Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grading on a Curve

I need to have this one explained to me again.  Not the math.  It's not the number crunch of graded curving that escapes me.  It's the underlying principle.  Yesterday evening my college sophomore received an email from a professor explaining that the calculated average for her class was 88 and that the standard deviation was 10.  Presumably this was to help my daughter (and her classmates) calculate her curved grade given that she knew her actual grade.  Though she started slow, she finished strong, and my daughter did fine.  What I could not adequately explain to her, despite my chosen field, was why a professor would distribute grades as if there were a limited number available.  Why she hadn't been graded on what she had demonstrated she learned, independent of what other students had or had not learned.  Why is my B related to someone else's A or C?

Earlier in the day I had spoken with Dr. Quaglia fresh from some high powered meetings is Washington, D.C.  One of the things he remarked about was how surprised people at that level in our educational system are whenever he offers to share our data base with them.  "It seems like everyone is competing with one another.  Aren't we all in this together to make schools better for kids?" 

After failing to explain things to my daughter, the days dots started to connect.  Competition for whose program is better for schools, curved grading, "Race to the Top" (which I had been reading more about).  Our educational system from national to local, from the Department of Education to the school classroom is rife with competition.  I understand that competition can be highly motivating.  And certainly competing against oneself for personal bests is a sure path to ongoing success.  No doubt there is a time and a place for competition at all levels.  I am just not sure it should be the underlying framework as it has been in the past.  Knowledge is not a zero-sum game.  If I learn more, you don't learn less.  My A does not inhibit your A even a little. 

I think our education systems are evolving slowly towards a more collaborative, less competitive, set of practices.  One more aligned with the true nature of teaching and learning--one the most profound and necessary forms of human collaboration and partnership.  I see much more group work in the classrooms I visit and much great collegiality among teachers.  It was just interesting to run across three vestiges of the competitive mind-set in one day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pre-Vacation Videos

I just read an email from a high school principal who each Monday sends his staff a preview of the week.  He politely asked teachers to limit the use of videotapes and remind students they are looking for three normal school days.  Last week a friend complained to me that her third grader watched The Santa Clause 2 in school.  I recall when my daughters were in elementary school, parents complained in the parking lot about this same practice.  Some wrote a letter to the principal saying that if we wanted our children to watch movies, we would have kept them home.

Some argue that our educational system is at a disadvantage over other countries in the number of hours our students spend in school.  There is a thought-provoking documentary that compares how teenagers in the United States, India, and China spend the 2 million minutes of their high school careers. Between summers off, holidays, winter and spring recesses, and a relatively short school day, there is just not enough "time on task."  We can debate that issue.  Those on the other side could argue that learning requires breathing space. What seems inarguable is that while in school students should be engaged in academic work. 

Clearly we are not talking about educational videos or movies being watched to teach media literacy.  We are talking about "fillers"--using a movie to avoid teaching at times when it is most challenging to teach.  The week before the winter break, the Friday after a Thursday off, the two and half days before Thanksgiving, June after final exams.  This practice (like having summers off) is one that gives teachers a bad rap as professionals. That principals need to send reminders and that parents complain should prompt those who teach to do a little introspection before they pop in Frosty.  While we are at it, instead of our managers and clients having to call us on this, let's clean up this worst practice as colleagues to one another.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Video: Dreams and Education

A 16 year old who gets the connection between education and aspirations and one of three winners of the The U.S. Department of Education's “I Am What I Learn” video contest.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Happy Whatever

I recently spent some time with my nephew who is a student in a public school in New Jersey.  He was sharing his excitement about singing in his school's holiday concert.  "What are you singing?" "We are singing: The Marvelous Toy, Over the River and Through the Woods, and Silver and Gold."  Although this last song has a reference to Christmas trees, the songs are all safely secular.  In my travels into lots of different schools, I have seen at least three different strategies for dealing with our society's current we-can't-call-it-Christmas-or-anything-else-religious paranoia.
  1. Some schools celebrate everything--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus--you name it, they celebrate it.  They mark the day, learn about that religion in social studies classes, sing songs from each tradition, create art projects, and generally celebrate the rich cultural heritage of all their students.  E pluribus unum.  Out of many, one all inclusive celebration.
  2. Some schools celebrate nothing.  There are no decorations of any kind.  No Christmas trees, no Menorahs, no wishing a merry this or a happy that.  When a student or anyone else asks about this practice, they say they don't want to offend anyone.  A strict separation of church and state (not that this is what the first amendment actually calls for).
  3. Some schools celebrate the generic, secular "holidays."  Not withstanding that the root of the word holiday is "holy day," in these schools people greet each other with "Happy Holiday," have Snowflake parties, and decorate the hallways with snow people ("snowmen" would be sexist) and ginger bread houses.
Each school must accommodate this tricky time of year in a way suited to its community.  I have been in public schools in very conservative areas that unabashedly hang posters that say "Jesus is the reason for the season" and others in which there isn't even a symmetrical construction paper snowflake in sight.  

At The First Amendment Center, Dr. Charles Haynes advocates an educational, non-devotional approach to the holidays for schools.  A school's role is to teach and, in that respect, as long as religious holidays are treated as teachable moments, they can form part of a school's December.  Teachers, administrators, chorale directors and the like who choose to mark the holidays must have a clear educational purpose, a sensitivity to those who may be made to feel like outsiders, and a concern for balance and fairness in whatever they are doing.  This approach fits best with QISA's definition of Belonging, the first and most foundational of the Conditions:  Being a valued member of a community, while still maintaining one's uniqueness.  During December, a school can celebrate the unique and special holiday tradition of each and every member of its learning community.

P.S. The Kwanzaa stamp was designed by artist, Daniel Minter, illustrator of QISA's children's book Sam's Adventures in School and the designer of all of QISA's graphics and logos.

Monday, December 14, 2009

To Co-ed or not to co-ed...

Another difference between that high performing school in Cincinnati and most traditional public schools was that, although the school is co-ed, classes are single gender.  For 9th and 10th graders this is true for every class, with some mixing going on in the upper grades as students take on electives.  The students are allowed to socialize with whomever they want at lunch time.

There is a debate about single gender education and advocates on both sides.  There are even a few books written about brain differences in boys and girls and the implications for schooling.  If you read the U.S. Department of Education's latest report on this topic you will see that the jury is still out.  Most of the studies, however, look at entire schools that are either all male or all female.  This school is only separating the genders for classes and is mixing the genders as they are more mature (there are logistical reasons for mixing as well as electives made single gender classes untenable).

At the school we visited administrators, teachers, and students, for the most part, applauded this approach.  Teachers told us they are able to teach differently, use different examples, and work at different paces given a roomful of all boys or all girls.  Students told us they feel it is an easier environment in which to learn and that as they became more mature it becomes ok to mix together for instruction.  The only complaint is the lack of moderating influence one gender can have on another's behavior.  They said this is true for both boys and girls.

The Condition most in play here is Spirit of Adventure, which QISA thinks about in terms of healthy risk-taking.  There was almost universal agreement that boys and girls alike are more willing to take risks in a single gendered classroom and, therefore, learn better.  But it is not just the risk-taking of individual students I want to acknowledge.  I also want to celebrate is the "third way"--being co-ed as as school and having single-gender classrooms--being used by the school itself.  As our traditional educational systems continue to show signs of wear, we are going to need public schools (not just charter schools) willing to experiment with different ways of being school to help all students succeed.  It is this Spirit of Adventure at the structural level that we need to see more and more of.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dress Code whip lash

Although I have blogged previously about uniforms and dress code, I had a compare and contrast experience this week that was interesting.  On Wednesday in Cincinnati, Ohio, I was interviewing students in a public school that had uniforms--dress shirts, jackets, slacks, and ties. The boys wore a traditional men's tie and the girl's wore a uniform tie. The ties did not have to be worn to the neck and many students had an open top button with a loosely tied knot. Throughout the day, there were the usual instructions from teachers and administrators to tuck in shirt tails, and roll down jacket sleeves.

This high school served inner city kids, many of whom came from struggling families.  Although it is a public school, this school is a school of choice.  Students and parents in Cincinnati elect to go there and must take public transportation to arrive.  They draw from over 60 elementary schools and students there seem to be thriving.  When we asked students to tell us what they liked about the school, high on the list was the uniform.  When asked why, we heard:  "I don't have to think about what I am going to wear when I wake up in the morning."  "It saves my family money." "No one makes fun of anyone because of what they are wearing." "It gives you a sense of pride. The other day I was in a store and the lady at the counter knew what school I went to because I had my uniform on and she said she had gone there, too." "It makes you feel safe."

The very next day, I was interviewing students in the lakes region of New Hampshire.  Like the school in Cincinnati, this school has respectful students working with dedicated staff members.  Both schools have a great deal of success with their students.  Unlike the school in Cincinnati, it is not a school of choice, draws on just three elementary schools and, though there is poverty in some areas of the district, it is not the inner city.  There is a dress code, but no uniform.  When I asked an open ended question about what students would change if they were principal, one student said, "The dress code!"  Other students in the focus group immediately jumped in, "Yeah! They just made this new rule that you can't wear ripped jeans." Another added, "Some people's parents spent money on a new pair of ripped jeans and now they won't even let you wear them."

On back to back days, it was startling to hear one group of public school students lauding their uniform and then another group of students bemoaning their inability to wear tattered clothes. I'll leave it to anyone reading this (is anyone reading this?) to draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What Makes Class Work

Conversation in the car driving my daughter, a high school junior, home from play practice.  Picked up midway as she was telling me about her day. (Warning:  I've started to pick and choose my "stop saying 'like'" battles.  This was one I chose to leave alone so I could live to fight another day.)

Daughter:  Ugh...and then we had history class and it was like so lame and boring like it always is...but then we had lunch and...
Dad (ever researching): Wait.  What makes history class lame?
Daughter (trying to be patient..this guy is an educator?): Dad, there are three things that can make a class interesting:  Cool subject, cool teacher, cool other students.
Dad: Ok...
Daughter:  Right? I mean either the subject is really interesting, or the teacher presents it in an interesting way, or the other students in the class are interesting and you have like interesting interactions and things to say.  If you have all three of those, that is the best.  Those are like totally the best classes.  But any one of those things by itself could help you deal with the others being lame.
Dad: I see.
Daughter: But history is lame because I am just not into what we are studying and the teacher is boring and there are no interesting kids in that class.
Dad: Are you an interesting kid?
Daughter: Daaaad.  So, like, then we had lunch....

Here in this over-caffeinated conversation with my sixteen year old was something I believe deeply about classroom teaching:  Relationships count for at least two-thirds.  In more formal focus groups and interviews, many students, not related to me, have told me like the same thing.  My words not theirs:  When the teacher interacts with them in positive ways and creates a classroom environment in which they can interact positively with their peers, they learn more....even when they don't like like the subject matter.