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.