catching them doing wrong pay great dividends. In one secondary school, 85% of the students smoked. Teachers had lunch duty for the express purpose of preventing the students from smoking. Some of the teachers took great delight in catching the kids smoking.

Now, I hate cigarettes. I grew up with heavy smokers and to this day I have persistent respiratory problem I attribute to all the second-hand smoke. When I had lunch duty, I would walk around singing. Needless to say, I did not catch very many kids smoking. Students repaid the favor with their in-class behavior.

Finally, look for opportunities to catch your students doing right, and compliment them PRIVATELY. Don't imperil their street cred or expose them to accusation of being “teacher's pet.”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Closing the Achievement Gap: One Modest Story

If you are an American overseas with a family, apart from homeschooling, there are generally three ways you can see to your kids' education. One, The Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS) on a military base, but maybe you are not active-duty military and you cannot afford the $17,000 (last I heard) annual tuition. Two, the local schools which may or may not be free, but your kids may not speak the local language. Three, an English-language international school. The tuition will be much more reasonable than DODDS, but the quality varies widely.

I was once a DODDS teacher, but I left when I found out that even though I was a teacher, I would be required to pay the exorbitant tuition. I left DODDS and went to work for a local international school for less pay, but then again, since tuition for faculty children was free, I had more take-home pay than with DODDS. Problem was the school had a reputation for being a low achieving school. When I left DODDS, my principal berated me for going to work for that “rinky-dinky school.”

Teachers and students alike muffled their answer when asked what school they taught at/went to. There was a serious achievement gap between DODDS students/local students and the students of this K-8 international school. When I came aboard, they were thrilled to get what they considered a real live genuine DODDS teacher. I taught middle school math and science, and that first year I was given the seventh grade homeroom.

Within two years, I closed the three-decades-old achievement gap. I did not set out to raise achievement. My only intention was to to the best I could for the students I had. How did it happen? First, I'll tell you what I did not do.

1.I did not lay on the mandates. I did not tell them, for example, that they would be required to take algebra in the eighth grade. Right now some states have decided that they can raise math achievement by requiring algebra in the eighth grade. It's a laudable goal, but a requirement is the wrong way to do it.
2.I did not lay on a high-stakes test for the students to pass or else. 'Nuff said.
3.I did not ask for more funding.

Most students want to achieve unless the goal seems unreachable. My students complained that they could never be, in their words, as good as DODDS students. I told them that there was nothing wrong with them. if they followed my guidance, they would be able to stand head and shoulders with DODDS students. They believed me, or at least, they were willing to give me a chance.

So here's what I did.

First, I decided to teach math individually. Individualized lessons are really hard work. I mean really hard work, often too hard to sustain for any length of time. I went a whole year. To start, I needed to find out where they were. I paid a visit to each of the lower grade teachers and got a copy of the textbook publisher's year-end test. I gave everyone the sixth grade test. I did not tell them, but in my own mind, they had to score 70% or better for me to consider them ready for seventh grade math. I did tell them I would be giving tests until I found their level. The nice thing about the tests is there is no obvious grade level designation. You have to know the code. To those that “failed,” I gave the fifth grade test, and so on until I had found everyone's level, and then that's where I began them.

One student did not get 70% right until she took the second grade test. On the first day of school, the parents of two students came to see me after school. They said their daughters, each other's bestest friend, were ready for algebra right now and would I teach them algebra while the rest of the class did the regular seventh grade math.

I said, “Sure, here's the seventh grade book. On the last day of my placement testing, I'll give the girls the seventh grade end-of-year test. If they score better than 80%, I will put them straight into algebra. Here, take the books. They are welcome to review all week, during math period and at home, and on Friday, I'll test them.” Both girls did very poorly on Friday, so they studied seventh grade math with the rest of the students at that level.

On the following Monday, I laid the ground rules. I would teach each lesson individually. Students were responsible for the homework on the lesson. Only the “seventh graders' had textbooks. Everyone else studied from material I gave them. If they had a textbook, the homework was in the book. Otherwise I provided the homework. Students studying at third through sixth grade levels were not burdened with carrying around materials that obviously identified them at the lower levels.

I had found three extra spiral-bound seventh grade teachers books in the book room. I set up a table in the back of the classroom with three chairs. Students were responsible for checking their own homework. They were amazed and thrilled with the trust and responsibility. If they got an answer wrong, they were to rework the problem themselves. If they still could not get the answer, they should ask a classmate who got it right to show them. If they still did not understand they could ask me. Sometimes (and this was a big disadvantage with individualized instruction) it was like, take a number. When they thought they were ready, they could ask me for the test on whatever chapter they were working on. If they got 80% or better, they went on to the next chapter. Otherwise, I would spend more time with them and give them more work until they could get 80% or better.

I discovered the students at so-called lower levels were plagued with early math misconceptions that no one had ever cleared up for them. Partly it was because they had been unable to verbalize their questions, so the questions went unanswered and interfered with later learning. As we dealt with these lingering misconceptions, the students began accelerating through their materials and quickly caught up to the on-level classmates. Because the only acceptable grades were 80%+, every student had As and Bs for math on their report cards. By the end of the academic year, all but two students had mastered the entire seventh grade textbook and knew they would be studying algebra in the eighth grade.

Shortly after summer vacation began, those two students visited me at home. “Will we have to finish the seventh grade book, before you teach us algebra?” they asked. “Of course,” I answered. “We thought so. Can we study with you during the summer so we can start algebra with the rest of our class?” I was delighted. Who in their right mind would say no to motivated students like that? It only took a couple of weeks and they were done. The principal said he had his own version of “Stand and Deliver.” I was just happy I would not need to individualize instruction anymore.

The following year I was thrilled to keep this group as their eighth grade homeroom teacher. It was the only time in my career I ever had the same homeroom a second year. Based on my experience with the benefits of continuity, I recommend keeping homerooms together throughout middle school and perhaps high school. As I said earlier, I was also their science teacher. When they were seventh graders, I spent extra time on the foundational basics of scientific thinking until they mastered it. Therefore I could skip this part when they were eighth graders. We ended up finishing the eighth grade science book early and spent the last weeks of school doing all kinds of independent inquiry.

While they were still seventh graders, I had the whole middle school do an in-school science fair, the first ever for this school. The following year, per teacher requests, I oversaw a school-wide science fair for all the grades. Grades K-2 did class projects. Grades 3-8 did individual projects. I trained their teachers to help their own students. Later I trained parents to be judges. I got permission to enter four of the projects in the regional DODDS science fair. At the DODDS science fair, all students were required to stand next to their projects during judging and defend their projects. All four projects took ribbons and I don't mean participation ribbons.

When they came back to school, they said, “We remember you promised we would stand head and shoulders with DODDS students and we did.” I reminded them that they did the work. Nothing would have happened if they had been unwilling to try.

At the same time all this was going on, I designed an ESL program for a group of non-English speaking middle schoolers from the local schools. Their parents had suddenly withdrawn their students from their own schools and enrolled them in our school. Within a year, all were successfully mainstreamed into the regular program. Right away I put them into PE, art and music. Second quarter they picked up math and science (with me). I had them sit in on history fourth quarter. They had a full regular schedule, including English, the next school year. I was grateful the school gave me a native-speaking teacher's aide for this ad hoc ESL program.

I can't say I had any particular expertise or philosophy or reform ideology or anything of that sort going in. Looking back, I think I may have discovered some secrets to closing the achievement gap. These are also areas where many modern reform efforts fall short.

1.Meet the students where they are.
2.Design a program to meet their needs, and no one else's.
3.Make the program one that does not imply blame on the students.
4.Believe in the students.
5.Find ways to add continuity to students' lives.
6.Give them a reasonable goal to shoot for. For math, it was to qualify for algebra. For science, it was to do a science fair project. The DODDS science fair was a bonus. For the ESL group, it was to work me out of a job as their program director.
7.Aim for mastery of instruction.
8.Do it on a localized basis. Don't expect to scale it up because students in other schools have different problems, needs and resources.

After those two years, students and teachers no longer muffled their answers when asked about their school, but proudly announced their affiliation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

5 Reasons Why Education Reforms Fail

Veteran teachers have been there, done that, seen multiple attempts at educational reform turn out to be just another failed fad. Worse, superintendents and principals sometimes order teachers around as if teachers were incapable of independent analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These administrators even have the nerve to order highly successful teachers to replace a Best Practice with something else. Any teacher with the temerity to disobey orders and continue doing what works risks termination, or at least a bad performance evaluation for insubordination.

All that happened to a first-grade teacher I knew in California. She refused an order to cease teaching phonics and start teaching whole language exclusively. She never stopped teaching phonics, and each year every child went from her class to the second grade a capable reader. She could not be fired, but the superintendent rated her “unsatisfactory performance due to insubordination” several years running. When reading tests placed California first graders 49th in the nation, shocked administrators ordered teachers to resume teaching phonics. Her superintendent did the same.

But did her superintendent revise her evaluations? No, because, (so the logic went), she had been insubordinate at that time. So much for the value of critical thinking in our schools.

Whole language, properly implemented in conjunction with phonics, is actually quite effective. How did this promising reform turn into yet another failed fad?

To begin with, hardly any teachers got accurate professional development training in whole language. Here is a typical professional development sequence using whole language as the example: First, a few teachers either read the original research or learn about it from the original researchers in a seminar where we could ask clarifying questions. I was a member of the second group.

Then, education writers (like me) start writing about whole language. Other education writers (citing me) continue writing about whole language. The process goes on for a while, gradually “simplifying,” that is to say, diluting the concept with each iteration. At some point, school districts begin commissioning professional development for their teachers. In other words, school districts hire outsiders to come into the district and teach the teachers how to do whole language.

These school districts often contact universities. I was part of a university professional development provider team. The school district would call my director and place an order. “I'd like five workshop presenters delivered in two weeks. And make it fun and interactive.” No, seriously. My director would call five of us and say, “Go online, look up whole language, and prepare a 90-minute presentation.” We five would carpool to wherever, deliver our presentations at five different schools in the same 90-minute period. We'd take questions as if we really knew anything. After our respective presentations, we would meet up for lunch somewhere.

To be fair, my director tried to match expertise somewhat. My areas were literacy, math, science and foreign language instruction. She never asked me to deliver, for example, a social studies or special education workshop. (But the chair of the department of education once asked me to teach the social studies methods course. I demurred, “I've never even taught social studies.” “That's okay.” I refused the course, a dangerous thing for an adjunct professor to do).

What happened to whole language in California was that there was a professional development blitz, presenting a diluted version by people who may or may not know what they are talking about. No wonder whole language was poorly implemented.

The first reason (classroom-based) education reform efforts fail is that those tasked with implementing the reform are implementing something else under the reform's name. After that, Jeanne Century's comments come into play.

While I told the story of a failed reform effort, Ms. Century is considering successful efforts that fail anyway.

Unfortunately for education, the interest in getting improvements to spread has been accompanied by a failure to give warranted attention to a second question: How do we get improvements to last? The phrase “scale up and sustain” is also part of our vernacular, but the “sustain” part often gets short shrift. While it is important to understand spread, it is endurance that separates the tipping of fads from meaningful change. Unless the investments we make in innovations have lasting impact, in the end, we have wasted our time and resources and, most importantly, squandered students’ opportunities to learn.

Her reasons for fad failure:

2.False view of sustainability.

Our research suggests that individuals think about sustainability in one of two ways—as establishing practices and programs that last and stay the same, or as establishing practices and programs that last and change. While it is a seeming contradiction, the second perspective should frame our efforts if we want to bring about improvements that endure. In order to last, innovations must themselves adapt and evolve. Thus, in addition to identifying strategies that work now, we need to invest in mechanisms for improving and adapting those strategies so that they will work in the future.

3.False view of fidelity.

Reformers often choose interventions because they have been proved to be effective, which is good. But then they make two false assumptions. First, they assume that because reforms have been shown to work, people will actually use them; and second, they believe that when people do use them, maintaining fidelity to the original idea is of the utmost importance. The literature suggests otherwise.

While fidelity of implementation has its place and time, many make the case that adaptation doesn’t reduce effectiveness, but rather increases it...Effectiveness is important, but adaptability is key.

4.False view of future usability.

Just as market conditions always shift, so do the circumstances surrounding educational change. This assures that a program put in place today will not likely meet our students’ needs 10 years from now.

5.False view of tolerability of change.

The challenge, then, is finding the “sweet spot” of change, where the new practice or program doesn’t challenge risk tolerance too much, yet is sufficiently different from current practice to move the change trajectory in a positive direction.

It might be fun for the teachers (or even nonteachers) among us to analyze past educational fads in terms of the extent to which each fad possessed the characteristics of accurate training, fidelity, sustainability, future usability and tolerability. We need to raise the bar of expectations for classroom reforms.

Then we will leave the educators of the future with more than a collection of “best practices”; we will also leave them with the knowledge of how to make those practices work for the students of the future.