Friday, January 1, 2016

A Word for the Year

Inspired by my mother, I have decided not to make New Year's Resolutions this year.  Like most people, I've tried various types of resolutions each year and I never stick to them.  Mom doesn't stick to hers either, so I think it's genetic.  :)  This year she chose to focus on a word.  Her word is "patience."  Now I'm not that brave.  I know what happens when I try to work on my patience.  God decides to help me by giving me all kinds of situations where I need that patience.  While I appreciate His attention, it does make for a rather trying time.  So bless you, Mom, I'll be there to support you in your journey, but I'm not going to use that word.

So what, you ask, is my word?  I know you are waiting anxiously!  Get it word for 2016 is......

One?  Yup.  That's it.  One.  I hear you; I hear you.  What on earth does that mean?  How can you focus on the word "one?" What gave you that idea?  You just don't want to try something difficult.

On that last one, I'd have to agree.  I certainly don't.  I want something I know I can accomplish, not something that is going to stress me out!  I like the word "one."  I got the idea from a book I read recently.  "One" is a great word - especially for this purpose.  What can't you do with one?
I can focus on one goal.  I can clean off one shelf.  I can do one load of laundry.  I can go be outside for one hour.  I can accomplish one thing on my to-do list.  I can read one book (okay, I can read one hundred books...that may not be the best example).  I can take one minute to just be.  I can make one blog post or one journal entry.  I can memorize one Bible verse.  I can shut off all technology for one day.  I can make an extra effort to talk to one kid.  I can spend one less dollar.  I can try or learn one new thing.  I can make one new recipe.  I can do one artistic endeavor.  I can get rid of one item from my house or my classroom. The list is endless!  Think how many things you can accomplish with 365 days of "one."  Wait!  This is a leap year.  366 days!  That's one more thing.

On this first day of January 2016, my ones include:  getting one bag of books together to give away, answering one e-mail that has been needing answered for a couple of weeks, writing one blog post.  How many more ones can I accomplish today?  Who knows.  But I've done one.  That's enough.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Country Roads and Interstates - A Reading Journey

This week I am participating in a LETRS workshop.  For those of you who haven't heard of it (like me a couple of months ago!), that is Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.  Check out their website if you want to learn more about what they do.  I have only attended the first two days so far, so this post isn't really about the training, but about processing the information they gave us yesterday and what it means for our students.

There are several things I took away from yesterday.  First and foremost, I had no idea how much I didn't know about teaching reading!  I've discovered that my lessons have included things that are accidentally correct, but I had no idea why they worked.  Given that my goal is to be deliberate in my teaching, I am absolutely in the correct place this week.

The second thing I learned yesterday is how complicated reading is when you look at what has to happen in our brains for it to work.  Reading requires that four different parts of our brain have to work together.  That's a lot of connections to make when you consider how many words we read a day.  Reading is so natural for me that I never considered that it isn't actually the way our brain is wired.  Our brains are wired for speaking, not for reading.  But here's the biggest take away - our RSA law the way it is written will never help our students.  Now this is obviously not written into the training, but here's the way it stacks up.

Functional illiteracy is a problem in the U.S.  45 million adults are functionally illiterate.  That means they can't read above a 5th grade level.  50 million adults can't read past the 8th grade level.  44% of adults do not read one book a year.  Considering that compulsary education wasn't the law until the 1920s, I'd say we've done a lot of catch up.  However, there is a long way to go.  We all know that reading affects how successful or unsuccessful you are in life.  60% of adults in prison cannot read.  85% of juvenile offenders struggle with reading.
What my book looks like after we've covered the material.

Now that we have established that there is a problem, let's look at the solution our legislators have come up with - RSA.  Use one measure of a student's progress and retain them if they can't pass a 3rd grade reading test.  Okay.  What's wrong with that, you ask?  If they can't read, they shouldn't go on, right?  Social promotion does no one any good.  Solve the problem when they are young, so everyone has a chance, right?

The school system is set up to send kids from K to 1st to 2nd to 3rd.  Some schools might have a T1 class, which is an extra year between K and 1 to help them further develop their skills, but those schools are in the minority.  Between the increased "rigor" forced on us by the education "reformers" (much of which ignores all science and research about developmental capabilities) and the "early intervention" required to comply with RSA, we have 90 minute reading blocks, 90 minute math blocks, and we are supposed to teach Science and Social Studies in there somewhere too.  Each grade level has a set of standards for each of those subjects, and the teachers are required to teach each of those standards in each subject during the year. That takes all of our time each year.  Every bit of it is taken up with the standards we have to cover each year and the testing we have to do.  So, where does intervention fit?

The state has a set of textbooks we are allowed to adopt from, and during adoption years each district chooses the one they will use for the next 6 years (at least).  Our current reading curriculum is two years past its adoption period, and we'll have it for at least one more year.  So for 9 years, we have had the same curriculum to teach from.  What resources are there for intervention beyond that program?  The state provided REACH coaches for a couple of years, but then that program was defunded.  Title 1 funds - those funds provided by the federal government to help low income schools - have been cut drastically.

But here is the biggest problem.  There has been no new teacher training.  As far as I know, no funding was provided with the RSA law at all.  Not for students, not for curriculum and not for teacher training.  This year, education funding will remain "flat" again.  Since we have more students, that means that once again our resources have been cut.  Reaching struggling readers requires training.  Their brains are different.  Seriously!  MRIs taken of their brains when they are reading shows that they work differently.  Reaching struggling readers requires different tools.

According to our training, research shows that after age 9, it takes four times as long for a student to learn a reading skill.  Retaining a student in 3rd grade puts them at the very end of that "easier" learning age.  Not only that, they are retained in a grade where they really don't teach the skills they need.  Most of them need early literacy skills, not comprehension skills.  Giving them another year in third grade gives them another year learning the same skills they weren't ready for the first time. Clearly intervention is needed much earlier.

In that case, what if we retain earlier?  That's where they learn those skills, right?  True, but is repeating the same grade with the same standards and the same curriculum useful?  That's like the having this conversation:

     Person 1:  To get to the restaurant, take a left on A Avenue, then a right on B Street.
     Person 2:  I'm sorry, I don't know where those streets are.
     Person 1:  To get to the restaurant, take a LEFT on A Avenue, then a RIGHT on B Street.
     Person 2:  I'm sorry.  Could you tell me where those streets are?
     Person 1:  To get to the RESTAURANT, take a LEFT on A Avenue, then a RIGHT on B Street!
     Person 1 to self:  *Sheesh.  What is with this guy?  I can't get any more clear on the directions.*

He may have emphasized different parts of the directions, but nothing was done to solve the actual problem.

10001 - 01136  by Dhammika Heenpella cc by 2.0
Our trainer gave us an analogy of our kids' brains.  She said that a good reader has paths in his or her brain that work like our highways.  They are quick and efficient and get information to and from the different places it needs to be easily.  A struggling reader has a brain that works like our country roads.  They wind about, are a little rough in spots, and are pretty slow, but eventually they get you where you need to go.  It put me in mind of what my Great Aunt said about the back roads in Pennsylvania, where that side of my family is from.  Many of the roads were just paved over cow paths.  Wherever the cows had worn a path, they put a road.  Needless to say, cows are not necessarily using the most efficient ways to get places.  That's what these kids' brains do.  We have to retrain them to create highways.  Like any path, it takes meaningful and purposful repetition to create.  In the case of struggling readers, they often have to "unlearn" something they have practiced incorrectly for years.  Just repeating a grade isn't going to help them.  They need dedicated practice in the skills they are missing, helped by trained teachers with a wide variety of tools available to them.  What they don't need is to re-take every standard from every subject for an entire year.

Red, White and Blue by Howard Ignatius cc by 2.0
What then, is the solution?  First of all, get rid of the high stakes testing.  It doesn't tell us what we need to know anyway.  It only predicts how well they will do on their next standardized test.  Secondly, focus on grades earlier than 3rd - not to require retention, but to focus on interventions.  Provide the funding, the teachers and the materials needed to address the deficits these kids have.  Third, if retention is going to be a requirement anywhere, then those kids need to be placed on a different track for the next year.  One that focuses only on the skills they need.  Create those transition grades between grade levels so that can happen.  Move the kids forward, just a little slower than the rest of the class.  Of course, that would require extensive funding and finding teachers for those classes would not be easy given the current teacher shortage.  Finally, train the teachers.  Give all teachers the professional development they need to understand how to teach reading effectively to all students.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Teacher Shortage or Not a Teacher Shortage, That is the Question....Apparently

Glancing through Twitter this morning, I came across a lovely article in the Journal Record.  It was written by a former professor of mine at Oklahoma City University School of Law.  He's a wonderful law professor, but perhaps his analysis of other things could use some work.

You see, if you read through his article, he provides all kinds of "evidence" that the teacher shortage in Oklahoma is not real.  I guess the fact that 800 positions could not be filled this year is not evidence enough.  For purposes of this post, I am not going to address the issue of the "glut" of teachers coming from universities that causes teacher pay to be so low.  Maybe a blogger more knowlegeable about university programs than I can address this.  Although I have to wonder, if that is the case, why we can't fill those 800 positions.  Not all of them require specialized or advanced degrees.

At any rate, I'm only going to deal with his main argument.  He does not disagree that those 800 positions were not able to be filled.  No, instead, he decided that they are not important enough to count as a teacher shortage.

cc  Woodleywonderworks  Kindergarten Classroom
According to his logic, there are over 40,000 teachers in Oklahoma, and 800 of them is such a small percentage that it should be considered acceptable.  Afterall, it is only 2% of the teaching force, right?  In the business world, that is an acceptable percentage of vacancies to leave unfilled, he says.  I'll take his word for that.  Like I said, he was a good professor.  He has to have a brain in there. However, let's take a look at that acceptable number translated into its very real cost.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that all of these 800 vacancies are for elementary school teachers and that all classes fall under the legal requirement for class sizes.  So, we'll say each class has 20 kids in it.  (Please - elementary teachers, stop laughing.  I needed numbers to use!).  Further assume that each class is a self-contained class, so they only have one class per day.  Eight hundred teachers times 20 students makes 16,000 of Oklahoma's children left without a teacher for the year.  Sixteen thousand students who lose a year of proper education.

cc Karen Apricot  Empty Classroom
Now, we all know that all of those vacancies are not all in the elementary schools.  In fact, the author himself says, "Teachers with particular skills, including training in special and bilingual education, as well as those with real math and science degrees, are in high demand."  He is absolutely correct.  Those are indeed the hardest to fill.  Those are also mostly at the high school level.  So, let's be generous and assume that only 25% of the vacancies are for high school classes.  Those classes are allowed to be 25 students per class, I believe.  So, we'll go with that number.  (High school teachers, stop laughing.  I still needed numbers!)  Two hundred teachers with 5 class periods (I know, I know) of 25 students each is 25,000 students, and we can't forget the other 600 elementary teachers with their 12,000 students.  So now we have 37,000 students without a teacher for the year.  Still seem acceptable?

All of that is ignoring the fact that research says smaller class sizes are better for kids.  We're just trying to put a qualified teacher in front of every overstuffed class we have.  What about if we made those class sizes realistic and had 25, 30 or 35 students per class, even in elementary?  What about if we moved that percentage of high school teachers up?  Those teachers normally have 5 to 7 class periods (150 to 175 students) per day.  How many tens of thousands of students is it acceptable to leave without a teacher in Oklahoma?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Top 10 Ways to Fix Oklahoma Education

I originally wrote this as a comment in a conversation on Facebook.  After several requests, I've made a couple of changes and am posting it here for them to share.  Here we go.  The top 10 ways we can fix education in Oklahoma, in no particular order.  Well, except the first one.  Definitely it should be at the top of the list.

I am truly scared for the children of this state. Not the rich ones. Just the over 25% that live in poverty. No one is listening to what they really need. No one hears the voices trying to stand up for them. It's all written off as trying to defend the status quo. One day the people in power are going to realize that we don't want the status quo either, but by then it just may be too late.
But, just in case, I'll say it again. Here's what we need to solve a great many of the problems in our schools: 

Alberto G.  Exam
1) End high stakes testing. It costs billions of dollars, is unreliable at best, useless at worst. No, not useless.  That implies that there is no benefit and no detriment.  These tests are harmful to our kids.  [edited 4-30-15]

2) The legislators need to quit micromanaging the schools. All it does is cost more millions in administrative costs. Many of the things they have done cause more harm than good. (see high stakes testing, TLE and RSA).

3) Do what you will with consolidation and administration costs. You'll soon figure out it isn't the real issue. Do something so we can move on. Those issues are completely in control of the legislature. 

Sean Dreilinger  "raising minds" parenting
class in high school library

4) In the areas that need it, create wrap-around schools. Make sure they have food pantries, health 
and dental clinics, child care, social workers and counselors. Help those kids break out of the cycle of poverty they are in. Make sure there are parenting classes offered and life skills classes. Get all of their basic needs met then watch those kids soar. 

5) Quit the teacher bashing. Oklahoma has some excellent teachers, but they are leaving in droves because of the climate created by the media and the legislators. Yes, pay is an issue, but you would find that it is not the biggest issue in teacher retention. 

6)  Get rid of TLE. Test scores show a higher correlation to income level than they do teacher effectiveness. Evaluate teachers by watching them, not with test scores. Use the money spent on TLE to provide training and professional development. Teachers are always looking for ways to get better at what we do. There are tons of opportunities to do so, but rarely can we afford it. Grants and scholarships only take us so far. Even I (and I LOVE going to professional development) can't spend over half of my monthly paycheck for one workshop, no matter how good it is. 

woodleywonderworks  Field Trip:
1st Grade Outdoor Education
7) Let us get back to real teaching - hands on, inquiry based, active learning. Let us return to having art and music in every school. Let us get more science in the earlier grades instead of reading and math, reading and math, reading and math. Let kindergartners be kindergartners, not small high schoolers. High stakes testing and the "reformers" focus on "rigor" have caused more damage to early childhood classes than you can imagine. 

8) Get rid of the third grade retention law. It's ridiculous. One test, one day should not decide if a child passes 3rd grade. All children will never be at the same place at the same time.  Do the same with EOIs. Go with the ACT if you must - it's something they already take. I would be fine if we did away with the testing all together and required a two year service learning project 
nstead. Something along the lines of an Eagle Scout project. Planning and preparation and fund raising done the Jr. year, implementation the Sr. year. Real world experience and really shows what they can do - unlike a test. 
Lenna Young Andres  Project 1:
5 Minute Collages

9)  This one is different than the original post, but came from a different conversation with the same person.  Recognize that what is good for private schools and charter schools is good for public schools.  Private and charter schools are praised for their small classes.  Public schools are told that class size doesn't matter to a good teacher.  Private and charter schools are praised for their elective classes, science, music and art opportunities.  Public schools are told (through legislation) that reading and math are everything.  All funds need to go to make sure all children are exactly the same in those two classes because the consequences are tremendous if they aren't. Private schools and charter schools are praised if they have innovative classes for special needs students.  At least those that have them are.  Public schools have been trying to get special education fixed for years, but instead of helping us legislators just gave our funds to private schools to help those few kids that can take advantage of it.   The rest of them are left behind.

10) Hear the teachers who are offering suggestions. Not just listen, but really hear them. There are some great solutions out there, but because they come from teachers, they are ignored.

Edit:  Forgot to say, all pictures are from via Creative Commons license.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why We Aren't Celebrating - Yet

This post is a bit different from my usual - not in content, but in format.  My good friend, Claudia, and I joined forces to put this together after HB3399 was signed.  I hope we  have done justice to all of those we seek to represent. So, without further ado...

Common Core is repealed! Yay! 

Common Core is repealed! Oh dear. 

 Common Core is repealed! Now what?

 The two teachers collaborating here represent other educators...we know most of our colleagues immediately went to the third response: Now what?

 We saw all these responses and more in the past few days. There’s an old 
curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Man, have we been cursed.

 Christie Paradise and Claudia Swisher are teaming up on this post and one more. We have forged a strong friendship based on some strong differences in political leanings. Often we are in agreement, and equally as often we are not. Christie often says that if you look at the facts, we should really not get along.  But instead of focusing on those facts, we have spent years talking, listening to each other respectfully and with open hearts and minds, and over that time, we have learned much from each other.

 Christie is an elementary teacher and has taught 5th, 4th and 3rd grades.  She has been involved in Oklahoma’s adoption of CCSS as part of the Oklahoma Educator Leader Cadre (ELC).  Originally, this was part of the PARCC implementation, but as the state pulled out of PARCC and began moving to Oklahoma Academic Standards, the team stayed together to help Oklahoma teachers and administrators find their way through the changes. She proudly continues to serve on the ELC and will be working to address some of the issues we discuss here.  Christie neither supports nor opposes CCSS and feels that any needed changes could have been done through the normal revision process for state standards.  As a relatively new teacher (now going on 10 years in the classroom) and alternatively certified at that, Christie has found that collaborating on curriculum and standards both at the state level and the district level has been extremely valuable.  Her biggest disappointment in the last few years has been that many politicians do not share that willingness to collaborate with teachers, parents and administrators.  This has resulted in bills that may be good intentioned but are poorly implemented and cause chaos in the school system.

 Claudia retired before CCSS would be an issue in her classroom. But, as a 39-year teacher, she has seen the appearance and disappearance of many reforms that were going to be ‘the answer.’ As a teacher, she loved being in the middle of innovations in the classroom, and would have worked to make CCSS applicable for her students. But, she’s grateful she’s on the sidelines for this reform effort. Her concerns with CCSS include the fact classroom teachers were not allowed to participate in writing the Standards, only ‘responding’ to them after they were written. She objects to the narrow focus in the ELA Standards of close reading without context, to the use of excerpts at the expense of longer works. She is deeply skeptical of the involvement of Bill Gates and his money. She agrees with Senator John Brecheen, who called CCSS an ‘experiment’. The Standards and the assessments that accompany them, are untried. No district or state has piloted and researched the effectiveness of this grand experiment. Most troublesome is the fact that these assessments, when they come online, will be high stakes -- for students or teachers or schools, or all of the above. This seems to be a disastrous course to her.  She has out-lived many other hunches of non-educators who just knew THIS idea was going to work. She is deeply skeptical of CCSS, and has been vocal with that opinion.

 So, HB3399. One would think Christie would be an opponent and Claudia would be a supporter.  But, the issue is much more complicated than that.  As educators, we both see the rush to repeal as a mistake which will leave schools and teachers with more questions than answers, more doubts than reassurances. We see this issue with schoolteachers’ eyes. The eyes of teachers who have the obligation to provide quality lessons regardless of the quality of the standards. The eyes of teachers who are accountable to our students and their parents.  The eyes of teachers who feel the responsibility for reaching every child, no matter where they come from, and for helping them love learning.


 We have watched social media activity and want to share other educators’ concerns. Educators will be charged with making standards work, with educating students for ‘college and career,’ with preparing them for high stakes assessments. We share these concerns with the hope of furthering conversation and finding common ground. We know there are only 2-½ months on the calendar before students return to classrooms. Until they have the expectation that teachers will be ready to teach.

 Some teachers are wondering what they’ll be teaching next year...not just the grade, but the standards, the objectives. Teachers are deeply practical folks. We want to know how to plan, what to plan for. We want the certainty that we’re going in the right direction. But at the moment we are in an alphabet soup of ‘what the heck?’

 "Not a laughing matter but kind of funny that we teachers were asking each other the same question at the beginning of the school year last year. PASS? OAS? CCSS? The last I read was that we are back to PASS."

 “Okay, Yeah! Fallin signed 3399. But my question is... if we are to use our current PASS over the next 2 years, WHAT will our OCCTs look like in the Spring? Don't we have a contract with Measured Progress already for CC like tests? I am thrilled CC is tabled, but WHAT am I suppose to prepare my students for in the Spring 2015??? Anybody? Please Help!”

 “So, what does this mean in my classroom? Will it change anything at all?” 

 What will our policy makers say to these teachers? Remember, 2-½ months and classrooms are filled with kids ready to learn.  Also, summer is a teacher’s time to plan for the next year.  Lesson plans are being made, curriculum is being studied.  For teachers changing subjects or grade levels, this is the only time they have to prepare before they are surrounded by students who rely on them to know what they are doing.  Are they supposed to spend their (unpaid) summer time and effort getting ready for PASS, but to be tested like OAS?  Teach PASS and be tested like PASS?  Or should they bide their time and save their money, knowing all of this will change in 2 years?  Those 2 years that are vital for our students, the only two years they will spend in those grades.  

 Another concern we have seen deals with the changing of content from one grade level to another when changing from PASS to CCSS and back.  For example, if Grade 5 was responsible for teaching fractions under PASS, but it moved to Grade 4 in CCSS, a school transitioning to CCSS would have taught it this last year in 4th grade.  Now that we are back with PASS, that same skill will be a 5th grade skill.  Do you teach those kids the same content again because the standards changed?  Do you invest your time and money in resources that are more advanced, knowing they will only be used this year?

 Other teachers voiced deep frustration at the time, effort, and money they and their districts have invested in the past four years, getting ready for a CCSS party that will never happen. They feel betrayed. They’d done what was expected of them, got on board with CCSS, prepared, collaborated. Now everything changes. With very little time to change directions.

 “You know this whole education system is a complete mess! What's ironic is that 4 years ago when we started working our tail ends off by aligning our curriculum to common core and having tons of meetings, and spending countless hours figuring out how and what to teach... I said the words,"this is all a waste of time because it will never come to fruition." People said "oh it's happening!" Well, I'm saying it.... I told you so! What a complete mess!”

 “I have been going to trainings and doing research for 4 years preparing for this. Back to square one. Will we have these standards before school starts or back to PASS? What will the test be like? We changed our entire organization of language arts for next year so that each teacher teaches English and Reading in a block to better accommodate CCSS. If it is back to PASS, we are better off staying split like we were before.”

 “Well, I'm sooooo glad I spent so much money on Common Core resource books... And I get to do it again when we get new standards! Yea...not. But in all seriousness, I hope people realize the real problem was not with the standards as a whole, it's with the how and why of the assessment process. Of course, this is my opinion and I'm giving it free of charge.”

 “Though I don't love them, the CCSS for High School English are not impossible or inappropriate. (The CC testing, however, is a completely different story!) I'm obviously not qualified to comment on other grade levels or subject areas, but we have been transitioning to these standards since they were adopted. MILLIONS of dollars (and COUNTLESS hours) have been spent throughout this process.”

 “Now, we go back to the standards we abandoned years ago, then re-transition to OAS...or whatever they will be called next (and they will most likely be VERY similar to CCSS).”

 “So many school districts spent money on new books and training for teachers also. I want to know how the state is going to pay for these, once again, 'new standards' to be written and researched.”

 "And yet again, Fallin and Barresi cause millions of dollars of problems, years more of uncertainty for Oklahoma schools, and more years of discontinuity for the children who are being taught during this time.”

 All these frustrations come from teachers’ deep commitment to their students. Teachers want to do the right thing. They want to contribute to a positive learning experience. They think first of kids and how to teach them.

 “Be careful of what you ask for, it can and probably will get worse. The main concern I have what is best for the student. This is not a race to see who can come up with the hardest test, to show who is the best in the US. How about we measure growth. Keep in mind research shows that no measurable gains can be made for 3 full years after implementing a new program. Again, 3 years before you begin to see growth.”

 “I have complete faith in teachers to keep teaching what students need to know to be successful, but it frustrates me that my own children will go through HALF of their PK-12 education without clear standards for their teachers to focus on! When will our students and their education become more important than political games?”

 “I hope the people who asked for this get what they wanted, because what they did was put the state legislators 100% in control over what the children in our schools will be learning. They have made politics the number one factor for setting curriculum.”

 HB3399 was passed and signed after schools had dismissed for the summer. Children have left for vacation; teachers have cleaned up their rooms and turned in their keys. But HB3399 now changes everything for those teachers and those students, with only 2-½ months before they’ll reunite. The responses we shared here are those first, “How will this affect me and my classroom and my students” thoughts.

 Many of these issues/questions/concerns could have been addressed with a more gradual change both to and from CCSS.  Underlying these first thoughts, however, is the law itself, and our leaders’ public comments. Do we really know what it says, beyond waving a magic wand and making CCSS disappear in Oklahoma? Are there surprises waiting for us?

 Our next piece will look more closely at the law and possible ramifications, as well as the Governor’s and State Superintendent’s public responses.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Let's Discuss "Patience" and "Humility"

I woke up early this morning and made the mistake of checking to see what is going on in my world.  Imagine my [lack of] surprise when I came across yet another editorial from the Daily Oklahoman telling me that I need to be quiet about what is going on in education and start working to "fix" the system.

For my sanity, I probably ought to stop reading these things.  The other night I spent an hour or so reading some of the comments about the A to F controversy.  That same night, I had a dream that I was trying to teach my children the meaning of "obfuscate" during our Building Academic Vocabulary work.  Sheesh.  On the other hand, if we don't correct the misinformation put out there, who will?

Let's work through their suggestions.

I agree.  It's November.  That's about where I can stop with my agreement.  We didn't start adjusting instruction "weeks ago."  We started it months ago.  Aside from the fact that it is a daily thing as we work with our students, most of us began looking back on what we did last school year long ago.  For most of us, that started in May when we got out of school.  Then we spent the summer working to shore up areas of weakness in our teaching and content knowledge.  Then we hit the end of July and started putting our classrooms together.  Teacher meetings started at the beginning of August so the district could let us know what we would be doing this year.  Then the kids came.  We worked with them for a couple of weeks, assessed them (both informally and formally) and made adjustments to our planned instruction based upon the actual children sitting in our classrooms.  If we had had actual data from the testing from last year to work with, we might have looked at it as a very small piece of what we use to plan. 

However, we didn't have the data to look at.  The scores weren't ready.  The preliminary scores were inaccurate in many cases.  I know of schools where they had grades for kids they had not tested.  I know of schools that had students with multiple grades for the same test.  I know of schools where a student had grades for both the OCCT and the OMAP.  Since they only took one of those, I'd say there was a problem.  They had to re-score writing tests because they were scored incorrectly the first time.  They still had not even set the cut scores (the score that determines who passes and who doesn't) for Science.  Which part of this would you like us to look at?

Even assuming we had data to look at, what does it tell us?  Not much.  First, consider the debacle of testing administration last year.  Kids kicked out of tests, delayed tests, tests that had to be taken multiple times - all of these happened, and all affect the validity of the results.  Second, the data we get back is actually pretty useless as far as planning individual instruction goes.  We have no idea what they were actually asked to do because we are not allowed to read the tests.  We have no idea if the questions were written correctly or if the answers were correct.  I would have to have complete trust in the testing company to rely on that data for much.  I don't have any faith in the testing company.  Most teachers don't.  Even if we did, the data we get back consists of such illuminating information as a score that indicates the child did not pass "Algebraic thinking."  Helpful, huh?  What part of it don't they get?  What are they doing in their work.  Is it a mistake in calculation or a mistake in reasoning?  Sometimes we get a score in subparts of a category, but more often those scores show asterisks (meaning that they didn't ask enough questions to assess that section adequately.)  No.  I have much more useful information to look at when adjusting my instruction - like my personal interaction with the child and classroom assessments.  I can tell you which of my kids struggle with "algebraic thinking."  Moreover, I can tell you why.  I don't need the OCCT to tell me this.

Oddly enough, we really don't care much what the state said the standards were this year.  They ignored the suggestions of teachers and set it for what they thought it should be.  We make adjustments to our instruction based upon other factors - such as what we are required to teach and what our students need to accomplish those things.  I also have to wonder why the state chose a level that caused scores to drop dramatically when the evidence of ACT scores shows a 9 point increase between 2012 and 2013.  See page 7 of the report.  That is almost double the national average growth.

As for early literacy, we've been looking at that for years.  It's not like it's a surprise that kids need to be able to read on grade level.  We didn't need a 3rd Grade Retention Law to tell us that.  Strangely enough, it's pretty obvious to us that children need to be able to read at grade level.  The writer of this article makes the law seem much less harmful than it is, but that's a discussion for another time. 

My response to this is the same thing I tell my kids when they suffer natural consequences to their actions and choices.  "Bummer, dude."  Too bad.  I'm sorry you don't want to see continual griping about the A to F System.  However, if our "leaders" and politicians had actually listened to the constructive input we offered when they wrote it, or when they amended it, or at any point after that, then we would not be in this position.

You are correct, we have all wasted enough time and energy on that.  On the other hand, the people in charge aren't listening to anything else.  I, and many of my colleagues, have written to legislators and the SDE.  We have had meetings with legislators (the SDE doesn't bother to respond to any of us).  We have written e-mails, we have made phone calls.  We have offered suggestions, we have offered to sit on committees.  We have invited legislators to visit our classrooms, to spend time with our kids. 

We have tried to work within the system since our current Superintendent was elected.  No one listens.  Literally.  At the public comment session for the reading retention law, the SDE didn't even show up.  They put out a tape recorder and had an SDE lawyer there to turn it on and off.

We are ignored.  We are called names.  We are ridiculed.  We are told we are "whining" and "avoiding accountability."  I have been told that I am too ignorant to understand the issues.  I have been told that "education is too important to leave to the educators."  All of these things happened when I tried to "push through normal channels to refine the system" and "offer constructive input."  What you have now is an outpouring of anger and frustration that has built up for almost three years because we have not been allowed to participate in the system.

The overwhelming response I have heard from parents is that they don't believe these report cards are accurate.  They do not account for too many things that go on at the school.  As long as they do not believe they are accurate, they won't be looking to use them for anything.  They also disagree with the high-stakes testing, which is the basis for the report card.  Why would they look to see how we can make improvements on something they disagree with?

That said, they have all been willing to work with me and the school to do whatever they can to help their kids.  They just disagree with you about what is helpful.

Of course all schools can benefit from community involvement.  Certainly we welcome it.  I welcome (and search out) visits, programs, financial help, class participation, donations of supplies, suggestions for lessons, help during lessons, food and clothing for the kids, or just coming in to talk to them.  Do you know how many kids have no one at home that talks to them?  We need volunteers in our libraries and our cafeterias.  We need mentors who are willing to work with specific kids.  We need experts and professionals in subject areas (particularly science) to come talk to the kids and help them connect to the outside world.  We need artists and musicians and writers and...and...and....  Teachers and school leaders are already prepared to answer the questions, and we have productive options for parents and the community who want to help.  If we don't have a specific suggestion when you talk to us, we'll come up with one.    You are preaching to the choir on that one.

Of course, not a single bit of that would show up on the report cards unless it helped a child become better at testing.  Why do you think we keep saying there needs to be more to the report cards?

Two research universities have said this system is not worth refining.  It is too flawed.  Let's start over.  Let's work together to make something meaningful to schools, to parents and to students.  Quit ignoring teachers, and let us help you figure out what needs to be done.  Listen to the mounds of research that tells you what needs to be done.  We continue to be willing to put in the work.  Are you?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Where to start?

The battle over the A to F grades for schools has been going on since the law was first passed a couple of years ago.  Politicians think it is a great thing and an improvement over the former system, which graded schools on a scale between 0 and 1,500.  Educators know that these systems use exactly the same data, just manipulated in different ways - neither of which gives a clear idea about the worth of a school. 

The big difference is that the API score system didn't pretend to be anything other than what it was.  It took some data from the schools (mostly test scores), put them into an incomprehensible formula and came out with a number.  High number = good, low number = bad.  Pretty clear.  However, politicians were not happy with that because - well, who knows why.  They felt that parents could not possibly understand the "high number = good" concept I suppose.  Maybe they felt that the "incomprehensible formula" part was a problem.  Although, if that is the case, they made a drastic error in their choice of solution.  At any rate, they came up with a supposedly simpler formula that "everyone could understand" and announced that we could now know the true worth of a school.

There are only a few minor problems.  Let's just look at reliability.  Not once, but twice now, scientific research and evaluation has proven that not only are these calculations misleading at best, but that they in no way reflect the value of a school.  See the latest report here.  I can't find a link to the first one right now, but I'm sure someone who reads this will have it and can post it in the comments.  However, here is one of the many important parts to their study of the system:

 So, all of the parts to the grading system have flaws, and when you combine them they are even more useless.

I could go into detail on a variety of issues with the actual formulas, starting with the fact that only a very small portion of our students are actually counted in any way for the calculations.  Or that our lowest students count 2 or 3 times while our highest students count once.  Or that the "growth" is not comparing one group of kids from one year to the next, but different groups of kids who happened to take the same test.***  However, that's a post for another time.  Suffice it to say, the formula itself is very, very limited.

***Edited:  This was my first understanding of the system.  That they looked at the bottom 25% of the tests taken this year and matched them to last year.  However, after looking at some additional information, I think they look at the bottom 25% from the previous year and try to match tests from this year.  So, if they have moved to a different school, they are dropped.  If they take a different test, they are dropped.  For example, if they took the OMAAP last year and the OCCT this year, they won't count.  So instead of counting a different group of kids, it seems they are just not counting the entire bottom 25%.  I think.  For such a simple formula, it sure seems to leave a lot of questions about who fits where.  I'll be interested to see what happens this year, now that there is no OMAAP.  All of them will be taking the OCCT.

I could also make a very long list of things that affect the success of a student outside of a classroom, but again, that's a post for another time.

I could even point out (again), that the tests themselves are not reliable for much, let alone determining the worth of a school.  However, I would be repeating what a lot of people have done much better than I.  There are entire books on the subject.

What I really want to talk about it this:  Governor Fallin Counters Critics of A - F Grading System for Schools.  I admit.  I voted for her.  Throughout all of the hoopla of the last couple of years, I had planned on voting for her again.  I know....many of my friends would think I'm crazy, but I do believe in some of the things she does.  I am a Republican after all.  I don't know who will run against her, but I have to say that it would take some serious flaws for me not to vote for him or her now.  I don't believe that our leaders should be bullies.  Threatening not to fund schools because teachers and administrators exercise their right to speak freely?  No.  That I can not accept.

Let's look at this article a bit closer, shall we?

I suppose it's not helpful to their cause, but it is certainly helpful to ours and to the kids'.  What a silly thing to say.  As for undermining the credibility of the system, we don't actually have to do that.  It does that all on its own.  We just speak out about events as they happen and publish widely exactly what is used to calculate these grades.  The SDE has done more to undermine its credibility through its administration than any teacher or administrator ever could.  Nine changes to the grades in a week?  Really?  Throw in the e-mail one administrator received telling him his bottom 25% kids were randomly selected.  Then add in the necessity of having to re-score the writing tests because they were incorrectly graded the first time.  Ooops...and don't forget the complete disaster of the actual testing sessions due to wrong tests being sent to schools, computer systems (at the testing manufacturer, not the schools) being unable to handle the actual testing sessions, etc.  I guess Governor Fallin thinks these things are credible and it is only our telling the public about them that mars that credibility.

The last little bit about the law being the law is not only ridiculous to spout, but hypocritical coming from our Governor's office.  She has already determined that at least two laws are not appropriate for Oklahoma to follow - Obamacare and the payment of benefits to gay National Guard soldiers.  Whether you agree with her stance or not is irrelevant.  The fact is, she cannot say we must follow the law because it is the law and she does not have to.  In addition, there is not a single district (that I know of) that is not following the law.  In fact, we are bending over backwards to do it.  So much so that teachers are leaving the profession rather than put up with all of the problems and stress.  They are tired of working so hard to implement something detrimental to the students.  We are only being vocal about how wrong the law is.  We have that right.  It's in the Constitution.

Am I supposed to feel bad that she is "dismayed?"  I am "dismayed" by what they are doing to our students.  My "dismay" wins.  I have to wonder exactly what they want this report used for.  My guess is that they would like to see it thrown in the trash.  You know what really stands out to me about this report?  They've had over a year since the first one to come up with their own analysis that contradicts it.  They haven't, and I don't believe for a minute that it is because they haven't tried.

Deliberately misunderstanding what educators are saying seems to be a habit of this administration.  Schools can (and do) have tremendous effect on student performance.  It also is not the authors' belief we are responsible for 20 to 30% of student achievement - it has been researched and there is ample evidence to back them up.  What it means is not that schools are worthless.  It means that grading schools solely by looking at test scores is worthless.  They need to look at the entire effect a school has on a child, not just academic.  For some of these kids, school is the only place where they get fed.  For some, it is the only place they are spoken to.  For some, it is the only place they are safe.  We address all of the issues that come with children, not just their academics.  Politicians need to recognize the value of that, and if they are going to create a grading system of any sort, those things also need to be included.

Therein lies the problem.  She really believes this.  Despite all of the research and evidence to the contrary, she really does.  It is this that makes me truly understand that she does not belong in her position.  If this is how she looks at an issue - completely disregarding the facts and multiple sources of evidence to back it up - then I want her out of there.  It doesn't matter what the issue is.  Her ability (or willingness) to think and to analyze an issue is not sufficient to allow her to do the job.

If what she had said was "I realize it is not the best way, but for now it is the best we can do," I would disagree.  However, I would at least know she was somewhat grounded in reality.  To say she really believes it is adequate?  She's lost my confidence that she can do her job.

I've tried to keep most of my natural snarkiness out of this post.  However, what else can you say to this but "well, duh!"?  Increased resources, properly administered can improve just about anything.  The fact is, I don't believe she has any intention of actually increasing funds to education.  If she had any such intention, she would have done it.  Instead, she cut taxes.  Schools lost millions of dollars.  We will never have extra funds under her leadership, so it is an empty promise.  It's a weak one at that.  She'll try.  Yoda said it best.  "Do, or do not.  There is no try."  She has the power to do so, she has no intention of actually doing it.

These quotes are quite telling.  A) If the formula as it stands is not complex, then 9 different grade releases should not have been necessary to get it "right."  So, either the SDE is incompetent or the formula is more complicated than they are letting on.  Either way, it doesn't work.  B)  The report card has 3 parts, not 2.  Plus a bonus section.

Now, I can understand why they want you to think there are only two, equally weighted, portions.  It makes it seem much more reasonable.  But the reality is, the bottom 25% of kids are used three different times.  Once in overall performance.  Once in overall growth.  Once in growth of the bottom quartile.  That's three.  Not two. 

Since parents are becoming quite vocal about the ridiculousness of this system (look at the Tulsa Area PLAC), I'd say they understand this system quite well.

I'd like to see his research showing they are successful.  Everything I've read says they are not.  Here is an NPR article on some of the problems with Florida's system (which we copied).  This one is an opinion piece from Utah, so take it for what you think it is worth.  I think it's worth pointing out that the system doesn't seem to be overly successful there either, and it backs up the opinion that Florida's system is a mess.  Indiana also seems to be struggling.  All of the states considering it or implementing it (including ours) seem to do so based on Florida's flawed system.  Even their leaders admit that it is invalid.  I did come across one article (I believe from Michigan) that puts forth an almost compelling reason to change to an A to F scale.  Their current system uses rainbow colors.  I'd be hard pressed to tell you the difference between green and lime, let alone what that meant for my school.

In the end, I suppose it depends on your version of successful.  If you believe that getting rid of veteran teachers and replacing them with TFA recruits, closing schools in the poorest neighborhoods, opening up unprecedented amounts of online and charter schools (who operate under different rules and are no more successful than public schools), and driving teachers to leave the profession in droves is successful, then I suppose he is right.

I don't know if anyone could make the Governor sound more ignorant about education if he tried than this guy has in this interview.  It would take some work.  First of all, "we're concerned about the outcomes, not the inputs."  I spend my days teaching my students that you get out what you put in.  Not all people will be successful at all things.  I get that.  However, most of the time, effort brings success.  Lack of effort generally brings lack of success.  Garbage in, garbage out. 

I'm trying to make sense of his argument here.  First, he admits that class size and teacher salaries are important.  Then he says those things affect student performance.  Then he says that really smart kids could succeed in large classes.  He follows this with the fact that they only care about the results, not about what goes in to getting the results.  Okay.   This says to me that the Governor's office admits that educators and administrators are correct in saying other things influence student performance, but they really don't care because the only thing they want to see are good test results. 

On second thought, given the actions of our "leaders," I guess he is stating their position quite clearly.