Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Perforating Picus

Remember the Picus and Odden Report? Perhaps the most impressive work to come out of Governor Gregoire’s Washington Learns commission in 2006, the P&O school finance study was the document that was supposed to help guide school funding decisions in the legislature. If the report said that we need to fund 1000 more counselors to have a good school system, for example, then ideally the money would have been put on the table.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the final Washington Learns report—the Picus and Odden study was buried, never to be seen again, a historical curiosity that only real wonks would remember.

Wonks like Erik Hanushek, for example. Affiliated with The Hoover Institute and Standford University, Hanushek has never met a school finance lawsuit he didn’t like to eviscerate. Cynics would call him a hired gun for legislatures that don’t want to fully fund their schools; supporters would say that he’s a voice of reason and moderation in how we use taxpayer monies. Either way, in the Winter 2007 edition of Education Next has a six page article from Mr. Hanushek wherein he takes a long, critical look at Picus and Odden, and he doesn’t like what he sees.

Why is this important? The next project for Washington Learns is supposed to be to get our school financing system figured out, because (sarcasm!) no committee ever in the history of Washington State has thought to do that before (/sarcasm!). With Picus and Odden out there, along with The Conley Report, there’s voluminous evidence in the past year as to how short we’re falling funding schools here in Washington. On the other side there’s the work of Hanushek, among others.

Hanushek’s rebuttal of Picus was also prominently featured recently in a column from the Washington Roundtable, a business group that frequently comments on school issues, usually conservatively. It's also a good guess that P&O will be brought up in the school funding lawsuit, along with our old friend The Conley Report.

It's a short legislative session this year, but there could still be some neat action going on!

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The Danger of Technology

Last month one of the posts in the Carnival of Education was from Mr. Pullen’s website, “The Definitive Guide to School 2.0”. He’s clearly in tune with what Web 2.0 means and how that will change the classroom, but I think he goes a step too far in some of his recommendations. For example (emphasis mine),

Go faster. Most teachers talk too much, repeat themselves a great deal, and go over things far too slowly. Do you feel like you have to say things two or three times because your students don’t listen well? Start by saying everything once and they’ll listen better.
Oh, God, no.

Understand that one of my primary assignments as a first grade teacher is to get the kids to read; further, I do a lot of work with our remedial students to try and get them to where they need to be. I think it’s a dangerous, dangerous path that the author goes down here with his “say it once!” idea.

It’s also not backed up by research. See what's been written about the spacing effect, for example, or the work that Fred Jones has done with say, see, do teaching. Think of an analogy to coaching--it would be a very poor experience indeed if you practiced the play once and assumed mastery.

Fundamentally, any reading teacher trying to not repeat themselves is doing a horrible disservice to their students, particularly those who struggle with language.

Later on into the post he gets into some ways teachers can use Web 2.0 technology in the classroom, including on-line publishing, classroom blogs, and podcasting. It’s an interesting perspective; those more technologically inclined than I should definitely give it a look.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

A Technical Review of Merit Pay

The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching recently released a report, “Creating a Successful Performance Compensation System for Educators,” which compiles much of the existing research on the subject into a very vanilla but functional read on the issue.

It is interesting to see where some of the programs draw their money from. In one of the appendices they take a look at a merit program in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana and how they developed their financial model, including drawing money from Title I, II, V, IDEA, and the K-3 Reading Initiative. If they’re pulling the money for the teacher merit pay program from student programs, I sure hope the merit program is working. If not, it’s a terrible injustice.

Those interested in the issue might also get a kick out of “Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System that Students Deserve,” from the Center for Teaching Quality. It’s a much easier read than the NIET report, with some solid examples on how a performance-pay program could work. You can find it here.

For a mildly contrarian point of view, consider finding a copy of the April 11th, 2007 edition of Education Week and reading the editorial “Not Performance Pay Alone: Teacher Incentives Must Be Matched by Systemwide Change.” You can’t get to it online without being an EdWeek subscriber, so try your local library (or here!). Written by Theodore Hershberg and Barbara Lea-Kruger of Operation Public Education, it makes the valid point that implementing merit pay without making some important systemic changes is a formula for failure.

Someday, a district here in Washington will take the leap. It’ll be a seminal moment.

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Earlier this month Time ran a cover story arguing that there was nothing wrong with our boys today, that they’re not in trouble, that things are just fine, thank you very much.

Maybe, maybe not. It gets a little specious, though, when you throw “evidence” like this out there:

Is it bad that boys are in special education, or should we be pleased that they are getting extra help from specially trained teachers?
Um, no. We shouldn’t be happy that more boys end up in special ed. If you’re in sped, something went wrong. If something is going wrong for boys in such a way that they end up in special ed disproportionately, then yes, there’s a problem.

The Center for Education Reform has a much more detailed take here. If gender and education are important to you, it's a superior read.


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Saturday, August 11, 2007

War on the Gifted, Poetry Battlefront

Poetry can inspire. Poetry can seduce. Poetry can depress.

Poetry can also be a real pisser.

I’ve talked about Karen Morrow Durica’s excellent collection of teacher poems before, sharing one that really made me think about how I was relating to one of my boys. Elsewhere in the book she has a poem called My Friend’s G/T:

My friend’s a gifted student;
He’s talented, you know.
He goes to a special classroom
With a sign that tells him so.

The sign hangs by the doorway.
It says: “G/T enter here.”
You don’t go in if you’re not bright;
The sign makes that quite clear.

My friend once took a test in math
And a test in English, too,
That marked him as a gifted kid
Who could do more than I could do.

I asked to take the test to see
If I could join my friend,
But the teacher said my average grades
Foretold the story’s end.

So each day I pass his classroom
And view what smart kids learn,
And wonder if my questions
Are anyone’s concern.

One question that I ponder
And think about a lot…
If that sign tells him he’s gifted,
Is it telling me I’m not?

The poem includes a background piece where Durica shares her belief in multiple intelligences, and wonders at “the impact of just what that label (gifted) does for those who have it, and for those who don’t.”

And there in a nutshell is one of the biggest problems I see with our schools today—the ideas of what giftedness and excellence are have been so watered down as to be meaningless.

You can see it all over. Here in Washington our coalition of teachers of gifted and talented, WAETAG, has had to hustle like mad to get the pittance they do from the legislature. My own district uses the money designated for gifted ed to fund programs that are open to pretty much anyone, gifted or not. The group behind the AP exams has launched a national audit of high school AP classes over concerns that the rigor that was supposed to define those courses has been removed.

In my school we have some extremely gifted math students, kids who are operating three and four years ahead of their grade-level peers. If they were three or four years behind they would get small group support, modified assignments, and the full force of an entire Special Education department would be put into play on their behalf. Their parents would have an IEP in hand with the full force of federal law behind it, and there would be action!

But they’re not behind; they’re advanced. They’re the ones spending most of their days silent reading, because the work can be done so easily. They’re the ones in the hallway earnestly working through thick packets of advanced material, alone, happy to have something, anything that’s a challenge, but still—alone.

That, to my way of thinking, is the real tragedy. My heart goes out to the average learner who aspires to something more, and we should do everything we can for them. My heart, though, weeps for the exceptional learner who deserves an exceptional experience and gets mediocrity in return.

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It’s Official

As of today, I am the only male teacher left in my pre-6 elementary school. The only male teacher in a building with 600 kids. It’s me, myself, and I. At least the line for the men’s room will be short. Oh wait, they turned that into a unisex bathroom three years ago. Never mind.

It’s been a slow process. Four years ago 4 of the 28 classroom teachers were males, along with the principal. Slowly but surely, though, they’ve all left and moved up to the middle school. The last holdout was probably my best friend on staff, a sixth grade teacher, but they involuntarily transferred him this year because he was the only person in the district HQ to teach both math and science. I thought they might be able to find a guy to fill his position, but no such luck—the four candidates that they interviewed were all females. This is on top of my old principal retiring and being replaced by a female candidate, a dynamic lady who I think will do an incredible job, but that’s still one less male role model for the kids.

District-wide the situation is similarly bleak. 4 years ago 7 of 55 elementary classroom teachers were male, for 13%. Today it’s 4 out of 48, or 8%. That number is elevated by our 4-6 elementary school, where 3 out of the 12 teachers are men. If you look only at my school and the K-3 elementary it’s one teacher out of 36: 2.7%.

I think there’s a problem. The question is, where is the problem at?

Is the problem my district? There were about 25 applicants for the 6th grade job in my building—there wasn’t one male among them who had the stuff to make it through to the interview stage?

Is the problem the pipeline? Are Eastern, Wazzu, Whitworth, and all the other teacher preparation programs doing what it takes to prepare men for possible roles in the elementary schools? I know they’re out there—why won’t they consider something K-6?

Is it a societal problem? Are we still at a point where gender identity matters so much that men can’t see themselves in that nurturing role in the primary grades?

Is it a me problem, meaning I see a problem that doesn’t exist? After all, shouldn’t we be hiring the best teachers for the kids, regardless of gender? Or race? Or any other metric of diversity? Is the work of sites like MenTeach important, or does it not really matter?

What’s the state of the male state in your school?


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Monday, August 06, 2007

There Is No Funding Crisis!

My state senator is Bob Morton, and I thought this tidbit from his recent mailing was fairly interesting:

We also should have stepped up to the state’s obligation to fully fund student transportation. I supported an amendment to the budget that would have provided school districts with $55 million in immediate relief, but it was rejected by the majority. Student transportation is deemed part of the state’s court-ordered duty to fully fund basic education. Help now awaits the results of a “study” that is not due until December 2008.
One wonders why the Dems didn’t let that piece of funding through, given everything else that did. One also wonders why Senator Morton put the word “study” in quotes like that; the cynicism is easy to detect, but why?

One also wonders if the good Senator has stopped hating democracy as a means to raise more funds for schools.

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Great Article on Teacher Unionism

The Washington City Paper has a neat read on the appointment of Michelle Rhee as superintendent of the DC Public Schools, and looks at the kind of relationship she can expect to have with George Parker, president of the teacher’s union there. There’s some minor quibbles (the Unintended Consequences report which Rhee helped co-write, for example, isn’t nearly as profound as they make it out to be), but overall it’s a thoughtful article that should appeal to anyone with an interest in how unions interact with education.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The New Carnival of Education is Up!

Another great effort from Dr. Homeslice. Someday, after I get the !@#$%^& mail problems figured out, I'll have to screw up the courage to host again.


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