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.