Saturday, May 21, 2016

Time to Dump the Accountability Regimen

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I've written about the problems with the school accountability movement before. Now that we have the latest national testing results (NAEP*), there is even more reason to dump much of what we have done in education since the implementation of the federal NCLB** in 2002. And the newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an insufficient reform.

The goal in 2002 was to ensure that every American student achieved at a minimum level in math and reading. Testing was the yardstick but also became the tool, as more and more classrooms converted from dynamic project-based explorations or inquiry formats to drill and practice for the tests. Both the shame, as the test scores for schools became public and led to school ratings, and the negative consequences for schools that fell short, amped up the emphasis on teaching to the tests, creating huge divides between poor schools (that worried about their scores) and rich schools (that didn't have to).

If this accountability revolution was an effective thing, at the very least you would expect leaps in test scores -- regardless of whether that meant more learning or not -- in the 13 years since.

But let's look at the results.

1. Test scores have made no significant changes since 2003.
4th Grade Math scores climbed 22 points from 1990 to 2003 but only 5 points from 2003 to 2015
4th Grade Reading scores -- the one place with positive results, increasing just 1 point from 1990 to 2003 but 5 points from 2003 to 2015
8th Grade Math scores climbed 15 points from 1990 to 2003 but only 4 points from 2003 to 2015
8th Grade Reading scores climbed 3 points from 1990 to 2003 and only 2 points from 2003 to 2015
12th Grade Math scores (began testing in 2005) increased only 2 points from 2005-2015
12th Grade Reading scores actually fell from 1992 to 2015 by 5 points

A line graph shows that the national average reading score in 2015 for grade 12 students was lower compared to the score in 1992, the initial reading assessment year, but was not significantly different compared to 2013.
12th Grade Reading

2. Neighborhood schools in poor neighborhoods -- per the punishments written into NCLB -- have closed at an alarming rate. The negative consequences are discussed in this Teaching Tolerance article.

3. The comprehensive high school has disappeared in many high poverty communities, with the arts, business and vocational education programs displaced by more and more math and reading remediation.

So what should we do when our well-intentioned accountability efforts are not accomplishing their goals after more than a decade and are hurting other positive educational efforts? I'm not sure there's any argument really.

*National Assessment of Educational Progress
**No Child Left Behind

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

But Do They Understand the Disciplines?

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For most of my career, educators focused on the content and skills to be imparted to students. It was what they needed to know and what they needed to know how to do. Some of us had content-rich courses. Others focused more on skills. Either way, we missed something crucial.

Today's world presents challenges to citizens ranging from climate change to income inequality to genetic manipulation to new epidemics like Zika. Perhaps you would assign the first two to your social studies teachers and the second two to the science department. Not me.

Let's hearken back to the days of thematic instruction. You may recall that there was a push in the 1970s and again in the 1990s for school-wide themes that each subject area could teach from its unique perspective.  An entire school might be studying China -- China's history, language, art, ancient scientific breakthroughs. Then the focus was on what we were learning about the brain and on inquiry processes. All that is good but there's a more fundamental reason to think thematically.

Most of us see content areas -- math, English, science, social studies, business, the arts -- as independent silos. We need to see them less as categories of knowledge and skills and more as unique ways of understanding and solving problems.

Consider the example of Income Inequality. Each discipline can bring something unique and important to our discussion of this issue.

Mathematics: What are the trend lines? Is it a line (regular progression), a curve (exponential growth) or a cycle (regular intervals of increase and decline)? What can we project into the future? What other factors precipitate or interfere with rates of income inequality?

History: When in history have we seen growing inequality? What factors contributed to eventual equalization? In China, Mao allowed rapid growth, then cracked down to flatten disparities, often brutally. Did the industrial revolution increase or decrease inequality? How about free trade? Does warfare play a role? What do historical sources tell us about perceptions of wealth and poverty?

Business: What are the costs and benefits of growing inequality? What happens when large blocks of consumers are shut out of markets? What opportunities and pitfalls do inequality and equality offer?

Sociology: What motivates people to either accommodate or attack inequality? What social forces level the field or encourage individual competition? Is individual wealth a positive good?
Writing and the Arts: How can we communicate in literature, clay, music or dance the impacts of inequality? Are there analogies to nature we can use? Think Animal Farm, The Jungle, or Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl photographs. Think of songs like Living for the City or Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?

Too many of our students graduate with a bag of knowledge and skills but without the realization that every discipline is a unique way of interpreting the world and solving problems. Artists and mathematicians may use different tool bags, but both help us understand our challenges in important ways.

This is different than thematic instruction or ITI. We're not just looking for the content connections, but digging deeper to use the mindsets and the tools of each discipline to understand issues.

Imagine a school where students understand that every discipline contributes to solving important contemporary challenges. Imagine a country where citizens understand the same.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Yes, You Can Teach Creativity

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One of my favorite activities with kids was teaching about (and then practicing) creativity. Some of you may wonder -- can qualities like creativity and empathy be actually taught? Yes and yes. First creativity.

I was a social studies teacher, so didn't focus on musical or artistic creativity, just general brain stretching.

I'd begin with a timed challenge: My favorite was asking them to make a list of things you've only done once. With high school students, I often clarified that this was a G-rated list. 

Then I'd give them 5 minutes to write their list, with instructions to write everything that comes to their minds, not to screen anything because it seemed dumb. The first time, I'd give them a goal: try to list 20 things, perhaps. 

Here is some of my list:
  • Got married
  • Confronted an armored tank full of scared, machine gun armed, pimply faced boys
  • Testified to a federal grand jury
  • Ate foie gras
  • Swam with dolphins (though I thought they were sharks and panicked)
  • Was picked up by a police car (after a wild night of tp-ing houses)
  • Rode in a balloon
  • Shoplifted (Kool-Aid, age eight)
  • Fired a rifle
  • Had one pedicure, one manicure and one facial
  • Wrote a novel
  • Attended a birth that wasn't my own
  • Persuaded a lot of people to do something I regretted later
  • Visited a friend in prison
  • Voted for a presidential candidate who won
  • Prepared a body for burial/cremation
  • Airlifted by Mercy Flights for a medical emergency (not mine)
  • Almost died in a hospital
  • Snorkeled with manta rays
  • Was threatened by a gun in the US
  • Ran out of gas on the freeway while driving a bus full of students
  • Sat on the lap of an American president
  • Eavesdropped on Justice Blackmun and his aides in the Supreme Court cafeteria
  • Embarrassed my parents on local television
  • Brought a large amount of cash across international borders (not what you think)
  • Rode in a doorless helicopter
  • Got injured in a riot 
  • Drove through a blinding storm with a dead bird stuck to my windshield wipers
  • Body surfed twenty foot waves
  • Unknowingly, had students use my horrid rendition of I've Been Working on the Railroad for their cellphone ringtones
  • Spent the night -- the whole night -- in a classroom 
  • Did a police ride-along (front seat this time)
  • Hit a baseball hard enough to break the pitcher's finger 
  • Got fired from a job (cocktail waitress)
  • Got hired for a job because the owner thought I was an assassin (Squeaky Fromme)

    For my writing friends, I suspect any one of these could make a terrific poem, short memoir or fictional piece. Additional examples are below.

    After the first time students tried this, I would tell them the four elements of creativity and let them self-score themselves. The elements are as follows:

    Fluency: Number of items in their list. (1 point each)
    Flexibility: Number of different types (categories) included in their list. As a class, we would create categories -- foods, sports, places, health conditions and so on. Students would then categorize their responses and count the number of categories they included. (2 points per category). 
    Originality: Number of items on a list that no one else in the class had. (1 point each) 
    Elaboration: Detailed items get an additional point over simple ones. Above, I have a few with detail but most are fairly simple. (1 point each)

    You will note that other than fluency, the elements are subjective. Remind students that score doesn't really matter except to track how much better their own creativity gets over time. You'll also notice that Flexibility is rated twice what the other categories are. Whether inventors, artists or just good thinkers, creative people are able to flex their minds, moving out of thinking ruts into new innovative ideas. If you did this once a week or once a month, students would remember the elements and increase the quality of their lists, hence flexing their creative brains.

    Here are some other examples I've used, but feel free to incorporate into your curriculum:
    • Things that happen at school when no one's looking
    • Things I know almost nothing about
    •  Difficult things to draw (or easy, circular, or vertical things)
    • Things that only happen in Southern Oregon
    • What I would do if I were lost in the woods
    • What birds think trees are for
    • The many uses for a flashlight (or other object)
    • Ways I can extend my life expectancy
    • Different possible solutions to a given problem (nothing to do around here, adults not listening to kids, world hunger, getting a product to market)
    • What might have happened if...(pick a critical historical event)

    Try such a list yourself (untimed is also fine; but in a classroom it does help to time) and see if you can improve your own creativity over time.