Archives For Education Week-Teacher

Two weeks ago, I composed a post that questioned whether I should pass or fail E  a student in my English II class who could meet many of the benchmarks of English II but who had failed to complete the  assignments; I could not justify a passing grade. The post was published  a week later in the Teacher edition of Education WeekThe student’s pseudonym  “E” was replaced with “Elena”, and the post received a spectrum of replies (71 to date) which ranged from the hard-line stance of “flunk her” to a more forgiving “grades are meaningless so pass her” position. Responses questioned whether assessments are necessary to measure student learning; others argued that assessments are a means to measure student responsibility. What was the most striking was that these variety of replies to my post revealed the deep divides in teachers and other stakeholders’ opinions on assessing student performance.

There were a few answers that suggested  “how to” better measure student standards. For example, Craig M advocated a standards-based, formative/summative, 4-point grading noting “the 4-point scale changes the difference between passing and a zero from 60% to 20% (a 1 is a D)” and recommended I “look up The Case Against the Zero by Reeves.” Another practical suggestion came from LearnOutside, “The key accommodation that I always made in my classroom was to have a reasonable ‘late work’ policy that accommodated for some of my students’ inability to plan for the future. To me, it made sense to allow them to get partial credit. It tracks with what we know about the teenage brain’s capacity to deal with future risk/reward, and in the end gets them to do the work.”

A response by DrKenGoldberg did detect that E’s current status was not an isolated problem, suggesting that “these issues are often seeded by homework difficulties in the early grades….what most teachers don’t see is ‘the rest of the story’. I admit that for reasons of privacy, I did not detail E’s complicated family history.

There were responses that urged me to think beyond the limits of grades such as the post by Jerry Heverly who offered, “How foolish does all this national testing seem when I think of students like E and when I think of the people who have enriched our society without a high school diploma?” Similarly, Jan Priddy suggested, “It’s another matter of judgment. Education is not the same as building a roof. It’s an appealing analogy, but our students are people, not carpenters, and as teachers we work with minds, not lumber.” Similarly, Dan M noted that, “Most likely, E is not going to be entering corporate America upon graduation from high school or college if she chooses to go. Her actions have demonstrated evidence of this. But that doesn’t mean that she will be a failure in life. One of the mistakes we as educators make is trying to fit (and assess) all of our students within the same paradigm.”

Some were concerned with legal problems that arise from grading, especially Michael Keathley who stated, “We are a culture dominated by legalities. If such students were passed without demonstrating the knowledge by completing written assignments, etc., certainly lawsuits would follow.” His response was echoed by R.x  who suggested, “teachers can only assign the grades their administrations will support.” I would like to think that it was their responses and not my original post that led Thien Ha to conclude that, “this proves that American education system have too much powers on the hands of parents and students than school administrators, and teachers. Many students must pass even though they were not qualified to pass, since teachers have no power to fail or if they fail many students, they would be evaluated by parents by principals as a failure teacher, they might got fired.  “

Certain responses were sympathetic, the “I’ve been there” commiserating type. Duane Swacker considered that I should, “always give the students the benefit of the doubt as there is no teacher grading system that is accurate to even 5-10 percentage points. It’s a fallacy most believe in but grades, standards and standardized testing are all falsehoods with many errors involved in the process.” However, ArtG  scolded my “story of muddled thinking or rather, muddled by emotional overflow”.  In my defense, I would argue that he has never met E or seen her interactions with others; she is difficult not to like.

Ultimately, the see-saw of debate tipped toward taking a hard-line approach. Momwithbrain1 bluntly expressed, “today [students] think they can skate by and when they graduate and take on a job, that simply is NOT the reality. I’d rather they learn life lessons in school. She may have gained some knowledge in the class but she is also learning that she can be irresponsible and lazy and it has no impact on her.” Bntradical agreed stating, “When Elena enters the work world, she will get the job, because she knows the content, but if she fails to meet the real world deadlines, she will get fired. Thus, if you fail to fail her now, you will be failing her later in life, failing yourself, and failing society.” MrLionsDen added, “Failing, at any grade level, is an important life lesson and it’s not terminal.”

Nick Mangieri pointed out the problems that I could experience in the future saying, “What happens in the future when it becomes known that you don’t have to turn in the work in Mr/Mrs X’s class because you’ll pass anyway as long as he/she likes you?” Certainly BK was the most chastising, ” I really, really do not see a dilemma here. You are being paid whatever your contract says – and it’s fair, even though you are also ‘more than a unit to be measured.’ What if instead you were paid whatever your principal ‘feels like’? It seems like this is what you are considering here – and it’s utterly unfair to all the other kids who DID pass and DID earn their A’s and B’s.” Finally, I feel particularly responsible for the students of agardne3 who concluded that, “Your article has pushed me over the edge to grade them as they deserve.”

Numerous replies concluded that I speak to E once more as an intervention, a practice I had performed daily the entire fourth quarter. I was quite serious in when I spoke to E once more the last week of school; I did not hold out much hope after the conversation. I had heard her promises before.

But E strolled in the morning the day grades closed. Clutched in her hand were three missing major assignments…two dialectical journals and one motif paper. She sheepishly handed them to me, “I don’t care if they only get a few points, but would these be enough to pass?”

Yes. The missing work, given even a few points (20/100 each) would push her GPA into passing English for the year.

So I passed her.

She obviously was following the grade change on Powerschool,  and that afternoon she sent me an e-mail:

 I am so excited I passed, Thanks for the second chances!! If it wasn’t for those I would be taking it over. I highly appretiate [sic] it (:

Sharing this story of E has reassured me that I am not alone in wrestling with the obligations of judging student performance in a classroom. This forum has certainly informed me on methods I could employ in order to avoid this problem in the future. Despite the divisions in the commenters’ opinions, each response indicated a desire to help me be a better teacher, or at least help me avoid the an unnecessary dramatic finale for next year.

 Why don’t schools routinely tap their best teachers to organize and deliver custom-tailored professional development to their peers?

This was the question posed  by Nancy Flanagan regarding teacher professional development in an article  titled , “Who’s Developing Whom?” posted in  this week’s Education Week Teacher (1/28/2012).

Well, in response to her question, I would like to suggest that she visit my school (virtually, of course) where faculty, staff, and students have collaborated in delivering excellent professional development opportunities on several occasions this past year (2011) .

But first, some background is in order. Less than four years ago, Regional School District #6 in CT was just a small rural school district with limited technology. There were shared computer labs, overhead projectors, and TVs in every room. Now we are a district with Smartboards in every classroom, with a netbook 1:1 initiative for designated classrooms, with iPads for teachers, all combined with a “bring your own digital device” policy at the middle and high school. More importantly, however, our faculty and staff has been trained in the use multiple platforms for collaboration such as wikis, and blogs; and we are completing our transition using Google educator apps. How did this shift happens?
First our administration, a dedicated superintendent and cooperative principals, with the blessings of our regional school board, concentrated efforts to increase the hardware necessary to meet the needs in delivering 21st Century instruction.  Then, the technology specialists in the elementary schools and  library media specialist at the high school joined forces to create a super-technology team: Alisha, Amy and Abbe (with an acronym AAA-a triple A threat!). They have organized professional development in our district on the ED Camp model, which is described on the Ed Camp wiki website as “a free (or very cheap), democratic, participant-driven professional development for teachers.” This model allows teachers to post sessions they will host on a grid that designates time and session locations. A video on the Ed Camp website details the procedure.
During this past school year, our district has utilized the Ed Camp model to allow any teacher who would like to share their expertise or simply discuss a problem with fellow staff or faculty members; we have also included students who have expertise in some software to offer sessions in this model.

In her commentary  “Who’s Developing Whom” Flanagan put in clips from a Twitter stream which could represent any number of districts; several years ago, ours probably would have been included:

@BreaktheCurve (Craig Jerald): Never been able to figure out why teachers don’t revolt & protest against time-wasting PD

@TeacherBeat (Stephen Sawchuk, of Education Week): I wrote a whole series on this last year. PD terrible, districts don’t even know what they spend on it

Flanagan notes that, “There is a dominant mindset that Professional Development (caps intentional) is something delivered to teachers, rather than cultivated by them, as practitioners striving to improve their practice. Professional Development assumes that someone knows better than a teacher.” 

That is a problem that is changing. Mindshift,a website by KQED (NPR affiliate) in Northern California reposted a education blog by Shelly Blake-Plock titled “21 Things That Will be Obsolete in 2020”  The post was written in December 2009, and according to the website, “Blake-Plock says he’s seeing some of these already beginning to come to fruition.”

Out of the 21 things that will be obsolete that he listed,  #14 and #15  caught my eye:

“14. EDUCATION SCHOOLS THAT FAIL TO INTEGRATE TECHNOLOGY
This is actually one that could occur over the next five years. Education Schools have to realize that if they are to remain relevant, they are going to have to demand that 21st century tech integration be modeled by the very professors who are supposed to be preparing our teachers.

15. PAID/OUTSOURCED PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
No one knows your school as well as you. With the power of a PLN (professional learing networks) in their back pockets, teachers will rise up to replace peripatetic professional development gurus as the source of schoolwide professional development programs. This is already happening.”

Teachers in hands on professional development in Region 6 in CT; tech specialist on right in the picture!

Flanagan asks, “Will teachers really learn something new if it’s not fed to them by a talking head in front of a room? Would they waste time, if it wasn’t structured for them?” If our administration was worried about this, they now have evidence that teachers not only learned something new, but that many teachers worked harder during the Ed Camp model of professional development than ever before.

Please read the description of our professional development experience (“Starting the Year with Teacher-Driven Professional Development”) on the AAA Team’s blog (RSD6 Tech Times) to know that, ” Teachers exceeded our expectations in creating sessions, even creating an extra column when they ran out of rooms….Concurrent sessions were held throughout the day by our teachers on the following topics:

Google Maps, Macs, Digital Storytelling with StoryBird/Photostory,  Edmodo, Screencasting, Livebinders, Photoshop, Fakebook, Photo editing, blogging, Twitter, World Book, Windows Movie Maker, Quia, Quizlet, Apps, Lexia, , Discovery Education, SuccessNet, Kidblog, Skype, Literature Videoconferencing, and  Prezi.”
And did I mention that our small, one-man IT department was there to facilitate this great success?

There are are some who anticipate that teacher to teacher professional development may be difficult because of teacher egos, and Flanagan warns that, “There can also be a false elitism around teacher-led professional development–the ‘who does she think she is?’ syndrome. While teachers are perfectly willing to swipe good ideas and practices shared by colleagues in the lunchroom, a teacher who’s put his reputation on the line for a respected credential standing in front of the room violates some teachers’ sense of egalitarianism’.” However, Flanagan’s anticipated concerns did not materialize, and our experience was quite to the contrary. There were many surprises within the faculty as to the level of expertise some teachers had developed because of a particular interest or demand. Our Region 6 Ed Camp model of professional development brought new appreciation and respect to the many faculty members and students who shared their expertise.

Finally, Flanagan asks, “What would happen if teacher development happened internally, entirely site-based and tailored to particular schools and populations? It would require demonstrated, deep teacher expertise in instruction and curricular issues. Which could shift the balance of power. And it would cost very little.” She’s right; the teachers and administrators with the help of a team of technology specialists in Region 6 have the exercised the power, found the teacher to teacher model a great professional development experience,  and received excellent usable training at very minimal cost.