Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Product Placement

This is about honesty.

I went to a conference last week at Stanford. One of the panels was on equity. Hey! I just went to a whole conference on equity. There were five people on the panel. Three came from organizations that deal with policy and research. The two people who were actually educators were from Rocketship Education and a Los Altos school.

That seemed...odd.

Some background for people not living in the Silicon Valley.

Rocketship is well known locally for its blended learning model and for its very high API scores with a high poverty, high English learner population. It is also well known locally for its high dropout rate and for avoiding the local school districts and going directly to the county office for approval of expanding to 30 schools. It's also well funded and if I'm reading this financial report (pdf) correctly, it gets about 30% of its money from "contributions."

Los Altos is one of the wealthiest areas in the nation. Actually, according to this Yahoo Finance article, it is (or at least it was three years ago) the third wealthiest. The school being represented has a 978 API (out of 1000), 4% of its students are on free and reduced lunch (state average is 52%) and 4% of its students are English language learners (24% state average). This year, its educational foundation donated over $2 million dollars to its 9 schools.

Two extraordinarily wealthy schools, one through geography and the other through donations, were picked to talk about equity. Especially when, hypothetically of course, a primary argument that may or may not have been put forth is that money doesn't matter.

So why might these conference organizers choose two educators from schools that might not be the best representatives to talk about equity?

From the conference website:

I surfed over to the NewSchools Venture Fund website and clicked on Our Ventures to see where their money was going.

Oh look......

and sitting on the Rocketship Education Board....

But what about the Los Altos school? She was actually there to talk about Khan Academy. It turns out she's from a pilot school.

Three lines above the Rocketship sponsorship on the NewSchools funding page you get......
That panel makes a lot more sense now.

I have no idea if NewSchools (or SVEF who also partners with Khan) had an agenda. I doubt it. I think its likely these were just the first two groups that came to mind because they work so closely with them.

The credibility issue is killer though. I had a hard time listening to anything after this panel.

The sad thing is I would have been happy to have sat in on a presentation about Khan in the classroom and what Rocketship is doing with blended learning and their data monitoring system. I felt like the organizers were hiding something by sticking them into an equity panel.

Does every conference have to be sponsor-free like Creating Balance? Heck no. I enjoyed the ASCD conference immensely and it was like a NASCAR race. I expected Pearson to come out shooting a t-shirt cannon between sessions. I don't even want to know what went on in the Smart Board party bus.

I don't have a problem with that. I know conferences don't pay for themselves. I'm happy to ignore the vendor tables if it is going to bring my registration fees down.

Just be honest. If I'm going to sit in an hour-long advertisement, let me know ahead of time.

(Final note: I've been sitting on this post for a few days. I didn't want it to seem like I was specifically targeting the parties involved. I want it clear that I'm just using them as an example and the point is really about transparency. It could have been anyone.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Creating Balance: Complex Instruction

Sorry. Another long post. The next one will be shorter.

At the Creating Balance conference I went to the Complex Instruction strand. I went through the strand with Sue VanHattum who has blogged about it previously. Bree lead a separate session on it. If you don't know what CI is at all start with those because I'm going to skip over the basics. I breezed through the section of Sue's post labeled "Smart in Math" the first time, but facilitators said that expanding the definition of what it means to be smart in math was the most important part of CI. We observed three high school classes of different levels and then sat in about 3 hours of teacher-only sessions.

Things I found interesting:

What I most enjoyed was talking with the teachers at Mission High School. The teachers I spoke most with were named Carlos and Betsy. They were incredibly reflective about it and their journey to CI was pretty inspiring. It started with 3 or 4 teachers going to a workshop a few years back and eventually it spread to all 13 teachers. Hearing about all the work they do together made me have conversations like this with a math teacher friend from NY:

Me:"So....I kind of have a crush on this school."
Her:"Yeah, let's work here next year together. I'm not joking. I will do it."

Sue mentioned creating rich tasks as a major implementation problem for CI. The Mission teachers work together to create them. They have put curriculum binders together and include spaces to write your reflections and how you would change the task for next year. They set up the department so every prep will always have at least one teacher who has taught the course last year but the same teacher won't teach the same course more than three years in a row. I asked Betsy about this second part and she said they felt that you start to go on autopilot after a few years and you should always be looking at the curriculum with fresh eyes.

They worked out a schedule to observe other teachers. They felt this wasn't quite enough so they also worked out a schedule to get together and watch 5-minute clips of each other every month.

There was more. As a teacher who has always been too much of a lone wolf (both because of my personality and my situation) I spent half the day in a sort of daze.

As for Complex Instruction, three things stood out for me.

1. The lack of scaffolding.
2. The complete commitment to "learning together."
3. The focus on mathematical conversation

Sue shared this problem and we did it as well:
Image from Math Mama Writes
The problem was, "What would number 100 look like?" and "What would number -1 look like?"

If I had done this problem it would have started with number 5, number 6, ask for a pattern, etc. They jump straight to 100. For CI, the group is the scaffold.

For number 2 above, a lot of teachers commented on this both positively and negatively. The teachers all were very strict about enforcing that students work together. They had even installed "checkpoints" in their worksheets so that students couldn't move on unless the teacher had come over, asked a random student in the group to explain what they'd done, and checked them off. I don't think I saw a kid who was completely lost, which is rare in any class.

The flip side was seeing the same problems you see in a lot of group work. Certain kids would drag along other kids. A kid would go to the bathroom and the rest of the group would grind to a halt.

You can usually solve the "dragging a kid along" problem with good grouping and the Mission teachers were very attentive to that. I'm not sure what can be done about the bathroom problem.

Maybe its because I'm used to middle school kids but I was impressed with the amount of mathematical talk that came out of the students mouths. The teachers all did occasional participation quizzes and focused far more on how students were working together rather than the correctness of the answer. In the pile pattern problem above, Carlos said that the -1 question is really what he cared about because, "That's where the really good conversation happens."

Things I haven't resolved in my head yet:

I had written more but before I finished writing this post SciAm posted an article titled, "The Power of Introverts." We spend a lot of time in groups in my own class but if I were to give the students something like the pile problem I'd always ask them to try to think about it on their own first. I know I need quiet time to think first.

(Update: I feel the need to point out that whenever I see something that says classrooms have too much groupwork. I.....don't see it. I mean, I know people talk about groupwork, but I've been in a lot of classrooms and most of them are still teacher in front and students in rows the whole period. I think there's still too much of that but I feel negatively about all groupwork all the time. "Creating balance" was the name of the conference.)

Betsy arranged her class so that Mondays looked like traditional school. She'd mini-lecture and kids would read the textbook or do worksheets. She said some kids just needed that individual time. (Like I said, reflective group at Mission).

The other thing I struggle with is anytime I need to "teach behavior" or norms. I just never know when I'm teaching something universally valuable and when I'm imposing some sort of "cultural other" upon them. Am I teaching kids how to work together or am I teaching kids to copy an image of what I think kids working together should look like? What am I asking students to give up in order to be academically or socially successful in my class?

I read too much into this. Perhaps this is why I'm an awful classroom manager.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Link Dump

I had to turn in my laptop so I've been largely stuck on an iPad at home. The result has been my consumption has gone way up and my production has gone way down. Something to think about if you're considering tablets for your classroom. Right now I've just got some links to share. Like always, this will be twice as long as it needs to be.


My blog post, Test Deconstruction, was cleaned up and published in ASCD Express. Thanks to Laura Varlas for that.

Stephen Lazar wrote a fantastic piece in the NY Times Schoolbook on school reform. I love everything about it. I'm pulling out two quotes:
I used to think we needed to create model schools that could then be replicated. I now think that it is so hard to sustain a model that each school needs to be invested in its own unique vision.
I used to think our goal should be to create systems of great schools. I now think great schools are so hard to create and maintain that our goal should be to create good and sustainable ones.
I went to a conference this week and tweeted this:

I dislike the concept of "incubator schools" so much. First, what are the rest of the schools doing? Just sitting around waiting to be told what "works"? Second, like Stephen says, the whole idea of "scaling" has been pretty well debunked.

Last good one is this set of questions from Federal Way schools called, "How to talk about Standards Based Grading." I like how they included questions for parents to ask teachers. I would have liked it even more if they included something to help students talk to teachers.


Joanne Jacobs, who somehow lives a few miles from me but occupies an entirely different planet, posted a story about a bunch of kids who quit their varsity basketball team. The coach felt they were disrespectful. The kids felt the coach wasn't respecting them in the first place. The news article doesn't offer too much more information than that. She closes with:
Lesson not learned, apparently.  Good luck in your first job, Eddie. And your second job. And, if you continue to be a slow learner, your third job.
The commenters pile on. Two things here:

1. Joanne apparently wants kids to learn the lesson that, "You take whatever your boss says and does no matter what."

2. What I CANNOT STAND is how we as adults automatically take the side of the other adult. I grew up playing sports and I've had plenty of jerk coaches. I've also been disrespectful as a player. As far as I'm concerned, the kids had a right to quit and the coach had a right to cut them. I don't have any more information to decide anything else. There's no reason to put all the blame on the kids and yes, I'm really talking about how we automatically take the sides of adults in our schools without even listening to the kids.

(Update: Local writer defends the students here and has a copy of a letter sent to the principal from the team.)

The other link I have to share I'm not actually going to share. I think he's a racist and I have no interest in even accidentally sending one of you over there. On the other hand, his traffic is at least a couple orders of magnitude higher than mine so you might know who I'm talking about anyway. He shared the ETS report  that includes this graph on page 22:

and then this quote:
My guess is that smarter teachers would probably be a good thing, so we ought to be thinking about ways to make the job of teaching more attractive to smart people. In general, smart people don't like dealing with knuckleheads, so forcing teachers to carry most of the burden of discipline, a growing trend in recent decades, is a good way to keep smart people out of the business. You can instead use some of those gym teachers to run after school detentions instead of delegating most of the disciplining down to the teachers as happens in so many public schools desperate to avoid disparate impact lawsuits by not generating a paper trail of discipline actions carried out by the administration.
deep breath
give me another second
I'm going to ignore the gym teacher comment because if you're at my blog you already know how ridiculous that is. Also I'm going to ignore the logical conclusion that people who aren't smart enjoy "dealing with knuckleheads." And also I'm also going to ignore that this report comes from a company that has a vested interest in making us think that educational testing matters.

What I will mention is this idea that smarter teachers equals better teachers.

Disclaimer: I'm not Grace, but I did score high enough on my SATs to be off of both of those scales so I don't think this is sour grapes when I say that it's quite a reach to first link SAT score to IQ and then IQ to teaching ability. This is a classic example of someone with an agenda taking some data and making it tell the story he wants it to tell. If you start off with, "My guess is....." you're not allowed to follow it up with such certainty. I'm going to counter with more graphs:

Clearly the way to be a better blogger is to be taller. Wait. I can do better than the unnamed blogger. CORRELATION SUCKAS!

My guess is....tall bloggers would be a good thing, so we ought to be thinking about ways to make blogging more attractive to tall people.