Archives For Education Week

15% of the 21st Century is almost over and the headline Before Buying Classroom Technology, Asking ‘Why?’  by Ross Brenneman is in Education Week.

This is one of the most popular stories of the week, July 18, 2014.

Why?

Not why is this story popular, but why is there even a question as to question why schools should buy technology?

Certainly, the headline is never the whole story, but the why in the question posed is misleading or frustrating.

Any educational purchase, capital or operating, should always begin with the question “why?”, yet the impression the article makes is that there are administrators who, in an attempt to personalize learning for students, are purchasing technology without having a plan or vision.

Consider first that the word in question-technology- is defined as:

the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area;  capability given by the practical application of knowledge of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems” (Merriam-Webster).

Ironic, then, that the impression the article makes is that technology is causing administrators more problems than solving them.

The article cites Allison Powell, vice president for new learning models at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, who recounts that some administrators are saying, ‘I bought all this technology, now what?’:

“They’re buying the technology without thinking through what their specific learning goals and outcomes are, and technology might not be the right tool for that.”(Powell)

Such characterizations do not inspire confidence in leadership for learning in the 21st Century.  A look at the comment section that followed the article echoes similar frustrations :

Good grief!!! I have been involved with instructional technology as a teacher, a librarian, an administrator, and in higher education since the early 1990s – and there STILL has to be an article/debate/controversy how to best integrate technological advances in our nation’s classrooms?!ALlen Educator

“Why?” is a good question. However, there’s also “What?”, “Who?”, and “How?” (Assuming “where” is your school and “when” is ASAP.)-Tad Douce

This general portrayal of hapless administrators is not helpful to education, especially when just a few reasons to incorporate technology are obvious:

-standardized testing is now done, or will be done, digitally;
-data and data analysis to improve instruction uses technology;
-achieving college readiness (research) means students will use technology;
-career readiness (business) means students will use technology;
-communicating (in real time) with all stakeholders is education requires technology.

There are more, but these obvious reasons are just a few that could guide administrators to shape a vision as they invest in technology as they would any other educational purchase to prepare students for the future. The answers to the question “why” therefore, are generally understood.  Instead, the question “how will this technology be used” should be foremost in any administrator’s design for the future.Screenshot 2014-07-23 22.51.36

Furthermore, how will any administrator’s vision or design for the future be shaped and reshaped depends on developments in technology; technology is not a one time purchase. There will be many iterations of technology, hardware and software, used in classrooms tomorrow (…. and tomorrow and tomorrow). Above all, in meeting these iterations, an administrator’s vision or design must include ongoing training for educators.

To be fair, Education Week’s article centered on the use of technology in the delivery of personalized learning. In the end, Brennerman points out that the 21st Century is no different than any other century, that “personalized learning can be implemented without technology.” Yet, the headline says nothing about this message. Rather, the impression left is that there are many visionless administrators asking “why?”as if technology is a fad.

Administrators must work to correct the general impression made by the “why” in this headline.  With 85% of the 21st Century ahead, the question should be  “how will” their vision continue to shape the role of technology in education’s future.

March Madness is not exclusive to basketball.Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 1.38.50 PM
March Madness signals the season for standardized testing season here in Connecticut.
March Madness signals the tip-off for testing in 23 other states as well.

All CT school districts were offered the opportunity to choose the soon-to-be-phased-out pen and paper grades 3-8 Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT)/ grade 10 Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) OR to choose the new set of computer adaptive Smarter Balanced Tests developed by the federally funded Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Regardless of choice, testing would begin in March 2014,

As an incentive, the SBAC offered the 2014 field test as a “practice only”, a means to develop/calibrate future tests to be given in 2015, when the results will be recorded and shared with students and educators. Districts weighed their choices based on technology requirements, and many chose the SBAC field test. But for high school juniors who had completed the pen and paper CAPT in 2013, this is practice; they will receive no feedback. This 2014 SBAC field test will not count.

Unfortunately, the same can not be said for counting the 8.5 hours of testing in English/language arts and mathematics that had to be taken from 2014 academic classes. The elimination of 510 minutes of instructional time is complicated by scheduling students into computer labs with hardware that meets testing  specifications. For example, rotating students alphabetically through these labs means that academic classes scheduled during the testing windows may see students A-L one day, students M-Z on another. Additional complications arise for mixed grade classrooms or schools with block schedules. Teachers must be prepared with partial lessons or repeating lessons during the two week testing period; some teachers may miss seeing students for extended periods of time. Scheduling madness.

For years, the state standardized test was given to grade 10, sophomore students. In Connecticut, the results were never timely enough to deliver instruction to address areas of weakness during 10th grade, but they did help inform general areas of weakness in curriculum in mathematics, English/language arts, and science. Students who had not passed the CAPT had two more years to pass this graduation requirement; two more years of education were available to address specific student weaknesses.

In contrast, the SBAC is designed to given to 11th graders, the junior class. Never mind that these junior year students are preparing to sit for the SAT or ACT, national standardized tests. Never mind that many of these same juniors have opted to take Advanced Placement courses with testing dates scheduled for the first two full weeks of May. On Twitter feeds, AP teachers from New England to the mid-Atlantic are already complaining about the number of delays and school days already lost to winter weather (for us 5) and the scheduled week of spring break (for us, the third week of April) that comes right before testing for these AP college credit exams. There is content to be covered, and teachers are voicing concerns about losing classroom seat time. Madness.

Preparing students to be college and career ready through the elimination of instructional time teachers use to prepare students for college required standardized testing (SAT, ACT) is puzzling, but the taking of instructional time so students can take state mandated standardized tests that claim to measure preparedness for college and career is an exercise in circular logic. Junior students are experiencing an educational Catch 22, they are practicing for a test they will never take, a field test that does not count. More madness.

In addition, juniors who failed the CT CAPT in grade 10 will still practice with the field test in 2014. Their CAPT graduation requirement, however, cannot be met with this test, and they must still take an alternative assessment to meet district standards. Furthermore, from 2015 on, students who do not pass SBAC will not have two years to meet a state graduation requirement; their window to meet the graduation standard is limited to their senior year. Even more madness.

Now, on the eve of the inaugural testing season, a tweet from SBAC itself (3/14):

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 1.28.22 PM

This tweet was followed by word from CT Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s office sent out on to superintendents from Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, DRW, that the state test will be delayed a week:

Schools that anticipated administering the Field Test during the first week of testing window 1 (March 18 – March 24) will need to adjust their schedule. It is possible that these schools might be able to reschedule the testing days to fall within the remainder of the first testing window or extend testing into the first week of window 2 (April 7 – April 11).

Education Week blogger Stephen Sawchuk provides more details in his post  Smarter Balanced Group Delays in the explanation for the delay:

The delay isn’t about the test’s content, officials said: It’s about ensuring that all the important elements, including the software and accessibility features (such as read-aloud assistance for certain students with disabilities) are working together seamlessly.

“There’s a huge amount of quality checking you want to do to make sure that things go well, and that when students sit down, the test is ready for them, and if they have any special supports, that they’re loaded in and ready to go,” Jacqueline King, a spokeswoman for Smarter Balanced, said in a March 14 interview. “We’re well on our way through that, but we decided yesterday that we needed a few more days to make sure we had absolutely done all that we could before students start to take the field tests.”

A few more days is what teachers who carefully planned alternative lesson plans during the first week of the field test probably want in order to revise their lessons. The notice that districts “might be able to reschedule” in the CT memo is not helpful for a smooth delivery of curriculum, especially since school schedules are not developed empty time slots available to accommodate “willy-nilly testing” windows. There are field trips, author visits, assemblies that are scattered throughout the year, sometimes organized years in advance. Cancellation of activities can be at best disappointing, at worst costly. Increasing madness.

Added to all this madness, is a growing “opt-out” movement for the field test. District administrators are trying to address this concern from the parents on one front and the growing concerns of educators who are wrestling with an increasingly fluid schedule. According to Sarah Darer Littman on her blog Connecticut News Junkie, the Bethel school district offered the following in a letter parents of Bethel High School students received in February:

“Unless we are able to field test students, we will not know what assessment items and performance tasks work well and what must be changed in the future development of the test . . . Therefore, every child’s participation is critical.

For actively participating in both portions of the field test (mathematics/English language arts), students will receive 10 hours of community service and they will be eligible for exemption from their final exam in English and/or Math if they receive a B average (83) or higher in that class during Semester Two.”

Field testing as community service? Madness. Littman goes on to point out that research shows that a student’s GPA is a better indicator of college success than an SAT score and suggests an exemption raises questions about a district’s value on standardized testing over student GPA, their own internal measurement. That statement may cause even more madness, of an entirely different sort.

Connecticut is not the only state to be impacted by the delay. SBAC states include: California, Delaware,  Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

In the past, Connecticut has been called “The Land of Steady Habits,” “The Constitution State,” “The Nutmeg State.” With SBAC, we could claim that we are now a “A State of Madness,” except for the 23 other states that might want the same moniker. Maybe we should compete for the title? A kind of Education Bracketology just in time for March Madness.

On Textbooks: Opinion Piece published by Education Week 8/8/12

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.

Current efforts to improve our students’ love of reading is allowing them the opportunity to choose what they want to read.  Since the amount of time available to teachers in a school year is finite, the inclusion of independent choice reading materials in a curriculum means that some things, usually whole class novels, have to go. In the case of our 9th grade students, the curriculum has been reduced to  three whole class reads: Romeo and Juliet, Speak, and Of Mice and Men. The remainder of the year is devoted to student choice, fiction and non-fiction. In other words, I am running a blended reading curriculum of student choice with whole class novels. I am convinced my students need this balanced approached to literacy.

Balancing between whole class novels and independent reading

Those who advocate student choice in the classroom make some excellent points. Last fall (2011), Kelly Gallagher (Readicide) in an audio interview with Mike McQueen on the Reading on the Run website said,

” I want to know does my child’s school have expectation that my child will read recreationally? Do they support that by giving kids time to read? Do they support that by giving kids interesting books to read not just academic books to read? Those are kind of questions that I would ask in looking at my child’s school.”

Gallagher’s most recent tweets on his KellyGtogo@Twitter demonstrate his continued campaign against language arts curriculum that are limited to whole class readings:

  • gr. 4-12: half the books our students read should be recreational in nature. We don’t want to raise test takers; we want to raise readers. 
  • more books = more reading = better reading. nothing happens without books.
  • Dear Common Core, where are recreational reading expectations? 

Yet, Gallagher still recognizes the importance of the whole class novel stating, “I am a proponent of academic reading, I do believe that kids should read you know, rich academic text. You know, I want my 9th graders to read Romeo and Juliet or my 12th graders to read Hamlet.”

There are, however, some educators who have eliminated whole class reading in an attempt to either engage students with choice only or as a differentiated approach to addressing reading levels in a class. In an article in Education Week  (7/2011) titled, Against the Whole Class Novel, Pam Allyn takes the position that whole class novels do not encourage reading and instead lead to alienation and isolation. She writes, “We have now reached a point at which teaching with neither the whole-class novel nor the basal reader, in which the whole class reads a selection together, is viable. We must end these practices. They are not benefiting our students.” She illustrates her position with the story of Sam who struggled with To Kill a Mockingbird saying, “…no way was this book a refuge for him, or an inspiration. It did not help him learn to read, nor did it help him to become a lifelong lover of text.”

Instead, Allyn suggests,

“If a student has found 16 blogs about boats, let him read those in school. And maybe that student will follow one of those blogs to a newspaper series about a regatta, or to Dove, Robin Lee Graham’s personal account of sailing around the world as a teenager. In these ways, our students will be exposed to a wider variety of genres than the whole-class novel ever allowed, and they will be more compelled to think critically across genres, as the common-core standards will require of them.”

While I agree with Allyn that not every book will make a student a lifelong reader, I believe she is clouding the issue of whole class reading with bad teaching of a whole class novel.Yes, it is true that some books are very difficult for reluctant or low level readers, so it is surprising that she suggests a student may choose Graham’s Dove  (RL 6.6) given her earlier reference the isolation a low level reader may have with to To Kill a Mockingbird (RL 5.6)  Regardless, a low level reader will struggle with a high level text unless there is some instruction or support. And while I agree that her suggestion of more inclusive reading materials (blogs, magazines, non-fiction) is important,  I also believe the communal experience that occurs in the reading of a whole class novel is equally important.

I am not suggesting the unit that beats a novel to death for week upon week, or what I refer to as the “it takes as long to read The Hobbit as it did Bilbo to get to his confrontation with the dragon, Smaug”. I am promoting the whole class novel experience where students work collaboratively to decode a text, share opinions, make comparisons, or criticize plot points. I promote the whole class novel with support for the low level readers and supplemental activities for the less engaged students. Reading levels should not limit student accessibility to a text when there is support available, for example, an audiobook. Please note: I did not say vocabulary and worksheets are supplemental activities.

Ideally, I advocate the whole class novel to capitalize on contexts or issues in other subject areas. Students can read All Quiet on the Western Front while they are studying World War I in Modern World History classes. Students can read Silent Spring as a companion piece to an enviormental studies course. Students can share the stories in Warriors Don’t Cry or Mississippi 1951 when they are studying a Civil Right’s unit. Whenever possible, I advocate a interdisciplinary read as a whole class novel.

I see great benefit in asking students to recall the themes, characters, settings or plot points with something they read earlier in their lives, particularly with the more complex texts at the middle or high school level. I will ask about the dystopia of The Giver when we read Brave New World, or the societies represented by animals in Charlotte’s Web when we read Animal Farm. A shared understanding of a previous reading experience with others provides immeasurable insights into a new reading experience.

Another argument for whole class reading comes from educator, Mrs_Laf in her blog post Confessions of an English Teacher who recently admitted that while, “I am the first person to champion individual and small group reading and used to be the first to decry the whole-class novel…I’m teaching a whole-class novel.”

She explains that her immersion into choice only reading resulted in many students selecting reading that did not challenge them. Students chose “fun books”, which she compared to beach reads noting that her students were not reading as closely as she wanted. In other words, “not all reading is the same.”  She decided that many students still needed to be taught to read a novel, just the same as students are taught to read a poem or short story. Her solution? Well, first she picks high interest books (The Hunger Games) which students purchase for annotation. Students make notes in the margin, put question marks next to the text they find confusing. In using this approach, “The trick is to get them to be patient with it.  This is a different kind of reading and we are reading for a different purpose.” Her point is a good one. Many students may need to be taught to read a more challenging text if all they read is what interests them.

I see reading as a community for my students as both academic and social.  I need to prepare students for the rigors of college and the real world since there is an expectation of cultural literacy  in our society. Students will encounter references to texts that compare relationships to the doomed Romeo and Juliet or the awkward Holden Caufield or the fair-minded  Atticus Finch or the the skin-flint Ebenezer Scrooge; they should understand those references. Teaching complex texts that students would not select independently ensures they can be included in conversations that extend beyond the classroom.

Teaching a whole class novel can be successful if, like any subject matter, students can be engaged. Language arts teachers need to seek a balance in in allowing for student choice while still teaching students how to read a challenging text. Every wave of innovation in teaching such as the recent calls for independent choice has an opposite one, such as traditional whole class novel instruction. Maintaining balance with these waves is what makes education successful. Balance means emotional stability; calmness of mind; harmony in the parts of a whole. Providing for independent choice plus whole class reading equals a balanced student.