Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Permanent Record

Another question we asked in that middle school last week was: What is the connection between your effort in middle school and going to college? We asked the question because the adults at the school didn't think students understood or saw that there was a connection. So we asked.

We didn't call them urban myths 40 years ago, but a 6th grader gave me the same answer my 6th grade teacher gave me when we were wondering why it was important to do well and behave in school: "Your grades, your behavior, your effort in every grade will be on your permanent record." I kid you not, those were the kid's exact words. The same exact words I recall hearing in 1974, when pocket calculators were the latest in classroom technology. The other students in the focus group nodded in agreement. Yup, on your permanent record.

Feigning ignorance and trying to hide my disbelief in hearing a four decade echo, I probed, "Could you explain that?" The student obliged, "When you apply to college, they are going to have your permanent record and they will look back at what you did in middle school, and if you messed up, it will be there and they are going to say, 'Nope' ... even if you have great grades at the end." He declared this with all the authority of an Ivy League rejection letter.

This young student put it in a most interesting and nostalgic way, but that was the theme across all the groups of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders we talked with: The connection between what you are doing now and getting into college, for want of a better way to put it, was "magical" and direct. Mess up now and don't get into college later. Only one student out of all those we interviewed had the outlier insight: "Well, learning builds on itself. If you work hard now and do well in school this year, then next year you will probably work hard and do well, too. And then the year after that. So when you are ready to go to college you'll be ready."

I hope these students heard the permanent record story from some kid last year who heard it from some kid the year before that ... who heard it from some kid the year before that ... who heard it from some kid in my class right before we went home to watch the Brady Bunch. I hope he didn't hear it from his 6th grade teacher. Recall that we asked the question because the adults at the school didn't think the students understood or saw that there was a connection between what they did in middle school and post-secondary going. We adults know the "permanent record" you create when you are in school is the trail of proper study habits you accumulate from year to year. If we are still trying to sell the "permanent record" version of the connection, we have no one to blame about the students' lack of understanding than ourselves.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Learning from Homework

Today was a round of focus groups with middle school students in South Carolina. Among the questions were: What is the purpose of homework? When do you make an effort to do your homework? Why do some students not do homework?

It all came down to one thing: grades. Whether 6th or 7th or 8th, whether boy or girl, whether an "A" student or struggling student, in the students' minds there seemed to be only one reason for homework, one reason to do homework, and one reason not to do homework: whether or not it counted for a grade.  Even the value of the grade was a consideration for how much effort and attention a student put into the homework. Not a singe student articulated a learning value for homework. And nearly every student said that if there was no grade for homework, they rarely did it.

I have no doubt that some of the homework assignments were engaging and had a learning value. In fact, none of the student we interviewed complained about "busy work" as students often do when the topic of homework comes up. They were not complaining that there was too much homework or that it was too hard. What stood out was the exclusive relationship between homework and grades.

Are you surprised by this? I guess I shouldn't be. After all, we did this. We have reduced a set of learning exercises (homework can and should have a learning value) to their contribution in points to some score. We have convinced the students that homework only counts if it counts, literally. The lesson of the day is: If you want your students to do their homework, make sure you tell them it will be graded.  If you want your students to learn from the homework, you are going to need another strategy.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Who Counts

Yesterday morning, I happened to watch a TED talk by Andreas Schleicher from February 2013 about the implications of the international data PISA collects on schools.

This viewing was somewhat fortuitous as I learned later in the day that the news was awash with PISA's most recent findings. To quote NPR yesterday: "International standardized test scores have been released. The test is given to students around the world every three years. It measures their knowledge of reading, mathematics and science literacy. U.S. students usually turn in mediocre performances, and this year's scores were no different." (I should note that not everyone accepts PISA's conclusions or inferences.)

In his TED talk, Dr. Schleicher does an amazing job of explaining PISA's findings with clear examples and readily understandable graphs. Counts of literacy and numeracy scores are plotted and plumbed. But one thing he says perhaps goes by too quickly, and is not accompanied by any chart: "When we asked students what counts for success in mathematics, students in North America would typically tell us, you know, it's all about talent. If I'm not born as a genius in math, I'd better study something else. Nine out of 10 Japanese students say that it depends on my own investment, on my own effort, and that tells you a lot about the system that is around them."

Don't get sidetracked by the finding itself ("...students in North America would typically tell us... Nine out of 10 Japanese students say..."); that's just a chart in words. The critical phrase is: When we asked students what counts...

See the real question is not "What counts?" but "Who counts when we are counting?"

Each time PISA releases its results, the educational pundits, commentators, and blogosphere (here we are) wring their collective hands over the mediocrity of our educational system.  We count test scores and their connection to economic data and teacher expenditure and a half dozen other important things. And all that may be well worth taking account.

But why? Why are our results so mediocre year after year after year? Adults will site poor teaching, a lack of at-home support, and not-high-enough-standards. But to really answer that question we must ask students what counts. And this requires us to believe that their voice counts alongside all the test score data they produce and that we incessantly or, some might say, obsessively measure.

In about a week, QISA will release a national report that will not get nearly the press that PISA's report gets. Every year, we ask students what counts and, like PISA's results, not much changes from year to year. The report represents the voice of students and their thoughts and beliefs about what counts toward academic motivation and success. 56,877 sixth through twelfth graders across the country give a clear account:

  • 44% do not feel a sense of self-worth at school
  • 40% are not engaged by their learning
  • 40% do not feel supported by their teachers
  • 58% do not feel supported by their peers
They also point out that these factors have a direct impact on their academic motivation. For example, students who are engaged in school are 15 times more likely to be academically motivated. Students who feel supported by teachers are 7 times more likely to be academically motivated. Those are numbers worth focusing on.

The solution to our middle-of-the-pack problem may not be in higher standards or greater accountability (isn't that the very drum we have been beating even as our results stagnate?), but in realizing that the students themselves count.