Thursday, June 28, 2007

Education Research Could Improve Schools, But Probably Won’t

That’s the title of a brilliant commentary by Ronald Wolk in the new issue of Education Week. It’s one of the best articles they’ve run in the last couple of years and should certainly be required reading for anyone working with education research. Some excerpts, with commentary:

In my idealistic days 25 years ago, I believed that education research would lead us to the promised land of successful schools and high student achievement……As much as I hate to say it—and I truly hope I am wrong—I no longer believe it, and here’s why:

Research is not readily accessible—either physically or intellectually—to the potential users. Summaries of major studies appear in periodicals like Education Week, by the detailed results (usually written for other researchers in academic-speak) are usually available only in separate reports or in relatively low-circulation journals that don’t reach those who most need to know.
The research that you see utilized in the schools is usually action research, usually carried out by the teacher as an individual or part of their team, and usually fairly meaningless to anyone but that one teacher. This is where “That’s always worked for me!” and “Oh man, this program was great!” come from, which is also the birthing ground of some of the worst habits in our schools.

And the heavy use of intelligentsia vernacular (like that, see!) is a major obstacle that cuts two ways; unapproachable language turns off teachers, and if you refine the reports too much (for example, turning the 500+ pages of A Nation at Risk into “Kids Is Dumb”), you risk losing the meaning in the condensing.

Even if research findings were widely available and written in clear prose that even a dimwit like me could understand, the reports would not be widely read. Most teachers are not consumers of research, nor are most principals or superintendents.

And even if educators and policymakers did read all the studies in a timely fashion, schools and education practice would not change very much, mainly because making significant changes means altering value structures, disrupting routines, and teaching old dogs new tricks.
My belief is that most teachers don’t care about research because there’s such a disconnect between the theory and reality. I’ll single out The Reading Teacher from the International Reading Association for a mild chiding here. They run research in every issue, but often times it’s impossible to see how you can translate what looks good on paper into a practical, useable classroom strategy. Schools are curriculum-driven; we trust that the curriculum is research-based, and during the adoption process some wag will often pipe up with a “What does the research say?” If there was research out there that said that an element of the curriculum wasn’t a best practice, most teachers would ignore the research and keep on with what’s in the teacher’s guide. It’s just what they do.

Moreover, researchers seem to delight in neutralizing each other. That’s easier to do in social sciences than the physical sciences because there are so many uncontrollable variables. And the bigger the question addressed, the more vulnerable the findings.

When one study claims small classes boost student achievement, another insists they do not. One study finds social promotion harmful; another says retentions hurts children more. Money matters; no it does not. Vouchers work; no they do not. And on and on.
This, too, is why teachers trust their own practices and their own numbers far more than they do anything that is passed down from the Ivory Tower. I can be a consumer and judge what’s working within my four walls, and I can mostly trust what I’m seeing with my own two eyes, but expanding beyond that invites a chorus of often discordant voices that may or may not help, and if I can’t trust that they’ll make my practice better, why bother?

It’s a good article, very thoughtful, and well worth tracking down. Highest recommendations!

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Complete Randomness

Spore Nukem Forever. If that thing ships with any bugs, the developers should be hung up by their thumbs.

Surprised Marmot is my favorite video clip right now.

Am sad that BJ Penn beat Jens Pulver. Am sadder that Diaz beat Gamburian, especially when Diaz showed himself to be a complete tool in the after-match interview. Get well soon, Manville.

I’m going to start working with a personal trainer. I’ve got to be accountable to someone else besides myself or I’m never going to get my weight under control. There’s a great one 2 minutes from my school who comes highly recommended; I think I’ll give her a try.

My pile of reading material is ridiculous. Thank God for summer vacation.

I’ve got an unopened copy of Starcraft sitting atop the computer; I’ve committed that I won’t start it until I finish Oblivion. Trick is, I really love Oblivion. Thank God for summer vacation.

The thing that annoys the hell out of me about America’s Got Talent is when they cut away from the talent to show us how the judges are reacting, or worse, when they cut away from the close-up shot to a far-away angle. Put the judges in a corner box and keep the camera on the talent, as it should be.

The guy who won the British version of the show was pretty damn good. I need to look up the name of the song he did; I liked what I heard, even if it was opera.

Gym Class Heroes...not bad at all.

I’m a sworn-in member of the local Lion’s Club now. They do some great charity work in my town, and with my daughter’s deafness I’ve become more keenly aware of the groups that work in that arena.

YouTube is pretty boring over dial-up.

So I’m watching a Law and Order: Criminal Intent off of the DVR and there’s this great song in the intro: “The Prisoner” by Adam Crossley. I’m going to have to find it somewhere. It’s very reminiscent of “Mad World” by Gary Jules, another personal favorite.

These are the things I think about during summer vacation.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Because Tests are for the Little People, That's Why!

In Connecticut, all new teachers have to take the Praxis I test, even if they oodles of experience outside the state.

It's different for the Superintendent of Schools in Hartford, though. The state legislature recently said he didn't have to take it, because he's a very busy man with more important things to do.

A message has been sent, and it's got the letters FU in it.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

I Wish I Didn’t See Myself in This

I got a really neat book from the IRA a few months back titled How We “Do” School: Poems to Encourage Teacher Reflection, by Karen Morrow Durica. It’s a great collection of school-related poems, some poignant, some thoughtful, some hilarious. The one that gave me the most pause was called The Bully:

School was a dreadful place for me.
He was there every day.
Loomed over me;
Made me feel small
No matter how I tried to please.

He delighted in my embarrassment,
Pointed out my flaws;
Gave little or no care
Of who might hear my limitations
Or see me wince at his words.

He oppressed me with his power.
Daily made sure
I knew my place,
And had no illusions
Of moving into the accepted crowd.

I ached for his approval.
He gave it to a favored few.
I was tormented knowing
I never shone in any way
But in his disappointment.

I could not retaliate.
My impotence was guaranteed.
He was bigger than I;
Older than I;
Smarter than I.
He was my teacher.
I have to catch myself sometimes, because I could really see myself coming off like the guy in this poem. The thing that gets to me most is the kid who won’t try. One of my little guys writes 7 to answer any addition problem that he doesn’t immediately know the answer to. I’ve told him to slow down on his timings, I’ve shown him several ways to get to the correct answers, I’ve spent the time; he’s made a conscious choice, here, to be lazy and not try.

The other day I stopped him mid-timing and asked to use his strategies—to try. He shrugs and carries on like I’m not even there. After the timer went off I took his paper and put it in the garbage can.

“Why aren’t you going to grade mine?” he asked.
“What would be the point?” I asked back. “You didn’t try hard, and you know it.”
“I did too!”
“Aaron, here you told me that 2 plus 1 is 7. Here you told me that 8 plus 0 is 7. Here you’ve told me 5 plus 5 is 7. What is 2 plus 1?”
“So why the 7?”
“I don’t know.”
“I do. And that’s why I’m not grading this.”

Looking back, I was sharp with him. I bullied him. I told him his work was garbage, and I meant it.

But was I wrong?

At what point do you set aside patience and make the student responsible for their own work? When they fail in this responsibility in a spectacular way, how many opportunities to succeed are they owed before you let them own their failure? Can “being nice” get in the way of letting the kid solve his own problems?

I’m thinking about this lately because I’m reading Rafe Esquith’s new book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire. Esquith is a magical writer and the classroom he describes is the one that I wish I had, but as I read I just marvel at the grace and dignity that seems to come as naturally to him as breathing does to the rest of us.

He has grace; I have grump.

I’ve got to do better.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007


I’m completely flummoxed by one of the people on my team right now.

I’ve got a tough little guy in my class. One of the brightest I’ve ever had, but also one of the most energy-draining and time-consuming. He opts out of what we’re doing most of the time, and any more I let him because a) he’s already got the curriculum mastered and b) it’s not worth the time that it takes away from the other kids to keep him on task.

I had some preliminary talks with the team member about putting him in her room next year, as she and another teammate are moving up to 2nd grade. It was a normal conversation, and I didn’t think much of it. The next day she catches me before a staff meeting and unloads—I hate her, I’ve always hated her, I’m going to put this kid in her class just to get at her, she hoped that I wouldn’t give him to her out of spite, and a couple of other things that didn’t really register with me because I was absolutely blown away.

That was on a Thursday morning. We didn’t talk at all the next two days (she was gone one of them), and then we were forced into contact the following Tuesday for our Professional Learning Community meeting. It was icy, probably more on my end than hers. She sent me a conciliatory email afterwards, but I ignored it because I was steamed.

It wasn’t the piece about hating her that really got to me. I’ve never hated her, even if we have had our disagreements over the years. The part that pissed me off, and the part that still gets my jaw set when I think about it, is the idea that I would put a student in the wrong classroom out of spite. That, right there, was a beautifully horrible window into just the kind of person she thinks I am.

She might not like me. She might not really like the program I run. But to entertain the thought, even for a second, that I would intentionally put a child in a bad situation out of sheer revenge calls my professionalism into question in the most appalling way possible, and I don’t know that I can ever get past that in my dealings with her.

A side effect of what happened is that I’m completely uncomfortable placing kids in her room next year. If I give her students who are at all difficult, is it going to be reflected on me? Fairness dictates that I spread the pain around (and with my class, there’s plenty of pain to be had), but the blowback could be bloody, and I don’t want to deal with it. I half considered making the PE teacher place my kids, but then I got stubborn because, damn it, it’s my decision and I’m not going to be pushed out of making it.

This all came about three weeks ago Thursday. Since then she’s approached me a couple of times with little things, trying to get things back to normal, but I haven’t forgotten and I certainly haven’t forgiven. A big part of me knows that I’m being petty, but every time I see her it’s like getting kicked in the groin all over again.

Summer vacation is welcome any time now. It’d be good for everybody.

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