Friday, May 20, 2016

The first Student Inquiry conference

On Thursday I was invited to attend the first ever State College PDS student inquiry conference, which was held at various elementary schools around the District. It is conceptually similar to the annual PDS intern conference, except that it is the students who are presenting the results of their research, based on their personal wonderings.

Here are a few of the ‘wonderings’ of Houserville’s fourth-graders:
·        Why do some people believe in mythical beings such as Spiderman?
·        Why do marshmallows swell up when they are heated?
·        How do we know which religion is true?
·        What happens when you breed an aggressive dog with a docile one? Why?
·        What does space sound like?
·        Why do we exist?

In some cases pursuing the answers to those questions will bring these students a deep understanding of the very concepts that we are trying to ‘teach’ them. Some of these questions could well fuel life-long passions.

A recent study noted that the number of questions that children ask peaks at about age three, and declines steadily from there. One of our PDS alums wondered why that might be, and asked her students. A couple of their responses:
·        If I ask too many questions, I’m afraid I will look dumb.
·        I’m too busy to ask questions.

It’s hard to imagine that there’s not a relationship between this and another recent study that measured ‘student engagement’ and found that it peaked in kindergarten and went steadily downhill from there. To state the obvious, that can’t be acceptable.

Other studies have discovered that emotion, far from being a distraction, is an essential component of human learning. (It has to mean something.) Yet another recent study has shown that we’re far more likely to remember something that we’ve learned if we think we’re going to need it in the future.

In the words of one 2nd-grader, “if you don’t care about it, why would you do it?”

What if a portion of school time was set aside to allow students to pursue the questions that are most important to them? (Think the Google model.) Not just the ‘gifted’ student, but every student.  What would that do to student engagement?

At Easterly Parkway we heard from a class of second-graders whose wonderings lead to research, which lead to proposed actions. One of those actions was a well-written letter to the school board, suggesting that we install solar panels in our schools. As the students explained their research, some of the words that I heard used correctly were anecdotal, paraphrasing and life-experience. I am not making this up.

At the end of the day the teachers shared what they had observed over the course of the day: students brainstorming ways to change the world; students consistently ‘on task’; a sense of community – students asking questions of and supporting one another; students working on things they believe will impact others; the experiential scientific process.

Some of the things they found most inspiring: teachers taking risks, empowered students, conversations with colleagues, student-driven learning.

One of the teachers’ wonderings: How does the Inquiry process connect to what ‘has’ to be taught?  My answer: in every way imaginable.

These educators are building something powerful that could have an impact far beyond the boundaries of the State College Area School District. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Thoughts on HB 805, the teacher furlough 'reform' bill

According to the reporting of Penn Live, Republicans in the state legislature are threatening to hold hostage next year’s state budget - due this June 30th -  due to the Governor’s veto of House Bill 805, the so-called teacher furlough reform bill.  As if the budget doesn’t have enough problems already!

While I support giving school boards the option of furloughing professional staff for economic reasons, and while this legislation was marketed to appear reasonable (who doesn’t want to get rid of bad teachers?) this would have been terrible education policy and a disservice to students.

The key problem is that for the foreseeable future the authority to furlough teachers would have been tied to a deeply flawed evaluation system. A substantial portion of Pennsylvania's evaluation formula depends on standardized student test results that are neither statistically valid nor reliable, and which do a better job of measuring community wealth than student learning.

Let me repeat that: Pennsylvania's current teacher evaluation formula is currently tied to standardized student test results that are neither statistically valid nor reliable.

Furthermore, even the more 'valid' component of the evaluation system - principal observations - is still in its infancy. In many cases, evaluators have received only minimal training, and most still have very limited experience. Attaching 'high stakes' to these evaluations would have negated their potential value for improving overall teacher effectiveness. (Isn’t that the goal?)

And, by the way, we would also have inadvertently compounded the challenge of recruiting teachers in economically challenged districts. Why? Because part of the calculation of a teacher’s score is the overall school score. As a result, a teacher’s score is automatically lower if they teach in a struggling – i.e., poor – school. Which, in effect, reduces their job security.  I am not making this up.

There have been some proposals for tweaking the evaluation formula. But as long as the legislature is dug in on using these test scores – which were designed for completely different purposes - changing the mixture of the "garbage" that goes into the formula won't improve the validity of the result: garbage-in is still garbage-out. Claims that the public wants to use standardized tests scores to evaluate teachers is a belief not based in reality. Increasingly, the public wants no such thing, and the more they learn about it, the less they like it.

Perhaps our legislators can't be expected to understand this. Few of them have had any direct experience with public education since they were last in school, in most cases, decades ago. And like most Americans, few have a good grasp of the statistical concepts of reliability and validity. Even fewer would understand the real-life dilemmas a principal faces when considering whether to rate a teacher 'unsatisfactory' - such as, will the replacement be an improvement? 

This was another example of our legislature proposing a simplistic answer to a complex problem. The proposed legislation would have done nothing to improve teacher effectiveness. But ironically, there is actually a lot of potential in the relatively new Danielson observation model, particularly if it’s implemented in a climate of trust and greater peer-to-peer accountability. Just maybe we should give that a chance to work.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mindfulness at the PDS conference - an idea whose time has come?

Plus, thoughts on block scheduling

Another session at last month’s PDS conference that I found particularly intriguing was the presentation on “Community Building through Mindfulness” by a ninth-grade English class intern.

What prompted Carissa’s inquiry was her concern about the level of stress that we know exists in our high school student population, evidenced in part by the disturbingly high percentage of our students who have entertained suicidal thoughts at one time or another.

Carissa’s research found that spending a few minutes at the beginning of each class on some simple yoga and mindfulness exercises reduced her students’ level of stress, and increased their ability to focus in class. Perhaps that is not surprising. (But it is useful, thank you!)

What, to me, was somewhat surprising was the degree to which this also created a greater sense of class cohesion and unity.  The ability to develop a sense of community in the classroom will be an increasingly important attribute of the classroom of the future.  (We make a point of this in elementary school – why not high school?)

What also struck me – at least in my view – is how much easier it is to implement this kind of innovation within the new 90-minute class block schedule.

Which lead me to further speculate: if we were designing our school structure from scratch, wouldn’t this be the logical thing to do? Who would design a system of 43-minute classes, at the end of which you jump up and run to the next class?  We now know from decades of brain research that 1) we need time to process the information we just received, and 2) the brain needs time to switch gears to the next task.

Certainly, this is how adults learn. I’ve never been to an educational conference in which the sessions were not at least 75 minutes long, with at least a 15-minute break in between. No adult would stand for the traditional 45-minute class, 5-minute break that is found in the typical high school. Why would we subject our students to that?

Friday, April 29, 2016

My Day with PDE

At the invitation of PDE, I spent Thursday morning in Harrisburg as they kicked off the first of their “Stakeholder Sessions” that will help inform the Department as they develop the regulations for the implementation of the recently passed ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).

This was not at all unlike the recent study groups formed by PSBA (one of which I co-chaired) for essentially the same purpose - with the hope that we could get out in front of the issue before the new regulations get set in stone.

Introductions and an overview were followed by a panel discussion on the opportunities and challenges provided by the new law. Some concerns were expressed about possibility that we might now forget about the ‘achievement gap’, which prompted me to jot down a question on the provided notecard.

Among the pile of cards that were submitted, mine was the one that was picked.  My question: “We have known about the achievement gap for decades, long before No Child Left Behind. What are the proven strategies for reducing the achievement gap, and why aren’t we implementing them?” “Ooooooh,” murmured the crowd.

What prompted me to write the question is that education policy-makers have been trying to sell this nonsense for years. “At least NCLB told us that we had an achievement gap,” they say.

Bull. Anyone who was paying attention knew long before NCLB that we had an ‘achievement gap’. Yet schools were actually punished for failing to close the gap, which always struck me as deeply hypocritical, since no one at the U.S. Dept. of Ed, or PDE, had any suggestions for what to do about it!

The first three panelists responded to my question by mumbling something along the lines of “it’s complicated”, and then the last panelist said some interesting things, mentioning three issues: 1) Equity (noting that Pennsylvania has the least equitable public education funding mechanism in the country.)  2) School climate, and 3) the Cultural Competency of Teachers.

That got my attention, since it’s pretty close to what I might have said. In addition, I saw the last two items as central to any strategy for reducing the achievement gap in State College. (And yes, we have one.)

Then on to the breakout session on “assessment.” After having everyone in the room briefly describe their ideal of what good assessment should look like – and we were all pretty much in agreement - the facilitator asked for ideas. I pointed out that we had just heard that “computer adaptive tests” aligned to state standards were now permissible under ESSA; that many of us (including State College) were already using these tests to provide useful, immediate information to teachers, and that we could take that data, aggregate it and dis-aggregate it as need be, send it to PDE, and we would be done with it!  

We could fulfill the requirements of ESSA without doing anything we weren’t already doing! And we could toss the ridiculously inappropriate, expensive, useless and time-consuming PSSA exams in the trash.

The idea that the possibility of actually eliminating the dreaded PSSAs was within our grasp seemed to go over the head of most people in the room. Partly, I think, it was too-good-to-be-true, and partly people were stuck on the idea that they had to ask permission from PDE: “Tell us if we’re allowed to do this.”  But there were a few who seemed to get it, and I hope they carry the torch through the summer meetings.

My work done there,J, I slid into the tail end of the “accountability” breakout group. I was there just long enough to support someone who was pointing out that our primary ‘accountability’ is to the people in our community. (Who else is there?)  Then another person sitting nearby asked whether there were tools available to accurately measure ‘school climate’. Apparently, there had been a lot of concern expressed that school climate – now an approved measure of accountability under ESSA – was not concrete enough to measure accurately.

This gave me the opportunity, as a member of the National School Climate Council, to inform the group that yes, good tools had been developed for measuring school climate. (Examples: the level of student engagement, the degree to which teachers feel respected, whether parents feel connected, etc..)  The issue of whether it is appropriate to incorporate school climate as a component of ‘accountability’ was left to another day.  

Thursday, April 28, 2016

“Examining Racial Consciousness” at the PDS conference

For me, one of the highlights of being a school board member is the opportunity to attend the annual Professional Development School (PDS) conference each April.

The PDS is a nationally-honored collaboration between the State College Area school district and Penn State’s College of Education. The College provides us with full-year (August-June) teacher-interns to learn and work alongside our classroom teacher/mentors. It’s a wonderful model for the development of new teachers, and it deserves to be replicated nationwide.

Part of each intern’s year-long assignment is a research project based on a personal ‘wondering’: I wonder what would be the result if, as a teacher, I tried this or did that?  The conference is the opportunity to talk about that research –the quality of which is often as good as you might hear at a state or national conference. (By the way, this is a great model for ongoing teacher professional development.)

One session that I attended, “Examining Racial Consciousness through Literature Selections” struck me as having the potential to impact the entire State College school community.  Amy’s idea was simple: in her advanced English 11 class, she replaced one of the standard texts from the so-called “canon” (which, as you know, was written primarily by dead white guys) with “a raisin in the sun”. 

The impact on her students, as reflected in their end-of-unit reflections, was eye-opening. Here are a couple of their comments: “As a middle class, privileged, white child growing up in a suburban town, I have a very narrow view of life outside of my own, save from stories I have been told.” And, “I'm not really affected by a lot of issues, because I am a ... white male in a stable home in a nice community...”

And this, from an African-American student: "... most minorities who move to State College will eventually have to figure out how to (assimilate into) the white culture… Otherwise, he or she will be an outcast."

The students also began to reexamine their historical assumptions; challenging, for example, the idea that racism had ended in the northern states long before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Amy’s students came to these insights almost entirely on their own, through their conversations with one another. This strikes me as exactly the conversations our students need to have, and we need to provide them with the space for those conversations to occur. Apparently, minor tweaks to the District’s approach to curriculum could make a real difference in helping our students better understand themselves and the world they live in.

I have not done justice to Amy’s presentation, but here is a conclusion of hers that I think is worth noting:  “I want to teach African American Literature as a part of an inclusive classroom canon, not as a separate course.” I couldn’t agree more.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Test Scores Did NOT go down

The results of the PSSA exams that were taken last April by all Pennsylvania students in grades 3-8 were recently released to great consternation across the Commonwealth. To its credit, the recent CDT article was considerably more nuanced, but almost universally, the headlines have been something along the lines of “PA Math test scores drop.”

This is actually not a true statement. What is true is that test results have been released from entirely new exams, covering new material, using new resources (that have been unevenly distributed), taught largely for the first time by teachers who have received varying levels of professional preparation.
It is as if we decided this year to measure ‘fruit production’ by counting oranges, when in past years we counted apples; the results are not comparable. Schools and teachers are now being evaluated in part by how many oranges they produce, and since there happens to be fewer oranges than apples, it gives the false impression that schools and teachers aren’t ‘performing’ as well as in past years. The cynical side of me wonders whether this was not intentional.

And by the way, we count the oranges before the harvest is even complete!  Of course, this problem has existed for years. The PSSA exams are given in mid-April, barely 80% into the school year. So every year, schools face a dilemma: do they try to cram a year’s worth of material into eight months, or just accept the fact that students will be tested on material they have yet to see?  Who would design such a system?

The other important thing to know, especially for parents, is that these scores are not a good indication of how well your child is doing in school. First, they attempt to measure only a very narrow range of what is important in your child’s education. Your child’s teacher has far better tools at her disposal – including her own observations - to help you understand how well your child is doing.

Part of the reason this is true - and this may seem hard to believe – is that these exams were not designed for the purpose of evaluating individual students! (And certainly not their teachers) The tests were designed to give us an indication of how well schools are doing in the aggregate, as part of the federal mandate under No Child Left Behind. One indication of the unreliability of these scores is that your child’s teacher will tell you that your child’s score “falls within a range” - which is actually quite large.  Given the better alternatives, I consider that even sharing the results of these tests with individual students and parents borders on educational mal-practice. But that’s just me.

Ironically, all this testing has told us little that we didn’t already know if we were paying attention. Has anyone been surprised to discover that a particular school is struggling? All you really had to do was look up the zip code and know the community’s median income.

Also - and this is deeply ironic - if the purpose of these exams is to measure how well schools are doing in the aggregate, all this testing is unnecessary! Has no one heard of statistical sampling? You could get the same results by testing a small percentage of randomly selected students, without the fortress-like test security, the tears of special ed students being tested two grades levels about their IEP, and without disrupting a full twelve days on the school calendar. Instead of every student taking nine 2-hour tests, you could randomly divide the students into nine groups, and have each student take one 2-hour test.

The bottom line: the education of our children is important. These tests aren’t. Take the results with a grain of salt.


P.S. The answer to the above question is our unelected State Board of Education, which appears to be firmly entrenched in an educational philosophy that would have been more appropriate in the middle of the last century.

P.P.S. I wrote this last April, but forgot to publish it.  oops...

Friday, February 19, 2016

Board visit to Park Forest Elementary

One of the more enlightening things that we get to do as school board members is to visit our schools. Recently, we had the opportunity to visit Park Forrest Elementary. 

One of the first things that you notice as you enter the school’s main hallway is the “Park Forest Elementary School Constitution”. PFE is a democratic school, meaning that the entire school community – including, and especially the students – establishes the rules and standards by which the school will be governed. The actual constitution, written by students (with some adult guidance) is posted below. 

Not a bad place to go to school, right? One of the things worth noting is that adult leaders would be hard-pressed to come up with a better set of school-wide rules. (Which is how it’s typically done.) But there are significant benefits to having students so involved in the process, the most important of which is that it provides them with an opportunity to begin to take responsibility for their own education, starting with their school environment. 

It seems unlikely that these will become the kind of students who spend thirteen years simply doing what they’re told (also known as “playing school”) and then suddenly wondering what they’re supposed to do with their lives. (Assuming, of course, that we allow them to expand on their experience throughout their middle and high school years.) Hopefully, they will develop the sense that they have a measure of control in their own lives (“agency” is the educational vernacular), as well the knowledge that they can make a difference in the community around them - and eventually the community beyond that. 

This has potentially significant implications. This sense of agency will be an essential disposition in a world in which the path to ‘success’ is not clearly laid out (as it was for many of my generation); in which they will have to create their own jobs, based on their particular set of skills and interests. 

But beyond that, the current state of our fractured democracy is due in large part, I believe, from our society’s move away from Ben Franklin’s vision that public education would be the vehicle through which we “create citizens who could make wise political decisions.” The learning of democratic skills cannot wait until after our students have graduated. That’s too late. 


Another thing I noticed was the poster on the door to the counselor’s office: Mindful Breathing with Yoda (my favorite Star Wars character). Yoda is the school symbol for the set of skills that students learn as a way of maintaining their equilibrium and staying focused in class. Obviously, this is particularly important for the students who don’t stop to think before they act, or who struggle with being emotionally overwhelmed and the ‘inappropriate’ behavior that often follows. 

Sit Comfortably - Close Your Eyes - Breathe In With Your Nose - Breathe Out With Your Mouth - Focus Your Mind On Your Breathing - If Your Mind Wanders, Bring It Back To Your Breathing - Breathe In / Breathe Out - Practice Makes Perfect 

This is the kind of practice that provides ‘space’ to think before you react. But here’s why I think this is particularly important: these are skills students will still be able to use twenty years from now. (Unlike say, when one receives a “prize” for good behavior. As any psychologist will tell you, when the external motivation for a particular behavior ceases, the behavior ceases shortly thereafter.) 

While I would concede that the ‘prize’ model could have value in addressing a chaotic situation, that’s not what we have here. So if we’re going to make the effort to address occasionally problematic behavior in school – which we should – we might as well teach the students something useful while we’re at it.