Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Best Classrooms

I saw a reference to the article below in a mailing from The Alliance for Childhood (more play!):

Brilliance in a Box: What do the best classrooms in the world look like?

The title of the article (by Amanda Ripley, and appeared in Slate) pretty much sums it up, but there are a couple of stand-out lines:

"Classrooms in countries with the highest-performing students contain very little tech wizardry, generally speaking."

"'In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,' says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). 'I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.'"

"But the most innovative schools around the world do not tend to be the ones with the most innovative technology inside them."

There are other observations about what may be making schools successful -- pedagogical skill, parent involvement, length of school day -- no great surprises there. The technology aspect, though, was the standout for me.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Making Khan Academy-type lessons on the iPad

I like, very much, the spirit of the Khan Academy videos (free!), and the content too (1800+ per the website, and growing). They are also available on the iPhone and iPad. If you have never seen them, they are basically screen captures of Sal Khan writing on a computer screen, with narration of what the instructor is doing. According to the site, this is how he does it:
I use Camtasia Recorder ($200) + SmoothDraw3(Free) + a Wacom Bamboo Tablet ($80) on a PC. I used to use ScreenVideoRecorder($20) and Microsoft Paint (Free).
I wanted to see if I could make the same -- creating something specific to my class, using my Mac, without buying anything new. I have an iPad, a MacBook, and am playing around with Apple's relatively new Magic Trackpad. Seems simple enough, right?

The Magic Trackpad didn't work very well as a drawing tablet. The Pogo stylus I have required a lot of pressure to draw with. Fingers were okay but it seemed unnatural, and difficult to simulate the click-drag combination required to draw with a mouse (which I find equally difficult to use to write legibly). The trackpad works well as a mouse replacement, but it really isn't a drawing tablet.

The iPad is a great tablet platform. Adobe Ideas, for example, has nice line-smoothing drawing ability, and with a stylus, it is very easy to draw legible handwriting (like Khan!). Plus, the iPad has the audio recording hardware, and an app like PaperDesk includes both drawing tools and recording tools. However, there is no sanctioned way to capture video of the iPad screen from what I can tell (single frame captures are part of the iPad OS, press the home and power buttons at the same time). There is software for jail-broken iPads (ScreenRecorder + FullForce) to record the screen, but I'm not ready to jail-break my iPad.

Another approach is to display the iPad screen on the Mac. You can use something like Veency on the iPad (a VNC server), and record that portion of the Mac screen, but again, this requires a jail-broken iPad. Another way to get the iPad video signal to the Mac, without jail-breaking is to use a converter from Epiphan, but it lists for $299.

An app like Whiteboard, which allows you to share whiteboards with other iPad users, would probably work if there was a Mac version of Whiteboard (and so capture the Mac version of the Whiteboard using screen recording software on the Mac).

My current, albeit crude, solution, is to use a web-based whiteboard-sharing software, GroupBoard (free for up to five collaborators). Groupboard has an iPad app (free). I created a shared online whiteboard by creating a page on a site I manage, and included the one line of HTML that Groupboard provides. On the iPad, I logged on to the Groupboard whiteboard I set up. I did the same using my browser (Firefox) on the Mac. On the Mac, I used iShowU HD ($29.95) to record the activity on the screen, in this case capturing what showed in Firefox. I used the built-in microphone on the Mac to record the narration (the sound recording was handled by iShowU as it recorded the screen activity). I used my Pogo stylus to draw on the iPad, and narrated as I drew. Here is the result:

Khan Experiment 1 from James Davis on Vimeo.

It worked pretty well. The handwriting is rather blocky on the shared whiteboard, but passable. Groupboard has a text tool which I used for the title. Unfortunately, the controls for the Groupboard app are on the bottom of the screen, so it is easy to rest my palm on the buttons when drawing and accidentally select the settings options (but this doesn't show on the video because only whiteboard drawing is shared to the Mac). The Groupboard app crashed when I tried to change the text size and line width, so I just avoided those.

The challenge of talking coherently while drawing at the same time and managing the drawing application tools is a real skill, and makes me appreciate all the more what Sal Khan has achieved. I blather on a bit at the beginning, before drawing anything, so patience.


P.S. I would love to hear of other ways people have done this on the Mac, and especially with an iPad.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Playing around, web tools and teaching math

Big surprise. A blog titled "Technology and Education", and here is a posting that is actually about technology used in education.

Here is an embedded Brainshark presentation on using wikis for math instruction. Brainshark allows you to upload a PowerPoint presentation (also supports OpenOffice presentations), and then record audio for each slide. The audio-enhanced presentation can then be shared using embedded HTML (as is the case here).

And here is a short video experiment with students to portray math concepts. The video is extremely rough -- I made a big mistake in shooting the video that made it very difficult to get the exact special effect I wanted. It's close, but not quite right: next time, shoot each student separately. I shot the student who appears twice separately, but included the middle student, the one holding the equals sign, in both clips. It was difficult to get rid of one of her, so I finally ended up just shifting the video position slightly so one clip overlayed the other. Just don't look too closely. And our green screen is a bit ratty. Editing was done in Adobe Premiere (CS4). It is mainly proof of concept, to give the kids an idea of what to do when we get to the project. The video is shared via Vimeo. As you can see, I didn't get the still frame right.

The Symmetric Property from James Davis on Vimeo.

And here is a comic strip (again an example for the students), using I like the MakeBeliefsComix simplicity of creating comics with the site -- no logins; and easy to use, intuitive tools. The downside is students can't save comics and go back to edit them, and there is no jpg export. Students need to either print the comic to a PDF file, and convert, or do a screen grab of the comic on the web page. Students can also email a link to the comic to the teacher.

The classroom wiki is barely getting started, but here is a link:

Dvorak Algebra 2010


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Technology portfolio

I suppose this is ready enough for release into the wild. This is totally self-promotion, but ...

Here is a link to the portfolio I put together for the Technology in Education Masters program I am in at National Louis University. We are nearing the end of the program, the portfolio is meant to demonstrate some understanding of the Illinois State Board of Education's Technology Specialist requirements and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) technology facilitator standards:

It does include a personal philosophy on technology in education, as well as a list of resources and readings that I have found useful and/or important.

Comments welcome, either on the portfolio discussion pages (requirse a Wikispaces account), or here.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why do it by hand?

I posted the following in an online discussion with some of my peers at other schools. I was questioning whether new technologies were making a significant enough of a difference to justify the cost and students could still do neat projects without computers; there was a response about how animated students get using technology, and yes, projects can be done on poster board, but why should they? Which got me to thinking, and this is how I responded:

Some reasons I can think of:

1. Doing projects by hand develops eye-hand coordination. Hand-work is critical to brain development.

2. It develops measurement skills. I see low scores fairly consistently on the Measurement standard (ILS #7), which I suspect is due to the fact that kids never measure things. More cooking, sewing, woodwork!

3. It develops an appreciation for materials and how they work together. Also textures, and what the tools of visual arts are: crayons vs markers vs watercolor vs tempera vs etc. Photoshop effects make a lot more sense if you know their real-world analogs

4. Overall design: the computer screen can be quite limiting when you want to see the overall effect, at 100%.

5. Designing without the computer screen can be relaxing and less stressful I think -- not sure if that is universal, but at least a personal observation.

I do not disagree with the excitement re: computers, but I also think of it like a sugar rush. And I am not saying that I would want to go back to doing layouts with press type and rubber cement, but I am glad I did that once because it makes what the computers do more understandable.

I am wondering if maybe technology education should recapitulate technology evolution -- learn the old way before you learn the new way.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Who makes education policy in Chicago?

I saw this Chicago Trib blog posting (on the Clout St. blog):
Emanuel sitting down with city education leaders as he plots schools policy

It struck me for how much it says about who really shapes education policy. (Hint: It's not teachers.)

The article is about Chicago mayoral wannabe Rahm Emanuel meeting with people who can both inform his education policy, and also fund his mayoral campaign. According to the item, Emanuel met with "nine local education leaders". They include:
  • Penny Pritzer, of the extremely wealthy Pritzer hotel, finance, etc. family, and one of the heads of the Pritzer Traubner Family Foundation (see below).
  • Ellen Aberding, president of the Joyce Foundation ("Working to close the achievement gap by ... promoting innovations such as charter schools")
  • Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, "one of Chicago’s most influential Hispanic organizations that has opened several charter schools in Chicago."
  • Bruce Rauner, venture capitalist and chair of the private-equity firm GTCR, who also serves on the board of the Chicago Public Education Fund, "we are defining venture capital for public education, the next generation in school improvement" and "aims to be the best vehicle for private sector investment in public education". Penny Pritzer is the chair of the fund. What exactly they do is an interesting read, if you can get past the management-babble. The fund provides substantial seed money to get projects going, including most of the alternative certification programs at CPS, including the one I came in on (Chicago Teaching Fellows), as well as AUSL and Teach for America. Another objective is "drive student performance by differentiating compensation for principals and teachers."
  • Brian Simmons, with another private equity firm, Code Hennessy & Simmons LLC, and also on the board of the Chicago Public Education Fund.
  • Julia Stasch, a vice president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
  • Robin Steans, a former Mayor Daley chief of staff, and now director of Advance Illinois, an education policy group. Steans is a member of the wealthy Steans family which made its money in banking, whose foundation has been a major funder of a number of North Lawndale community projects. Advance Illinois focuses on teacher evaluation programs ("base teacher evaluation on performance, including the ability to promote student achievement"), "support[ing] districts to use compensation more strategically", and tying teacher training accreditation to teacher performance.
  • Beth Swanson, executive director of the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, and a former budget officer of CPS. "Partners" of the Pritzer Traubert Family Foundation include AUSL, the organization that manages turnaround schools for CPS; the Noble network of charter schools; and Teach for America.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

When do we get to teach?

It is Sunday, and I just finished putting together the testing schedule for my school for a new round of tests our Area Office (at the behest of CPS CEO Ron Huberman) has mandated for us.

We just finished the first of three yearly Scantron assessments on Friday. Next week we begin what has been referred to at my school as the "Riverside test", after the test's publisher. All third through eighth grade students will take an hour-long reading and an hour-long math test. The test is administered online, which means the two computer labs at the school will be unavailable for the next six or seven school days (plus occupying the computer carts for several hours).

I don't think we will find out anything we didn't know already, especially with the Scantron test just finished -- if CPS can't trust the Scantron results, why pay the close to $10 million in test setup and subscription fees for it and its close cousin, the NWEA assessment? [ Aside: I am looking at contracts 10-0623-PR33 and 10-0623-PR34 from the June 23 Board of Education Report, you can also see them on the CPS Procurement and Contracts listing. Click on the line item numbers to see any of the contracts. I'm guessing this is part of Huberman's effort to make CPS dealings transparent, which credit where credit is due, if there, it's Pretty Neat.)

I started compiling a list of what's wrong with all of the testing that CPS is asking us to do. Here are my main topics so far:
1. It is based on bad science.
(insults the intelligence, fetishizes data, misuses data, misuses and abuses statistics, gives science and statistics a bad name, is based on the very narrow world-view of the worst empiricism, demeans human beings, robs the world of its soul, etc.)

And as a result,

2. It hurts students.
(I'm thinking of stress, anxiety, theft of learning time; it sorts students into false categories, stigmatizes students according to one narrow definition of success, focuses on the lowest order thinking skills, distorts purpose and nature of education, etc.)

3. It hurts families.
(same as above, it is also misused to mis-measure school "progress" and so used to close neighborhood public schools, and when public schools are closed, communities are undermined)

4. It hurts teachers.
(data are (is?) abused to provide false evaluations of teachers, distorts the profession, demeans the role of teachers as teaching professionals, distorts curriculum, sets teachers up as fall-guy for failures of economic system, social priorities, government, politicians, educational-industrial complex, etc.)

5. It wastes the public's money.
(out-of-pocket cost of testing services, test administration costs, opportunity costs of test administration, lost teaching time, infrastructure costs, misdirection of administration and teacher time. In this category you can put me assembling schedules, talking to teachers, explaining the tests, proctoring, diagnosing and resolving technical issues, fixing rosters, training how to find test results, explaining what they might mean and won't they don't mean, tracking down students who missed the original test date. One might say, "quit your kvetching, that's your job" except it's not my job, at least on paper -- I am supposed to be helping teachers figure out ways to use new technologies to support creative learning.)

6. It destroys education.
(teaching to the test, lower-order thinking skills stressed, casts children as learning machines, narrows goal of education, used to falsely quantify school "performance" to provide false rationale for school closings, privatization.)
And here is a link supplied to me by Sharon Schmidt to "a zillion position type papers from FairTest": The Case Against High-Stakes Testing

As one teacher at my school said when I informed her of the looming next round of tests, "When do we get to teach?"


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Race to Nowhere

I attended a screening of the new documentary Race to Nowhere last Thursday, at the Chicago Waldorf School. It is an important film I think, but left me unsatisfied.

The unsatisfaction (not dissatisfied, mind you, just not satisfied) isn't a fault of the film itself -- it does a fine job of addressing the issues it sets out to address, namely the heaps of work and stress laid on children today out of a mad desire to make it in the crazy world of adults. The title comes from a comment by one of the students interviewed in the film, but appropriately echoes the Obama administration's abusive Race to the Top initiative.

Race to Nowhere I think benefits from being released at the same time as the Waiting for Superman film, an attack on teachers and public education by the same filmmaker that made Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. (If you are in education and by some strange phenom have not heard of Waiting for Superman, check out Rethinking Schools' site set up to address the convenient untruths in the film.)

While Waiting for Superman is doing an effective job helping to mis-frame the debate around public education, Race to Nowhere addresses only a slender part of the issue -- and don't get me wrong, it makes no pretense of trying to address the totality of the problems facing public education. But that's the lack of satisfaction for me -- I was hoping for something total.

Race to Nowhere focuses on children who see themselves having a chance in the mainstream world, either because their parent(s) are there already and are pushing them along, or the students have the academic interest or drive, and possibility, of getting a precious scholarship and attending a top university. The film reminds the viewer to return to the basic question of "what is education for?" (And so it seemed appropriate that it was screened at the Waldorf school, an pedagogical tradition which has managed to keep its bearings about what education should be for.) One section of the film portrays a teacher driven from the profession by testing and the narrowing down of what education is and can be. A major theme in the film though is the amount of homework that the students work hard at doing, and the other pressures of school and expectations students face, threatening health, and in one case in the film, driving a student to suicide. And there it became clear that this film was addressing only part of the world of education.

A whole other part is immersed in poverty, where for whatever reasons, the students have been disengaged from education, or maybe never were engaged. Most of the students I have worked with never stressed about homework, as far as I can tell -- most of them never did it (so much so that in my area, the percentage of final grades comprised by homework has been reduced to five percent). The film addressed one side of the Great Divide in America.

To be fair, the film does include a few students from poor communities who are struggling along with the well-off students to keep up with classes, homework, after-school programs and community service. But largely absent are those other students, the ones that see only limited opportunity or have given up on school entirely. So while this is an important film, it isn't the film to counter Waiting for Superman.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Democrats and teachers

I think we've known this, but I don't remember actually seeing it in print. Here is a concise summary regarding the Obama administration vis-a-vis teachers:
To a degree that almost nobody anticipated 19 months ago, Mr Obama ... has alienated the largest single historical provider of cash and volunteers to the Democratic party – namely the teachers’ unions.
The quote is from a an article in the London-based Financial Times article published back in July. The article refers to the "astonishingly small sum of cash" dangled in front of states by the Department of Education in the Race to the Top competition. Race to the Top basically undermines teacher workplace rights by undercutting due process and seniority via the misdirection of teacher evaluations and charter schools. "The teachers’ unions, meanwhile, have been left gasping at the speed with which their objections have been overruled, often by Democratic-run state governments."

What I think is especially interesting is the Democrats willingness to undercut what, as noted above, has been one of the pillars of the party. It really is quite significant I think, the making visible of a sea-change that as been in process for several years. This change was emphasized to me by the source of the reference to article. I saw the reference in Nasser Saber's blog, The Dialectics of Finance. Saber is (or at least was) an NYU professor of finance, and the author of one of the best books that I know of on the workings of the economic system today, Speculative Capital (see the blog page for a concise summary). For Saber, this strange contradiction of the Democrats shouting out a big F U to its base is resolved by recognizing that speculative capital calls the shots today, and all of that old stuff, like a trade union movement and public education for all, just gets in the way.

On a perhaps related note, the tune being "let's beat on teachers", Huberman has come out in favor of publishing teacher "performance" data, according to WBEZ (see a previous post related to publishing teacher evaluation data in Los Angeles). CPS is supposed to work out an evaluation system with the teachers union, per BEZ, "but if an agreement is not made within 90 days of negotiations, the district can create a plan on its own."


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

New report critiquing value-added measures

The Economic Policy Institute has released a new report, "Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers". The report is authored by a number of big names in the education and assessment field, including Dianne Ravitch, Robert Linn, and Linda Darling-Hammond. Click here for the Answer Sheet write-up about the report, which also includes the Executive Summary.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Falsely identifying "bad" teachers

Here's a link to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Education on likely problems when using test scores to evaluate teacher (and student) performance (referred to in my previous post):

Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains

The study, by Peter Schochet and Hanley Chiang at Mathematica Policy Research (which develops schemes for value-added measures for school districts, including the District of Columbia Public Schools, where teacher evaluation came into play on the recent firings), has some interesting findings:
  • "Type I and II error rates for comparing a teacher’s performance to the average are likely to be about 25 percent with three years of data and 35 percent with one year of data." [Type I errors are "false positives" -- you think the hypothesis is true when really it isn't; Type II errors are "false negatives" -- you think the hypothesis is false when it isn't.]
  • "These results strongly support the notion that policymakers must carefully consider system error rates in designing and implementing teacher performance measurement systems based on value- added models, especially when using these estimates to make high-stakes decisions regarding teachers (such as tenure and firing decisions)."
  • And this powerful statement: "Our results are largely driven by findings from the literature and new analyses that more than 90 percent of the variation in student gain scores is due to the variation in student-level factors that are not under the control of the teacher."
To reiterate: The first point means that when using three years worth of student test data, chances are about 1 out of 4 that a teacher would be falsely identified as a "bad" teacher. Bad odds when a career and livelihood are at stake.


Some related links on the report:

Study: Error rates high when student test scores used to evaluate teachers from The Answer Sheet blog (very good blog!)

Rolling Dice: If I roll a “6″ you’re fired! from the School Finance 101 blog.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

L.A. Times: Lies lies and more lies

On Sunday, the L.A. Times began publishing an important series of articles on teacher evaluations (Who’s Teaching L.A.’s Kids?). Important because the Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation’s second largest (Chicago is third); important because it appears in a major newspaper; important because they printed teachers names with the data, upping the ante in attacks on teachers (Duncan came out in support of publishing teacher evaluations); important because it previews what I suspect will be the same kind of arguments that will be used by Huberman’s administration against Chicago teachers.

I am late to the party on this -- I first saw a note of it on the District 299 blog (required reading to keep up with CPS news), then on the Answer Sheet blog, and the L.A. Times piece story showed up on NPR yesterday. I’m slow (actually, ironically I suppose, or sadly, I have been mushing and sorting students by their ISAT scores for an upcoming area observation).

The Who’s Teaching L.A.’s Kids? article looks at local student standardized test scores on a by-teacher basis, using a "value-added" statistical model, and based on that model, identifies teachers as "effective and "good" teachers versus "ineffective" and “bad" teachers.

On reading the article, I was reminded of Mary McCarthy’s famous quip about Lillian Hellman (and unfair I think), "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." Every word in the L.A. Times article is a lie, including "and" and "the". In this case, not unfair.

The article doesn’t have to be "true" of course -- we are in a propaganda war, after all. The tactic of the Times authors is to dress up some statistics bullshit in a pretty hat, and parade it around as science, ergo truth. Everyone is so wowed by the hat, that they fail to recognize that underneath the hat, it’s just, well, just bullshit. But if enough scientistic magic power words are folded into the story, words like "Rand Corp.", "senior economist and researcher", "reliable data", "objective assessment", "effective", the narrative sweeps along and reaches it’s obvious, stinking conclusion.

Here is the essence of the Times’s method:

The Times used a statistical approach known as value-added analysis, which rates teachers based on their students' progress on standardized tests from year to year. Each student's performance is compared with his or her own in past years, which largely controls for outside influences often blamed for academic failure: poverty, prior learning and other factors. Though controversial among teachers and others, the method has been increasingly embraced by education leaders and policymakers across the country, including the Obama administration.
The approach, pioneered by economists in the 1970s, has only recently gained traction in education.
Value-added analysis offers a rigorous approach. In essence, a student's past performance on tests is used to project his or her future results. The difference between the prediction and the student's actual performance after a year is the "value" that the teacher added or subtracted.

There have been a number of challenges raised to value-added measures on methodological grounds (in particular, misidentification of “bad teachers -- see Study: Error rates high when student test scores used to evaluate teachers from the Answer Sheet blog. Also from the same blog (which is Really Good by the way), Willingham: Big questions about the LA Times teachers project. I have started a list of links here.)

But I think there is a more fundamental, worldview-type fault with the general approach demonstrated in the LA Times article, the Big Lie that makes everything in the article a lie, even "and" and "the". It’s not merely the concept of "value-added" as a metric, but the overall economic approach to education.

Through the lens of economics, teachers go to the education factory. They work on human widgets. At the end of the day, teachers have hopefully added value to the widgets. Value is added if the widgets score higher on multiple choice tests. The greater the change in test scores, the more value that has been added, and the more productive the teacher is.

Implicit in the economic argument is that the education factory must strive to be as productive as possible (i.e. raise test scores as much as possible). Teachers have a greater effect on students than any other single factor, so education reform should focus of identifying the most productive teachers. School districts must then devise incentives to keep the most productive teachers (hence merit pay). Or researchers need to determine what makes for a productive teacher (e.g., Building a Better Teacher, from the New York Times Magazine last March), and teach that in teacher education programs (hence let Teach for America certify its own teachers), and/or suss that out in teacher recruitment or on the firing line in the first couple of years of teaching (see Malcolm Gladwell’s piece "Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?").

Most all of the research on this approach -- what gives this approach its academic patina of respectability -- points back to the work of Eric Hanushek, an economist at the Stanford's Hoover Institution. He has been working on quantifying the effect of individual teachers, and trying to isolate the teacher effect in education since the early 1970s, and continues to work on it today. His work, and the work of people around him, is the academic foundation, the theory on which most of the official education rhetoric, from Obama to Duncan to Huberman (from what I can tell anyway), is based.

This economic model is taken a step further with the "value-added" notion. I’m not sure where the concept arose but it is an obvious extension of Hanushek’s work. CPS uses a version from the University of Wisconsin’s Value Added Research Center, as does New York City, Milwaukee and Dallas. The LA Times study referred to above was done by researchers at the Rand Corp. A company called Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. was noted in the Answer Blog as the contractor for the Washington, DC teacher evaluation system, which uses a value-added component (and used in the firing of teachers there recently.)

As noted above, "value-added" can be calculated in different ways, but all approaches are based on standardized test scores. As is the case for Hanushek’s work. Here is Hanushek's (and collaborator Steven Rifkin's) statistical justification for saying standardized test scores mean something:

One fundamental question––do these tests measure skills that are important or valuable? –– appears well answered, as research demonstrates that standardized test scores relate closely to school attainment, earnings, and aggregate economic outcomes (Murnane, Willett,and Levy 1995; Hanushek and Woessmann 2008). The one caveat is that this body of research is based on low-stakes tests that do not affect teachers or schools. The link between test scores and high-stakes tests might be weaker if such tests lead to more narrow teaching, more cheating, and so on. (from Hanushek and Rivkin’s Using Value-Added Measures of Teacher Quality, p. 2; emphasis added)

The economic view of education, as the above indicates, assumes the goal in life is earnings and/or academic attainment. If that assumption and mindset is rejected, then the rationale of standardized tests having any meaning evaporates, and the whole argument collapses.


P.S. I skipped over their important caveat re: that the justifying research assumes that tests are low-stakes, which is not the case today with ISAT, ACT, Scantron, etc. The current cheating controversy in Atlanta speaks to the greater incentive to cheat as stakes get higher. In a more perfect world, tests would be part of a bigger assessment profile, and then they might mean something. In the words of Hanushek and Rivkin themselves, the standardized test score data is suspect.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Report on Ren 2010 and charters

The August, 2010 issue of Catalyst Chicago features a number of articles on Renaissance 2010 and charter schools in Chicago.

Also see the "Many Chicago Charter Schools Run Deficits, Data Shows" article by Sarah Karp, deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago, that appears in the New York Times. The article gives a peek at the finances of charters.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More testing coming

More standardized testing is in the works for my school next year. According to an area representative, Ron Huberman has directed the areas to produce assessments every five weeks (seven times over the school year) for grades 3 - 8 for "performance management" tracking. Areas are free to select an assessment from a list of nine vendors approved at a Board of Education meeting last June.

The Chicago Benchmark Assessment, done three times last year, is optional, and our area will not be requiring that.

In addition, because my school is on academic probation for low test scores, my school is being assigned a "performance management" representative from central office to work with our school to assist with required monthly school-based performance management reviews, and using the assessment data to (ideally) identify problem areas and strategies.

For our new 5-week assessments, we will be using an online test from Riverside Publishing, the authors of the Iowa Test for Basic Skills once used district-wide by CPS. Riverside was chosen because they have a lot of Spanish language test materials, and my area mostly covers the heavily Hispanic Little Village area, and a little bit of North Lawndale assigned to it when Area 8 was dissolved last year.

For grades 3 - 8, we will do online Scantron during the month of September (reading, math and science), Riverside (math and reading) in October and November, December, January, and Scantron again in January, ISAT (math and reading, science 4th and 7th only, writing is cancelled this year because of money) in early March, Riverside again in March, April and May, and Scantron again in May.

The Riverside tests will be done online. Students will need to do a reading and math test, and each test will last about 45 minutes. We will have a 3-day window (I think that is correct) to do the tests.

On the plus side, teachers will have immediate results. On the negative side, each test session which will require computer cart or lab time, meaning a technology support person for each test, at least to get things started, and be available to deal with the inevitable technical issues. Paper based assessments could be done simultaneously in all classrooms, online is strung out depending on technology and people resources. Scantron has been its own headache, and it has a three week window. Logistically, Riverside in three days is possible, but it will mean a lot of running around.

The Benchmark Assessment had the nice advantage of letting teaches keep the test booklet, or view the actual questions via CIM, CPS's online student test data tracking tool. This allowed teachers, if they had the time, to try to figure out why students got an answer wrong. (It turns out, from my observation, that, for math anyway, a lot of the problems stem from reading comprehension issues, or getting tripped up by misleading pr ambiguous questions, or problems with familiar words used in unfamiliar math contexts -- e.g., "the net of a cube".)

My understanding of Riverside is that we can see and use other questions from their item pool, but it's not clear if we can see the actual questions and responses from a particular assessment.

Besides the logistical problems of administering the tests, other issues include: the out-of-pocket cost to CPS of the tests, the opportunity cost of teacher and staff time administering the tests, and teacher time making sense of the data on top of all of the other regular (and more informative) classroom assessments, and the cost of lost instruction time for students.

An even bigger question is whether the tests will tell anyone anything useful. As I think I may have said before, testing students is not the same as taking their temperature. Students resist their test-heavy regime. They will resist Riverside to, spoiling the results.

Even if test scores accurately reflected student ability (which occurs only in some cases, skewed by demographics, prior academic success, breakfast, and many other factors), changes in student performance across tests given five-week weeks apart are statistically suspect. Scantron, e.g. will not produce gains reports for for tests given less than 12 weeks apart (see their Performance Series White Paper, for example, page 9), because statistically speaking, any differences in a shorter period are meaningless -- differences can be attributed to many factors other than student learning.

Unless a test is mapped to a pacing guide and so questions adjust throughout the year according to what students "should be" learning (per the pacing guide, but many other problems here, including that the pacing guide is dictating from on high what teachers teach when regardless of their students, and the tests would need to be aligned to curriculum), it seems unlikely to me that test results will vary significantly from test session to test session, unless... Since the 5-week data will be used for the monthly performance management inquisition, the obvious thing for a teacher to do, to succeed in the current test-crazy CPS environment, would be to study the Riverside item pool, and... teach to the test!


Monday, August 9, 2010

College Inc.

The PBS series Frontline aired a deep investigation of for-profit higher education last May, called College Inc. The tagline from the website gives an accurate hint of the show: "Investigating how Wall Street and a new breed of for-profit universities are transforming the way we think about college in America..."

I meant to post something on this earlier but. I also wrote some more on this (including the paragraph above) as it relates to the process of "commodification" -- turning things that used to be outside of the market, in the public sector or parts of our communal life at home or in the neighborhood, into pay-for services, and how that fits into the Big Processes going on now in the world economy, on another blog.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Message from Rethinking Schools

The message below appeared in my mailbox, courtesy of the Chicago Teachers for Social Justice mailing list. It is from one of the editors of the magazine, Rethinking Schools, and is a good summary of the flurry of news about Race to the Top over the past week.

July 31, 2010

Dear friends,

In the past week there has been significant developments in the growth of anti-Race to the Top sentiment around the country. An impressive coalition of national civil rights groups issued a statement critical of the Obama/Duncan administration's educational policies: Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn through Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It's worth the read.

Similarly, a coalition of 24 community groups organized by Communities for Excellent Public Schools issued a stinging critique of the federal government's "turnaround" strategies. "Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration's School Turnaround Policies" is a comprehensive critique that shows why those policies won't work and offers concrete suggestions as to what will turn around struggling schools. For a summary see an article in the Washington Post.

The lead segment on Democracy Now on July 30 was on the Race to the Top and included interviews with Diane Ravitch and Leonie Haimson from Class Size Matters and they respond to President Obama's recent speak at the National Urban League where he defended the Race to the Top program. It's worth the listen.

These critiques confirm what those of us who are in the classroom have seen for the past several years. Many federal education policies are actually hurting students, making it more difficult for teachers to provide quality education to those who need it most. It's time for a change.

Bob Peterson, Rethinking Schools


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Save Our Schools Rally

I attended the Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU) Save Our Schools Rally today at the Ariel Academy in Kenwood. The rally is the first public event that I know of sponsored by the CTU since the new Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate took office this month. I was especially interested in how the new leadership was approaching the Chicago Public Schools position regarding school finances, tenure, teacher evaluation, cuts, and so forth.

CPS and CTU have started talks, but based on what Karen Lewis reported at the meeting, a report on the CTU website, and an online report plus comments on the Catalyst blog, the Board is asking for everything and giving nothing. [Lewis also said that the union wanted, and received, the right to have 40 observers (including representatives from other caucuses) sit in on the negotiations, as part of CORE's promise to boost transparency in the union.]

I was especially interested to hear about CTU's strategy at this point. The union is launching several initiatives, all with a common theme: reaching out. Reaching out to CTU membership, to parents, to community organizations, to pastors and congregations, to aldermen and state representatives, to the general population at events like neighborhood festivals and the annual southside Bud Billiken parade. The union had sign-up sheets available for the various committees it has set up to undertake the reach-out campaign.

The union's strategy reminded me of a report on the two-week long 2005 British Columbia teacher's strike. Teachers in BC were not allowed to strike by law, but they did so anyway, over class size, student supports and pay. As I understand it, the Canadian teachers worked to win the public opinion battle first, through ... reaching out. The British Columbia Teacher's Federation (BCTF) worked hard to present teachers as human beings dedicated to the challenging job of educating the community's children under very difficult circumstances. As a result, the BCTF gained support from other unions, from parents, and from the community at large. That support enabled them effectively to win.

CPS's position, echoed by the major news media and self-appointed education experts, is that teachers are lazy, incompetent, overpaid and greedy. The CPS position is that the union shields the generally lazy, incompetent, etc. etc. from discipline. The union, effectively, is the reason for the CPS budget crisis, poor test scores, high dropout rates, etc. Only charter schools, privatization and more testing can save education in Chicago. This is the official CPS narrative. This is the CPS propaganda offensive that the union is finally, with new leadership, thankfully beginning to confront.

Getting out a counter-narrative, one that actually explains reality, really is the only way forward for the union: to win the propaganda war by speaking truth to power, forging necessary links with everyone else in the same boat (is that a mixed metaphor?), and getting over the understanding that what is wrong with education is not teachers (much less teachers organized), but something much deeper and more complex, something that will require a broad, mobilized network of community to overcome.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Not so simple

Below is a link to a recent (7/9/10) New York Times article that should be mandatory reading by anyone mesmerized by the possibilities of computers and education.

The article reports on several recent studies that suggest that computers in the home have little educational impact, and in the case of of low income students, they may actually result in lower test scores.

The suspicion as to why this might be the case is that with presumably more people working in low income families, there is less time for supervision, and so the kids are gravitating towards game play and not research. Their computer skills do go up though, in particular the ability to skirt around firewalls, blocks, and other security measures that keep them from doing what they really want to do.

Computers are seen, as the article points out, as the Great Equalizer in education. Which is a convenient fantasy for hardware and software developers, who have a financial stake in selling the Great Equalizers. The article indicates that education is not a mechanical problem, but a social problem -- a supportive home life, engaged families, optimism about the future, supervision and direction -- a stable and nurturing social environment -- are all critical ingredients to successful education (and successful use of technology in education).

Here's the link to the article: Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality


Sunday, June 13, 2010

CPS elem testing schedule for 2010-11

The CPS Elementary Assessment Calendar for 2010-11 is available.

A summary, for schools on the regular schedule:


DIBELS: September, January, May. (Schools not doing DIBELS must do either STEP or ISEL testing).

mClass Math (required): September, January, May.

Grades 3 - 8:

Scantron (required for all schools, grades 3 - 8): September (the first three weeks after school starts); January; late April-May.

Chicago Benchmark Assessment (Reading/Math) (optional): October, January, May. Since this one is optional, I don't know if my school will be taking it or not. Our Area Office seems to like lots of data though, so...

District Wide Writing Assessment (required): October, January, March 21-25, May. Note that the March test is used for promotion policy.

ISAT (required): 2/28 - 3/11 (note it is a bit earlier next year).

Grade 8 only:

EXPLORE: 9/27 - 10/6

Winter and Spring Benchmark and Scantron will overlap. The Winter Scantron testing is a month earlier than ISAT next year.

I left off some of the other testing that applies to small groups of students, see the link above for info on all of the planned assessments for CPS elementary schools for next year.


Interesting results from CTU member survey

If you are in the Chicago Teachers Union, you may have received an automated phone call last Wednesday inviting you to participate in a massive conference call (I confess I hung up). According to a posting on the NTN2000 Yahoo Group mailing list (that's the Chicago New Teacher Center list), some 8,000 CTU members were on the call. During the call, participants were surveyed about several topics. Some of the results (quoting from the letter re-posted on the list):

2. As a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, what do you think should be the Union's top priority?
Prevent teacher layoffs - 52%
Protecting our 4% pay raise - 18%
Smaller class sizes - 19%
Instituting a hiring freeze - 11%

3. How many students do you currently have in your classroom?
0-15 students - 21%
16-24 students - 19%
25-28 students - 26%
29-32 students - 23%
Over 33 students - 11%

4. As a CTU member would you rather have your negotiators fight harder for the 4% raise, or to preserve jobs?
Preserve jobs - 72%
Preserve the 4% raise - 28%

5. Of all the participants on the call, how many were members of the CTU when we last went on strike in 1987?
If you were a member on strike in 1987 - 15% of callers

6. How many on the line have been teaching 10 years or less?
If you have taught in CPS for less than 10 years - 38%
If you have taught in CPS for more than 11 years - 62%

One of the most surprising answers from our surveys was the overwhelming amount of members that would forego their 4% pay raise this year to protect the jobs of their fellow members.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

CORE victory

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) scored a decisive victory in the Chicago Teachers Union run-off yesterday (6/11). According the final vote count, CORE won almost 60 percent of the vote.

Separately, or maybe not, CPS CEO Ron Huberman has called a special Board of Education meeting for Tuesday (6/15) to give him the authority to raise class size to 35 students; to fire tenured and probationary teachers who are displaced by as a result of "cost-saving measures" (including raising the class-size limit); and borrow up to $800 million to deal with the CPS budget crisis. (See "Huberman Calls Emergency Board Meeting")

CORE has achieved what it set out what to do, and congratulations. It caught the car. Now what?


Saturday, June 5, 2010

New core standards

Some links regarding the new national "common core standards":

New York Times article: "States Receive a Reading List: New Standards for Education" (6/2/10)

The Common Core Standards

The Math Common Core Standards

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and other math teacher organizations support the math standards.

Ron Huberman signed a letter along with heads of many other school districts supporting the core standards and urging their adoption.

ISBE also supports the core standards. And since adoption of the core standards will add points to a state's Race to the Top application (see the NYT article), it is most likely just a matter of weeks before Illinois formalizes their adoption.


Monday, May 31, 2010

A historic election

It sounds like hyperbole but it isn't. The run-off election for the Chicago Teachers Union leadership, scheduled for June 11 is A Big Deal. Not just for Chicago teachers, but nationally. If the CORE caucus can unite the other caucuses that challenged the current leadership in the first-round voting last month, and gain the leadership of the CTU, it will signal several things:

1. Locally, it should provide a much-needed counter-force to the policies of CPS CEO Ron Huberman -- it'a amazing how much destruction he has wrought in CPS in one year. The current union leadership has been fiddling.

2. It will be a significant challenge to Mayor Daley's control of Chicago education, and the failed policies he has pushed on CPS for the past 15 years.

3. It will represent an important victory for grass roots control of education and for the institution of public education, at a time when the idea of "public" in "public education" is under attack.

4. It signals resistance, and significant resistance at that, to the current attacks on public education. As the the largest union in the historic labor capital of the U.S., and because the CTU represents teachers in the third largest school system in the country, a CORE victory can be a rallying point for teachers across the country.

5. It will represent a blatant rejection of the privatization of public education and the general attack on teachers. The fact that the point man on this push, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan test-drove many of his policies here in Chicago, just adds to the significance.

6. An invigorated CTU can provide a national voice in favor of child- and community-centered education. There is an alternative to defunding public schools, skimming by charters, turning children into testing machines, turning teachers into room monitors, management by bogus numbers, etc.

7. It will be a victory for democratic unionism, which may help invigorate the labor movement as a whole.

That's what comes to mind. Like I said, A Big Deal.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Scantron, Round 2

We are just winding up our second go-round with the Scantron Performance Assessment Series testing, the computer-based assessment of students hat CPS requires.

As far as multiple choice assessments go, there are several things I like about the Scantron Performance Assessment Series. The results are available immediately. It works as both a norm-referenced and a criterion-referenced assessment. It provides useful diagnostic and grouping info. It has some okay resources for teachers. If you have the requisite resources (computers, fast Internet, staff), it is fairly easy to administer.

However... I am looking over the results from the testing. I am seeing student scores that vary by hundreds of points from February scores (in some cases, a 20% difference). Some higher, some lower. In statistical terms, really big standard deviations for some classes, especially in the reading assessment.

Scantron differs from other assessments like ISAT or the CPS Benchmark Assessment in that it provides a grade-independent number that should show growth over the years as students learn more (all other things being equal).

Considering just student knowledge (if in fact the assessment measures that) there is little reason for scores to drop. Save for brain injury, it's unreasonable to think that students lose knowledge over a three month period. I suppose maybe a teacher so completely mis-taught something that the students unlearned something. But that would show up in the numbers in a different way.

The wild score fluctuations raise, again, the striking role of all of the extrinsic factors to testing. Things that are not part of the questions themselves (i.e., the content, the wording, the pictures, etc.). In particular, it raises the human dimension of assessment, like the test-taker's willingness, confidence, interest, desire, alertness, and so on.

Napoleon said that "in war, moral factors account for three quarters of the whole; relative material strength accounts for only one quarter." ("Moral" = "morale".) In testing, the same pretty much holds, I think, for standardized testing.

In questioning students whose scores dropped significantly (let's say more than 100 points), they would say things like they didn't feel well, or they were tired, or they didn't try, or they didn't care. After cajoling and encouraging and even threatening them to really try their best, typically scores jumped considerably -- by hundreds of points. (Scantron uses a scale from about 1300 to 3900; an entire grade level jump is approximately equivalent ranges from a 70 to 220 point change, depending on the grade.)

This moral factor in testing is one of those easily ignored things in the overall fetishization of data. Testing kids is not the same as taking their temperature. When assessing a student, the student must do something -- the student must perform -- their cooperation, their buy-in, their willingness to play along is three-quarters of the whole. The horse and water.

The fake science behind "performance management" must ignore the moral factors because they aren't controllable. And because the moral dimension is ignored, it bumbles from that fundamental error to another and another, until a massive lie has been constructed.

I have to admit that there is one part of me that appreciates the resistance -- mostly unconscious -- on the part of the students to what is being done to them through the seemingly endless testing. Now if that impulse to resist could be nurtured, and shaped, and directed towards something really useful -- now that would be an education.


P.S. I thought we were done, because Friday (5/28) was originally set as the final day, but I just saw an email yesterday saying that the window had been extended to June 3.

P.P.S. I did a review, rather neutral and not too critical, of the Scantron Performance Assessment, available here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Vote for CORE 5/21

As you well know, this has been a difficult year for public education in general, and CPS in particular. The general economic and budget mess is bad enough. And then teachers are scapegoated for the deep deep problems in education. We suffer, along with our students, the consequences -- slashed programs, over-capacity classrooms, a broken pension system, a performance management system where we are punished for things we have little control over.

These days fall into the "when the going gets rough..." category. Our best hope in times like these is organization. We are fortunate to have an organization that, historically at least, was formed by teachers to represent the interests of teachers. I am of course referring to the Chicago Teachers Union. I am glad the union is there. But I don't think the current leadership has been doing much to deal with the rapidly evolving crisis facing us and the students we teach and the communities we serve.

The Chicago Teachers Union election is coming up this Friday (May 21), and this is our great opportunity to change that. I am voting for the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate for a few reasons:
  1. A change is necessary in the union. Marilyn Stewart's administration has been doing too little too late around school closings, CPS budget transparency, or mobilizing the membership to challenge the problems facing us and our students.
  2. CORE has an admirable track record in doing exactly what the current leadership hasn't been doing. They have been in the forefront of the fight around closings, for budget transparency, for a democratic and mobilized union.
  3. CORE is about a different kind of union -- a democratic union. Away from business unionism. A union, as CORE presidential candidate Karen Lewis says, that will activate the power of its 28,000 members in partnership with parents, students and community.
  4. CORE recognizes that we need to work with other organizations to be successful -- including parent groups, community organizations, other labor organizations.
  5. CORE has an active base throughout CPS that can make this idea of a democratic union work.
  6. The CORE slate has been endorsed by Teachers for Social Justice, an organization that I respect.
There are other caucuses running candidates, but none of them have an organization that has been visible around the big issues facing us, or have the reach across the city to make the democratic union idea work, or have actually been trying to mobilize members to make their voice heard. CORE has, CORE does.

Finally CORE has emphasized unity among the different factions in the CTU at a time when we need to be speaking with one strong voice about the future of education.

So I am going to vote for CORE on Friday, May 21. And I encourage you to do so, too.


More info:

CORE for CTU video

Karen Lewis, Presidential Candidate for CTU at Town Hall Meeting

Karen Lewis Campaign video

Catalyst Chicago story on upcoming election

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Most education research is BS

Sharon Begley reports in her Newsweek column (4/29/10) on the work of Western Michigan University professor William Cobern about how bad most education research is: poorly designed, lacking in rigor, and often underwritten by publishers who gain from the NCLB imprimatur of "research-based". Here is a fun phrase from the column: "the scientific vacuity of education research".


Saturday, May 1, 2010

iPad and education

It was time for a new laptop, but with the iPad coming out, I thought I might see if I could manage with using it as a main, or mostly main computer. And since Apple has pushed the iPod as an education tool, I was also curious how it might work in the classroom.

First observations:

The hardware and apps are there to make it a very slick classroom tool. Usable for doing any of the basic Office-type applications, especially with the extra iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote), and especially usable with the external keyboard (which is what I am using right now). While the iPad can run iPhone apps, unless they are modified to take advantage of the iPad's expanded screen size, you have a little iPhone app running inside a big black screen. I expect as the iPad market grows, more developers will modify their apps to support the platform, so the education app universe will continue to grow. You still have the old possibilities of podcast and iTunes U. But now the video experience is tremendously enhanced. Video can come from iTunes, YouTube (as long as the school doesn't block it), and Netflix has a viewer too. BrainPOP has an iPad app as welll, although right now it only plays a free "movie of the week".

Apple also provides an iBook reader for the iPad, as do other developers. The iPad plus these apps opens the door for much richer support for e-textbooks, or web-supported curricula in general.

Drawbacks: The mobile Safari browser is sufficient for many web-based activities, but it still does not support Flash, which is used in many educational web apps (see Steve Jobs final word on Flash on the iPhone/Pod/Pad). I have learned to more or less live with this on the iPhone, but the bigger irritation -- no, failure -- is the mobile browser's inability to support EDITING GOOGLE DOCS. I put that final phrase in caps for emphasis. First, because Google Docs has, in practice (for my teachers at least), proven to be the simplest and cheapest way to manage student work done on computers. Apple provides online storage space via, but it is tightly integrated with their iWork apps, while Google Docs is wonderfully ecumenical when it comes to computing platforms. [Note: the lack of support for editing text Google docs could possibly be solved on either the Google side or the Apple side, but what from I've been able to find, the culprit is Safari's lack of support for the contentEditable tag, which Google Docs relies on for formatting. For typing this, I had to switch from "Compose" mode to "Edit HTML", which provides a plain text editing area.]

There are other iPad apps which support working on Google docs, and saving them in the Google cloud space, but they are not free, and so that's an added expense for schools.

Related to this is the issue of file management, which is a problem for any school. The iWork apps can be transferred to a Mac, and worked on them there (also using iWork, or saving as another file format I suppose, and working on them like that. But that gets away from the point of an iPad in the classroom -- a relatively inexpensive standalone multimedia tool. If a school committed to the iWork tools, perhaps there is some way to use as a central file management space, but students would still be locked into local apps for working on documents away from an iPad. Tim O'Reilly commented recently that Apple was missing the boat on the cloud computing thing, and this Google Docs thing reinforces that for me. Figuring out a good app / file management strategy (what apps do students use that support flexibly saving their work, where the teacher can see it, that is accessible from a non-Apple device, and can be accessed from home -- this is the biggest challenge I see to committing to the iPad in the classroom.

I assume someone will come out with iPad charging / sync stations, which will make managing a classroom set of iPads much easier than laptops.

The iPad I think supersedes the now-brief possibility of net books supplanting laptops as the one-to-one computing platform of choice. Although still twice the cost of the cheapest net books, it offers a far richer user experience I think (the screen, really, is very nice) and is half the cost of Apple's laptops.


Composed on a iPad, using the iPad Keyboard Dock, which makes typing Really Easy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Reflecting on a recent PD

Reflecting on a recent professional development that I organized... Our school was getting to the end of the Scantron Performance Assessment, and I wanted to give the teachers at my school a briefing on the data the testing generated and a little bit of info on the kinds of resources available via the Scantron site. (Here's a link to a blog entry on how the testing went -- read the comment from Nicole Zumpano also.)

The PD consisted of two main parts. First I gave some background on the testing, described the kinds of scores Scantron site generated, and showed the teachers how to access the reports and resources. During the second part of the PD, teachers were supposed to look at their student data, and practice generating study guides and quizzes for their students.

Good things about the PD:
  • It was well attended.
  • Teachers paid attention to the information I gave them.
  • It didn't go on too long (about one hour).
  • I think I was coherent (not sure!).
  • I thought the handout and PowerPoint were good -- short, informative, supportive of the goals of the PD.
Not so good things about the PD:

  • I spent most of the practice time generating new passwords for the teachers, since they didn't know what their passwords were.
  • I don't the teachers had much of a chance to really see how the data and resources might be useful to them.
  • Time was short.
  • The PD was held in our building, and teachers wanted to get to other things they had to do in their classrooms.
  • I was lax about getting evaluations from the teacher, either no the PD or on the testing process in general.
  • The talking part that I did went on too long (I videotaped it, and was surprised to see that I blabbed on for 20 minutes).
If I was to do it over again I would:
  • Make sure everyone had a sense of the importance of the Scantron assessments (the data may be useful, the resources can be handy, teachers will likely be evaluate on their students performance on the test, the principal should reinforce the relevance of the assessments and resources) -- or more generally, make sure that there is a real need for the PD, and that the participants are aware of the need.
  • Do it off-site, so teachers wouldn't be so distracted by things in the building or their classrooms; or do it for teachers at another school.
  • Talk less, do more.
  • Have all of the password stuff straightened out ahead of time (!!!!).
  • Be better about collecting evaluations.
The handouts, PowerPoint, and additional info can be found here.


Reflecting about a math competition

I just got back from working on the math portion of an academic olympics for one of the Chicago Public Schools areas. First time ever. Some thoughts:
  • I think math competitions may best be done not as a first response, Jeopardy-style competition, but to give a paper and pencil test with a tough time limit (e.g., 20 questions in 20 minutes). Students would still need to know their math, and be quick about it, but not be penalized if the luck of the draw puts them with some super competitors. At least for the first round...
  • Or maybe do a paper-pencil for Round 1, and then go to the first response mode for a second and third round.
  • And/or have a class of questions that are 10-second questions, and some that are 5-second questions.
  • In the case of a Jeopardy-style competition, run all of the questions by some teachers first to see if they can answer them in the allotted time (in this case, five seconds). I came up with a number of questions that were not mathematically difficult, but were complex enough that it was hard for anyone to figure out in five seconds. And so time ran out before anyone attempted a response.
  • Double-check the slides, projected, to make sure all of the labels and text are nice and big.
  • And if you switch from Windows to a Mac, or from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice, look at all of the slides beforehand to catch any problems with incompatibilities between their respective formula editors and fonts/symbols! (By the way, there's a beta version of an OpenOffice extension that provides a very nice two-screen presentation, (the "Sun Presenter Console") where the audience sees the presentation slide projected, and the presenter has a nice view of the slide, notes, time, and upcoming slide.)
For what it's worth, the finalists at both levels (intermediate and upper grades) did a remarkable job.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Draft National Educational Technology Plan

The U.S. Department of Education has released its draft National Educational Technology Plan. The Five Year Plan is supposed to be a model of "21st century learning powered by technology" according to a post to one of ISTE's special interest groups.

The 80-page draft is available at:

There is a 10-page executive summary available at:


Sunday, March 7, 2010

PD definition yawn

Tedium alert: This posting is being done for a course requirement on The Most Boring Subject in the World, "professional development". So if you were maybe beginning to the think that you might want to see what it's about, well...

The National Staff Development Council (yes, there is one! And my my brain fogs over and I start looking at my inbox to see what needs to be cleared out) created this definition of PD for the No Child Left Behind (sic) law:
The term “professional development” means a comprehensive, sustained, and intensive approach to improving teachers’ and principals’ effectiveness in raising student achievement...
[BTW: if you need help with intelligent-sounding phrases to spice up your PD, here's a useful tool: Education Jargon Generator]

Per the definition, PD should be aligned (check), conducted by well-prepare people (umm check), based on teacher and student performance data (hmm -- when I see these words I look around to see who is swinging the ax), goal-oriented (check), regularly assessed for effectiveness (check), and informing continuous improvement in teaching (check).

Which all sounds very good as defining concepts. The real challenge comes in trying to successfully implement PD.

The concept of continuous process improvement comes out of the automobile industry and W. Edwards Deming's ideas about quality control. One of the radical concepts in his management ideas is the idea of treating production workers as human beings with ideas and opinions and pride in their work. See the Wikipedia summary of Deming's Key Principles for an idea of what he was on about.

A problem arises when the exhortations to improve conflict with an adversarial, even antagonistic relationship between workers (that would be us, the teachers), and management (pick whatever level of administration you want). If one side is expected to change, and the other side isn't, trouble is on the horizon. Why are just the teachers and staff fired when a school is supposedly failing? Why not the school board, the CEO or superintendent or the administration? When the resources aren't there to support either the PD itself, or to implement what you have learned, nothing is going to happen. If everyone is convinced that they are in fact on the same boat, and rowing in the same direction, and not stuck in steerage or the engine room, then good things are possible.

Anyway, talk is cheap. The NSDC definition is fine, and the idea of continuous improvement is good. But they can only work if there is a sense of a future, of common purpose, of shared reward. All of which seem to be lacking at CPS right now. No matter what you have this year, there will be less of it next year.


Trying out a problem-based lesson

I continue to play around with Etoys. As noted in an earlier post, I think Etoys works best as a construction kit for students. This, as opposed to a multimedia development environment for teachers or other lesson designers to assemble ready-made, teacher-directed activities for the students. The construction kit idea fits with the constructionist roots of the project. Veteran computer researcher and educator Alan Kay, one of the forces behind Etoys and Squeak (the Smalltalk implementation that Etoys is built on, and in many ways has superceded), described it like this:
The most important thing about powerful inexpensive personal computers is that they form a new kind of reading and writing medium that allows some of the most important powerful ideas to be discussed and played with and learned ...

This is what our work and Squeak is all about. We are interested in helping children learn to think better and deeper than most adults can. We have made the Squeak medium to serve as a new kind of electronic paper that can hold new ways to represent powerful ideas. ("Background on how children learn", 2003?)
I have been wanting to try a genuine Etoys project on some students, to see how they do with it, how the constructionist idea plays out in practice. I suppose this sounds a bit mad-scientist-ish, but that's also a lot of what teaching is -- a never-ending tinkering.

I'm working with Shane Jonas at Kellman to develop a lesson plan that uses Etoys to design something, in this case a simple seascape with a few beasties that crawl or swim about. The exercise is inspired by a similar project on the Etoys Illinois site. The main purpose of the exercise is to develop problem-solving skills (design something and make it go), but in the course of creating the seascape, the students will hit a number of cross-curricular standards, including technology design, ecosystems (both science), transformations and the coordinate plane (math), drawing (art), and public speaking when they present their work. Shane and I are also going to experiment some more with having students at our two schools video conference about their projects.

I tried the exercise out on some prospective teachers at a class I am teaching at Dominican of "integrating technology into the curriculum" (!). We had been looking at different types of educational technology, organized by where the center of teaching/learning occurs. Drills and tutorials are at one end of the spectrum ("teacher centered", even if the authority is a computer program); webquests and scavenger hunts and the like in the middle ("directed inquiry", teacher-directed but the student plays an active role in directing the outcomes), and problem-based learning and constructionist tools on the other end ("student-centered"). The idea was that the candidates would both get a chance to work with Etoys, and also to experience from the students' point-of-view what a constructionist exercise might feel like.

An instruction sheet for the exercise is available.

A few things about the exercise stand out:

1. Etoys is a software development environment, so before a student (of any age) can feel success, he or she needs to at least get comfortable with the tools. Etoys comes with three very good tutorials that take the student through the basics of working with the program.

2. Still, even the simple seascape exercise allowed for some important wrong turns. In the exercise, students are supposed to create a background, save that, and then add new objects on top of the background. A few students missed the important step of saving the background before adding their octopi and fish. As a result, their sea beasts were not separate objects that could be programmed to move about on their own. When I do this with the young ones, I need to make sure that they get this step -- maybe even break the session into two parts to make sure the background is created as a background.

3. The tutorials did not go into enough detail about the Etoys programming model. Some additional direct instruction is needed up front I think to help students understand about scripts or code snippets, and looping and tests (if-then statements). And also how this is done using Etoys (tear offs and drag-and-drop tiles).

4. One of the challenges of constructivist teaching is providing the Goldilocks mean of teacher involvement -- just enough scaffolding to keep each student in his or her zone, not too much, not too little. With adults, and probably with children as well (we'll see), each person has their own tolerance for trying things out, failing, trying again, etc. before frustration sets in. Some need more encouragement than others. So the teacher is not giving just one lesson, but many. On the other hand, students were very helpful with each other as they figured things out. That's another hallmark of constructivism -- student peers are important teaching agents.

Being able to try out such a lessons is a great opportunity because complex lessons like this are not easy to organize and execute. The feedback is there, but it is so long between executions that it takes a long time to really make the lesson work well.

Hopefully I will get around to doing a report-back on trying it out with elementary school kids.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Getting teachers to use more technology

Ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer. That's the first thing I thought of when I read a blog-posting prompt for a class I am taking: "What is the best way to get others at your schools to use more technology in their teaching and the students' learning?"

The main charge for my position at my school, as I understand it, is to coach and assist teachers in integrating technology into their teaching. I don't see my job as getting them to "use more technology." There is a fine distinction there, so let me see if I can make the line clearer.

I have latched on to a couple of guiding principles for my work. The first one is a techno-take on the Hippocratic Oath of "First, Do No Harm". The second one stretches Occam's Razor: All things considered, the simplest solution is the best solution. The second principle relates to the idea of "appropriate technology" and the "Keep It Simple" principle of design. And usually, the simplest solution will be a low-tech solution. Electronic equivalents complicate.

I see my role as helping teachers accomplish their teaching tasks most effectively. In terms of technology, that means identifying the most effective technology to deliver instruction or facilitate learning. (There might be some fine points to make re: teachers teaching vs. students learning, and who is doing what in the process and whether the center of it is closer to the teacher or the student, but let's set those aside for now.)

There will be times when there will be compelling reasons to use new technologies. But always, with any medium or tool, there are trade-offs. Marshall and Eric McLuhan's "Four Laws of Media" captures this idea of something gained, something lost. According to their "four laws", every medium (and they include tools as media) enhances (this is the part we tend to focus on), but it also obsolesces (something is lost or made obsolete), and when taken too far, it reverses, or yields an undesired, or even opposite effect (the classic example is the automobile that results in gridlock). [FYI, the fourth effect is retrieves.] While something is gained, something else is lost. It may not be a zero-sum game, but there are definitely trade-offs.

Case in point: virtual math manipulatives are kinda neat, and offer some useful opportunities for students. But they are also virtual, and the tactile benefits of handwork is lost. Or online collaboration -- the online medium inserts itself into the communication process, and collaboration is altered. While online collaboration creates new possibilities, the benefits of face-to-face communication are lost. If we only interact with online personae and avatars, I fear we will end up somewhere on the autism spectrum, incapable of reading faces anymore.

Anyway, I do not see my role as encouraging the use of more technology, but assisting in the process of making wise choices to help teachers be successful. While I can't say I am doing a particularly good job at this (why is a subject for another post), it means working closely with a teacher, understanding what she is trying to accomplish, and making her aware of her options, including the benefits and drawbacks.

If the concept of classroom technology is relaxed to include traditional tools like chalk and blackboard, and even lecturing, my understanding of what a "lead technology teacher" should be perhaps becomes clearer. I work with teachers (or should anyway) to help them select the most appropriate tool for the job and use it effectively.

If teachers are driving the teaching process (understood in whatever way one wants to conceive of what teachers do), then I do not need to "get them to use more technology". I just need to help them clarify what tools will help them the most (and hopefully do no harm). Given the opportunity, they will use as much technology as they need, and hopefully no more.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

21st Century Literacy

The term "literacy" is tossed about a lot, and is loaded up with many layers of meaning. Case in point is the video "What Does It Mean to Be Literate in the 21st Century?" from a couple of Canadian teachers. Definitions (or really, "understandings") provided by the teachers interviewed in the video range from classic "read and write" printed texts to facility with tools, to a Gardner-esque "multiple literacies" that correspond to different intelligences (e.g., emotional literacy, outdoor literacy).

I prefer to go with a media-independent notion of literacy as the ability to construct (or maybe discover) meaning from the world. "Reading" becomes a generic term for this process -- reading clouds, reading printed text, reading symbols, reading faces, reading film, reading math proofs, reading music, and so on. One teacher in the video used the Freirean terms of literacy as not just reading the word, but reading the world. And I might add, again in Freirean terms of active engagement, not just reading the world, but writing the world as well. Literacy becomes a general ability to be in the world in a meaning-ful way.

When it comes to electronic technology, literacy is often reduced to facility. The U.S. Department of Education, back in 1996, defined technology literacy as "computer skills and the ability to use computers and other technology to improve learning, productivity, and performance" (cited on this Technology Literacy page). One state education office defined is as "the ability to use, manage, assess, and understand technology." The ability to use a technology is a rather shallow skill -- much more important is the ability to create meaning, and to gather (or construct) meaning from what is done with the technology.

Electronic technology is only a subset of the technologies around us. The phonetic alphabet is a technology. As is the book and the newspaper. Part of being a critical reader and writer of any medium, is understanding the prejudices that the medium pushes onto the world (hence McLuhan's "the medium is the message"), and also the social context or matrix within which any particular technology is developed and deployed. Technologies always change the person that uses them. Literacy means understanding those changes, and being able to make critical and ethical choices.

The Alliance for Childhood's TechTonic report does a nice job of exploring this dimension of computer technology:
In the past, technology literacy was largely defined as skill in operating computers. That narrow approach was misguided from the start. But it is now dangerously outdated. A new approach to technology literacy, calibrated for the 21st century, requires us to help children develop the habits of mind, heart, and action that can, over time, mature into adult capacities for moral reflection, ethical restraint, and compassionate service. (p. 8)
And later,
The Alliance for Childhood proposes the following definition: Technology literacy is the mature capacity to participate creatively, critically, and responsibly in making technological choices that serve democracy, ecological sustainability, and a just society. (p. 60)
So what are the most important aspects of 21st Century literacy? As always -- the ability to construct or discover meaning in the world, the ability to make critical and ethical choices about the tools available to construct or discover that meaning, to engage meaningfully with the world. With new technologies, that means understanding how those tools are used to construct meaning, what "meaning" looks like, how to decode and critically reflect on media artifacts. (At my school at least, we spend a fair amount of time on strategies for making sense of printed texts, but no time on strategies for making sense of TV, movies, music, PowerPoints, websites, etc.) It also means understanding how economic systems work and how they push technologies into particular directions.

And especially it means learning how to think.