Saturday, February 22, 2014

Don't Measure Me By My Students' Test Scores

Cross-posted at Brilliant or Insane 
As a lifelong educator, I’d like to believe that all teachers and administrators understand we can’t use standardized test scores to measure teacher effectiveness. So, I was shocked the other day when an educator, one who I think highly of, used test scores to compare two teachers’ effectiveness.

All of teacher A’s students passed the standardized test. Teacher B’s students didn’t fair as well, but teacher B’s classes were filled with special education students, rule breakers and fence-riders (those students who are easily swayed by their peers).

As a teacher, I loved teaching the most challenging students, so I was taken back by this educator’s dubious claim. If he were to look at my standardized test scores, would he think any less of me as a teacher?

When you teach challenging students, the state-mandated curriculum must not be ignored, but often it should take a back seat to the unwritten curriculum. Comparatively, the standard curriculum is easy to teach. If test scores were my primary concern, when a student misbehaved, I could have simply stated, “John, do the work or get a referral.” I then could return to teaching the mandate curriculum. My students’ test scores may have been higher.

But, I aimed to teach life skills, to build trusting relationships with all of my students and to help students learn from their errors (be they academic or behavioral).

Teaching the unwritten curriculum includes no absolutes. Every decision is complex and weighs heavily. Instead of focusing solely on test scores, I aimed to build students’ social and life skills. Instead of plowing through the curriculum, I taught with empathy. I tried to never leave a student behind; I never gave up on a student.

Sadly, test scores cannot measure these attributes. Teacher effectiveness can only be marginally reflected in the scores of our students. Please, never rely on test scores to measure teacher effectiveness.

What We Can Learn From Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin and Public Reaction

Cross-posted at Brilliant or Insane

The recent release of Ted Wills's report on Richie Incognito's bullying of Jonathan Martin brought workplace bullying to the forefront. 

Sadly, what happened in the Dolphins locker room occurs far too often in our schools. In watching, listening and reading media and public reaction to the report, I've been shocked by how often I've heard the following two statements.
  1. People need to understand the context and the dynamics of a football team's locker room.  
  2. Jonathan Martin will not be welcomed back into the Dolphins' locker room or ANY NFL team's. 
Is it any wonder why schools have trouble preventing bullying and harassment when such drivel spews from the mouth of experts, former players and the common man?

Let's examine the two offending statements:

People need to understand the context and the dynamics of a football team's locker room. The actions of Incgonito and two teammates are never permissible. As an educator, I've heard similar statements echoed by parents, students and even teachers,"They're just teasing" or "Boys will be boys."

Whether it's a highly educated, intelligent 312-lb professional football player or a 65-lb, bespectacled, prepubescent boy doesn't matter. The treatment of Martin was offensive and unacceptable. Where Martin "should have the opportunity to pursue a career in the NFL without being subjected to harassment," students should be able to pursue their education at school and be who they want to be. 

Jonathan Martin will not be welcomed back into the Dolphins' locker room or ANY NFL team's. Far too often the targets of harassment are vilified when they've done nothing wrong. According to Wills's report,  "the fear of being labeled a 'snitch' or a 'Judas' played a role in Martin's decision not to report the abuse from his teammates. Martin believed that going to his coaches...meant risking ostracism or even retaliation from his fellow lineman." Attaching such a stigma to telling undermines everything we should stand for.

Like many schools, the Dolphins failed to protect the target of bullying. Organizations--be they Fortune 500 companies or elementary schools--must create a safe climate, one in which everyone is respected and where inappropriate actions are reported by either the bullied or by bystanders. It's not enough to post anti-harassment posters and have a training session or two on proper conduct. Corporations and schools must establish a positive climate and culture where people can develop, be productive and pursue their dreams.

10 Reasons to Greet Students at the Door

Cross-posted at Brilliant or Insane

When you walk into restaurants and many shops, someone greets you as you enter. With a welcoming smile, the host makes you feel welcome and sets a positive tone for your dining or shopping experience. The same principle applies to students entering your classroom. While not always possible, we should strive to welcome our students to our classes every day.

10 Reasons to Greet Students at the Door
  1. Build relationships with your students and meet your their emotional needs
  2. Offer praise and feedback (this need not be class related)
  3. Some students, like those with ADD/ADHD,  have trouble switching classes. Greet these students at the door with explicit directions about what to do. For some of my more challenging students, I would essentially escort them to their seats to ensure they started class on task. 
  4. It gives you a chance to connect with every student and to gauge their emotional state.
  5. Students have a lot to say and we should take the time to listen to them
  6. Albeit brief, it's a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with a student 
  7. It gives you an opportunity to model (and for students to practice) socially acceptable behaviors, like eye contact, a firm handshake, and good posture.
  8. You can ask each student a question to formatively assess their understanding of the previous day's lesson. With some classes I'd take this a step further and ask a question which the students had to get right before entering class.
  9. Teach the students respectful behaviors. My rule was a simple one, "Every time I ask you a question, please answer the question and ask a question in return."          Me: Did you watch the football game last night?
              JJ: Yeah, I can't believe the Redskins lost. Did you watch it?
              Me: Of course. Not sure why it surprised you though. They've been awful this year. 

    A matter of caution, I'd often ask about their lives outside of school and about their weekends. For students with horrible home lives, doing so sets them back and can ruin your effort at fostering a welcoming classroom environment.
  10. It can be a time saver. While I had a consistent classroom routine, greeting students at the door would allow you to cue them to something that may be different (please be sure to turn in your homework or please pick up the work you missed yesterday from the absent folder)
Simply greeting students at the door has been proven to increase student attention to learning (on-task behavior) and it establishes teacher rapport with students. It's simple and effective and worth the little extra effort.

Monday, February 10, 2014

8 Things Every Student Needs From Their Teachers

Cross posted on Brilliant or Insane

Our most challenging students need at least one adult in which they can confide in; who makes them feel special. Every student needs someone to support them, someone who they can turn to when times are tough. We must be willing to listen when nobody else will. When no one else will understand, we need to. As educators, we often fill the void of broken families, of being a social outcast, and of loneliness. Frequently we are most important person in a child’s life.

Building relationships through shared emotions that foster long-lasting connections can be created in several ways.

  1. Let students see you as a real person. Doing so opens the door for them to share their lives with you. The door should not be wide open, but by intertwining personal anecdotes into lessons, sharing our own experiences and professional hopes and expectations, students will see you as more than an information dispenser. 
  2. Let your students know that you care about them and that you’re there for them. Strive to make every student feel as if they are your favorite. Find the positive in each an every student. 
  3. Take an interest in their lives. I aimed to meet each student as they entered my classroom with a personal question. One particularly helpful strategy I learned: spend 2 minutes a day for 2 consecutive weeks talking to your most challenging students about something other than school. Doing so while students worked individually minimized lost instructional time and paid off in the long-run. 
  4. Don’t treat all students the same. While it’s important to treat everyone with respect, it’s equally important to know what will work with one student will not work with another. 
  5. Believe in all students. Countless studies indicate that the expectations teachers have for students come to fruition. Constantly communicate high behavioral and academic expectations for all students. 
  6. Build a positive class culture. Search for opportunities for students to be proud and show off your class achievements. Brag to other teachers, parents, anyone who will listen about your students. Trust me when I say, “it will get back to your students.” 
  7. Listen. Nothing says you care more than listening intently and sincerely to your students. Even if you don’t agree with their point or actions, let them know that you recognize and value them. 
  8. Never criticize the student. Focus on the misbehavior and not the student, value the student above all else.

Students will only open themselves up to us when they feel valued and respected. Each student must have has an educator ready to champion for them. We shall all strive to be remembered by our students as the teacher who made a difference.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Allow Students To Pursue Their Dreams, Not Ours

Phil Black entered the Shark Tank with an impressive résumé that included an undergraduate degree from Yale, a graduate degree from Harvard Business, an early career at Goldman Sachs, and six years as a Navy SEAL. After unsuccessfully making his pitch, Kevin O’Learry, aka Mr. Wonderful, shames him, “I don’t get you. You’re résumé is very impressive [but] it does not equate to a deck of cards. You’re destined for much greater things than this.”

Despite the chastising, Phil Black left satisfied, pledging to continue his dream of making FitDeck more successful. While Mr. Wonderful probably meant no harm, his comments reminded me of well-meaning parents or teachers who push children to become something they don’t want to be.

Seven years ago, I taught Mike in ninth grade World History. Recently I ran into him while shopping when he dropped a bombshell.

He had dropped out of college.

Upon telling me, my gaping jaw led him to quickly reassure me, “It’s what I wanted to do. College wasn’t for me.” Obviously, he had explained this too many times to count as he continued, “I knew it [college] wasn’t right, but I went there because it’s what my parents expected of me. Freshman year went fine, but by my sophomore year, I stopped caring. I made up excuses. My grades weren’t good, so I dropped out.”

“I’m going to go to a tech school and either work on motorcycles, cars, or even helicopters. It’s what I’ve wanted to do.” With my college first mindset stomped on, I stood numb, but recognized Mike was right.

With 20-20 hindsight, it began to make sense. As a high schooler, Mike simply went through the motions to please his family and teachers. He adopted the values and rules of his teachers and peers. He diligently completed his work to ensure parental and peer approval, but inside he hurt.

His autonomy had been robbed from him. Instead of learning, he simply completed assignments, while feeling emasculated and ambivalent. During college, he began to defy expectations. Fortunately, like Phil Black, Mike figured out what he wanted.

As parents and teachers, we must provide autonomy to our students and children. Instead of forcing rules and expectations upon them, allow them the independence to make their own choices. Support their efforts with love and devotion. Allow them to be true to themselves.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Currently Grades Are Inherently Unfair

If grades matter as much as many say, we need to make reforms.

I’m the proud father of identical twins. Essentially, they possess similar academic and non-cognitive skills.  Yet, their high school experiences were dramatically different, as were their GPAs.

The discrepancies came down to one, randomly assigned variable—their teachers.

In science class one twin’s teacher weighted homework at 40%, while the other twin’s teacher didn’t calculate homework. In another subject, one teacher allowed extra credit while the other didn’t. Similar subject exams ranged from 10% to 20%. Of course, these differences are only the tip of the iceberg.

Dinner conversations frequently centered on such disparities. “I wish I was allowed to turn in extra credit.” “You’re so lucky to have her. She’s so much easier.” “I’ve worked so much harder, but I’ve only got a B and you have an A.”

Such disparities shouldn’t exist.

By no stretch of the imagination am I fan of more regulation, and since grades are here to stay, we need to make significant grade reforms. Here’s a simple 3-step policy:

1.     Each school should collaboratively develop its own grading policies. The policy should include what goes into a grade and how grades are calculated. As the policy is formulated ask the following questions:
·      What can and cannot be included in grades?
·      How do we ensure that grades indicate student understanding?
·      Will extra credit be allowed?
·      Will redos/retakes be permitted? If so, how will they be computed?

2.     Next teachers should meet in grade-level or subject-specific teams. Each team should then describe what they want their students to know and how this will be measured (performance indicators)

3.     Teachers articulate their grading policy to students and parents.

The above reforms will take time and energy, but effective grading policies require deliberate planning.  Reforms will enable grades to accurately reflect what students have learned and are able to do.

If we must have grades, we should strive to ensure that they indicate the same level of learning in classrooms across the spectrum.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Domino Effect of Education Standardization

Cross posted at Brilliant or Insane 
Fourteen years ago, after five wonderful years as a teacher, everything imploded during the sixth year. The same administrators, who once encouraged risk-taking and personal growth, became dictatorial and over-controlling. Instead of working together, we now competed and fought for control.

Why the sudden deterioration? Standards of Learning (Virginia’s standards).

I abandoned the sinking ship. I wasn’t alone. Seven other teachers (a significant number as this was a very small school) jumped to other jobs. One of the other departing teachers expressed the feelings of all of us, “I feel like I’m just a cog in the machine. Easily replaceable.”

In the blink of an eye, everything changed with the new standards. Administrators became manipulative and domineering. Teacher autonomy went out the window. We were told, “If it’s not mentioned in the Standard of Learning Framework, you won’t be teaching it.”

When observing classes, administrators sat with the standards in hand. I got chastised for talking about Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain in my World History class (remarkably at the time this wasn’t included in the framework, but it has since been added).  A peer was raked over the coals at a School Board Meeting for having poor SOL scores (Virginia’s End of Course Tests) despite his students scoring well above the state average.

Sadly, my experiences are not unique. Today far too many teachers feel the same way I did 14 years ago.

Essentially one knee-jerk reaction led to another in a domino falling-like series of transgressions. NCLB led state governments to increase “accountability.” Pressured school districts exerted control on school administrators who passed it on to the teachers. Constantly being reminded, “It’s your job to make sure your students perform to these high standards,” led teachers to increase their control over students. Reluctantly, we taught to the test.  With autonomy destroyed, many educators’ enthusiasm and excitement for teaching waned. Lectures became commonplace. Teachers bypassed labs and projects that engaged students and instead dispensed review worksheets to drill in the facts.

The pressure to produce results undermined teachers. The burden of standardized test results backfired as student learning suffered. Teachers became more controlling despite knowing that students need the opposite—teachers who nurture, support and engage students.

Fortunately, many states, including Virginia, are looking at loosening the standardization grip. Reform can’t come soon enough.