Jan 2008

Come rain, SNOW, sleet, or shine, the Science Fair must go on!

In spite of the anticipated snow day tomorrow, our school's beloved science fair will go on. Yes, we'll trek those projects up to school in however much snow we get. Of course, we could take them up today if we were organized enough to be finished....

Participation may be emphasized over winning and that pizza party is motivating, but the competitive kids know that some of the projects get to go to Queeny Park, the world's largest regional science fair. It really is impressive.


Hear, hear for well run science fairs that motivate students to learn more about their world and teach them how to do so scientifically.

Trip to Seville? Ph.D.? Working on the bucket list

When I graduated from college, I set three goals for myself to achieve by the time I was 30: buy a house, travel to Europe and finish the coursework for a Ph.D. program (I was trying to be realistic). I only met one of those goals.

So on my 31st birthday, I just reworked my objectives a bit, putting off those goals of a trip to Europe and the Ph.D. program until I was 40. My 30s was all about babies, not overseas travel or furthering my education formally. Having kids has broadened my perspective and enriched my life, but it didn't lend itself to my narrowly worded intentions.

Well, I'm 41 now. While I think a trip to Costa Rica with the kiddos might happen before that trip to Europe, I still dream about English manor houses, Italian villas, German castles, Spanish tapas bars and French cafés. I'm also seriously considering starting a Ph.D. program in a few years. I guess my original goals set when I was 21 are still the same, just delayed by, uh, a few years.

I'm not even going to bother graphing my success rate (20's=1 goal, 30's=0 goals, 40's=?), but if I do think my initial objectives were well thought out. I haven't been to Europe yet, but I have traveled domestically and to Central America. I haven't even started a Ph.D. yet, but I did get a master's and a graduate certificate. I've also read quite a bit about education as my children have started school, providing me with a broader perspective.

See ya in Seville!


3 Nights in August

I know that everyone on the East Coast is hyperfocusing on the Superbowl, which I'll watch, but, really, I'm just counting the days to spring training.

In fact, baseball and education are amazingly similar.

❝He [Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay] knows human factors affect the numbers radically. Context is partially external (in baseball, factors like ball park effects, weather, a humidor or not) but it's vastly internal (human players as individuals and as part of the team and their individual quirks and personal strengths and weaknesse

He knows the numbers only take you so far and that you have to go farther than that to achieve excellence. Maddon doesn't lose sight of the vast pool of non-numeric data out there...that goes into his pool from which to draw❞ (Management by Baseball)

Tony LaRussa, while not exactly a Moneyball proponent, gives a great quote.

❝The 'Moneyball' kind of stuff has its place, but so does the human," La Russa said by telephone from Pittsburgh. "Really, the combination is the answer.❞

As teachers, principals, administrators, researchers and policy wonks, we all need to remember that data can help us improve education without being so data-driven as to lose sight of good teaching.

Passion, or lack thereof, in ed schools


I've been reading David Labaree's The Trouble with Ed Schools for my late-night reading material because I am passionate about improving the quality of teacher education. OK, I'm passionate about education in general and expect people going into the profession to be so also. Alas.

A friend and I were chatting yesterday about the people we knew in various teacher prep programs. Unfortunately, most of them majored in ed because they 1) needed a fallback if they couldn't make money doing what they really wanted to do 2) they had to choose something 3) like teaching well enough but only plan on doing so a few years until they have children.

None of these are bad reasons in themselves, and I don't fault these individuals, but it demonstrates the low status that Labaree demonstrates U.S. society gives to ed schools. Would anyone go to law school as a fallback? nursing school? (Ed school is often compared to nursing and social work schools, so I think that one is a particularly valid question.)

I asked someone who went to Truman if anyone she knew didn't feel passionately about teaching. Nope. Nobody there majored in education because they didn't know what else to do. Perhaps this is because Truman did away with awarding a bachelor's in education, so the students are planning on a five-year program. The purpose may be to strengthen the academics, but the side benefit may be to strengthen the education program. Passionate students improve classes.

Washington University is now also moving to a master's only program.

Missouri students write for their state assessment too!


Debbie Monterrey and Doug McElvein of KMOX's Total Information AM interviewed (audio download) Thomas Toch of Education Sector this morning about NCLB, focusing on how the tests differ between states. Yes, states construct their own tests of varying difficulty levels.

I thought it ironic, and showing of poor prep all around, that the state everyone kept referring to as one that uses open-ended questions, you know, actually having the kids write, was Massachusetts. True, Massachusetts has challenging tests, but, hey! Missouri does too! The kids complete short answer questions in addition to a writing prompt. The local angle and all that.

MAP practice tests

IES Research and Development Report
Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales
(MO not included in Reading)
4th grade math
Mo 5th highest and close to the NAEP proficient cut score (242)
8th grade math
Mo highest score and well above the NAEP proficient cut score (311)

Rant over, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Can data improve my teaching?

I am required to include an assessment statement on my syllabus and perform CATs (classroom assessment techniques) periodically throughout the semester.

I did my first formal CAT yesterday. I've added a new assignment this semester (group wiki), so I asked them to write down strengths and areas to improve on the assignment. We then discussed it, and I told them my ideas for improvement also. I use this in conjunction with their final products to help me improve my teaching for next semester or possibly future assignments if applicable.

That is my background on assessment.

I've enjoyed reading Eduwonkette's week on data-driven posts and appreciated the link to Scott McLeod's data resource page where I found an article that made the parent side of me salivate.

❝Stage-three schools shift the focus from groups to individual students — every single, individual student.❞

McIntire discusses how schools can say that they focus on all students but most don't have the systems in place to do so. I've had friends whose districts say they differentiate, but they don't feel the district follows that mission statement at all.

Differentiating is the buzzword right now, but it is hard to implement without support.

❝In stage-three schools, school leaders establish structures of accountability that ensure teachers regularly analyze student performance data, talk about it in functional units, and enact specific action plans at the classroom, team, grade, and school level.❞

Of course to do that requires time for teachers to meet together in teams, which they should be doing anyway.

❝How can teachers hope to provide customized instruction to dozens or even hundreds of students?❞

But they can, and do. I've seen it.

Using data to improve instruction shouldn't be overrelied on but if used with commonsense can help more kids learn. Off to read Datawise now.

A+ for school choice--private anyway


A fellow parent who is from the west coast remarked that while while her former area had schools in the typical top 10 lists, she is impressed with the educational opportunities in St. Louis, especially the choices available. Forbes recently ranked St. Louis #9 best places for education. We received an A+ in private school options and college opportunities. If there had been a category for public school options, we would have scored high there also (although not an A+ because of access). We like options.

The Libertarian-leaning Show-Me Institute is recommending tuition tax credits for families in St. Louis city, Kansas City and Wellston school districts that are under a certain percentage of the poverty level.

Another, very visible, attempt to increase access to choice is Mayor Slay's push to increase charter schools. Andy Rotherham of Education Sector has proposed five "deals" (pdf) for critics and advocates to work on.

I was especially intrigued by #3.

❝School districts should receive temporary transition aid to help them adjust to losing students, but that funding should be linked to giving charter schools access to unused space..❞

SLPS has extra room, charter schools don't have room, and transitional money would make everyone more likely to sit down at the peace table at come up with a plan to help our kids.

St. Louisans like choice after all. Now we just need to find a model that will work in real life and not just in ivory towers.

Photo of 6th grade Lift for Life students at space camp

MLK, Kiva and Natalie Portman

MLK inspires me.

I'm listening to Natalie Portman's Big Change: Songs for Finca, spending money on Kiva (notice a microfinancing theme here) and making gumbo as taught to me by a neighbor from New Orleans.

What are you doing today?

Thanks to a reader's comment I learned about a St. Louis based organization providing microfinancing opportunities, Microfinancing Parners in Africa.

Teachers can do research too!

The St. Louis Post profiled an elementary teacher in the beleaguered city school system.

❝Johnson labored at night and through winter and summer breaks for three years, and the product of that passion is a supplemental learning project. It represents one teacher's homegrown effort to solve one classroom's deficiencies, with the hope of later helping to turn around an entire district.❞

The program works by having students progress through levels as they learn their basic math facts down cold.

❝When a master steps to the podium, there's good reason that mesmerized classmates congregate at the podium like mere mortals gathering at the cage while Albert Pujols takes batting practice:

A master can write the answers to 100 multiplication questions in 110 seconds.❞

It sounds like a personalized version of the Fastt Math that is becoming popular in suburban districts.

I want to highlight one of the problems with the attitude of the city school district.

❝Though district officials subscribe to the theory that the achievement gap needs to be erased one classroom at a time, they say educational practices must first undergo rigorous research and academic review.

"He knows what works for him. That's not to say he doesn't have a program that works well for his students. But he doesn't have the research base yet to implement what he is doing on a larger scale," said William Parker, an assistant superintendent for elementary education.❞

I understand wanting to use research-based curriculum changes, but the district is essentially telling its teachers that no matter how hard they work and how effective they are since they can't provide the large research basis that commercial suppliers can, they are not as important. A better response would be to work with him to run a larger pilot study and to help publish. Working with teachers as collaborators instead of just implementers of off-the-shelf but "researched" curriculum would go a long way toward improving working conditions.

❝When his wife, Cathy, asks why Johnson remains in the city when he "could be making $10,000 more to work in the county" his response is uniform. And it starts with those students who hail, as he did, from a single-parent home absent a father.❞

While the city schools don't pay that much less than the county, an effective African-American male elementary teacher is highly recruitable. The city shouldn't rely on his desire to help kids from single-parent homes and should provide the supportive environment that teachers like him need, including helping them know how to share their work with others.

Length of contract affects salary

When I first read Education Gadfly's post critiquing the Quality Counts 2008 report, I was struck by his reference to teachers only working 9 months as I always had to work longer. In looking over Missouri's data, however, I can see the disconnect.

While Mo. teachers ave. 181.49 contract days, St. Louis teachers average 190 contract days with several districts at 195 or above (Mehlville, Brentwood, Lindbergh). In looking through the state numbers, some districts only required 175 or even 174 (!) days. That's as much as a four week difference. Yes, the urban districts pay more, but they also expect more of their teachers. Since Missouri's minimum number of school days is 174, some of the rural districts must not have any or minimal professional development days. I think this needs to be addressed in any minimum salary legislation.

Numbers taken from MSTA Mo. Salary Schedule and Benefits Report

Education builds green

St. Louis Community College-Wildwood

Building green is popular here in St. Louis with commercial and residential properties having or going for LEED certification. Higher ed is getting on the bandwagon.

St. Louis Community College opened a fourth campus this year at Wildwood. The first building is going for LEED Gold with its green roof and daylight lighting.

St. Louis University built a new research facility that is connected to its med school. That facility is going for LEED Silver with its efficient, open space. Few labs go for LEED certification, so kudos to SLU. It also has a partial green roof.

Not to be outdone, Wash U opened its Danforth Center (student center), which is going for LEED Gold.

Universities are greening up because of the educational and environmental aspects.

❝To a large extent, the push is coming from the ground up, fueled by students' passions and interests and enthusiasms," says Peter MacKeith, associate dean in the School of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis.❞

I could not find any secondary schools that were being built to meet even LEED certification including the new CBC campus. MRH built a new elementary school. While the school is beautiful, it is not green. Rockwood's 2008 bond issue proposition does not include any green elements even though many additional classrooms are listed. A few, however, are leading the way. (Excel document)

Crossroads College Prep is seeking platinum for its new science wing. (Fox news link)
Hazelwood East
John Burroughs Theatre addition

I had a hard time finding information on Hazelwood or Burrough's projects. I would think they would be telling the world.

I challenge those districts with future building or renovating projects to step up and take leadership. Our kids deserve no less.

Rhyme or reason to salary schedules?


The St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided an interesting graphic to accompany its Rod Jetton story which gave the district paying the most to beginning teachers and the district paying the least. I had assumed that Clayton would be the highest paying school, but I was wrong. Jennings. The lowest-paying district is Hancock Place. I wasn't surprised there. I ranked all of the districts and could discern no obvious pattern.

I wondered if Jennings was one of those districts that encourages beginning teachers by paying them well but doesn't reward its more experienced and educated teachers, so I also looked at maximum teacher salaries. Nope, Jennings is just a high-paying district.

I wondered if the maximum salary was tied to the median income level of the district. Seemed reasonable that the districts in wealthier areas would pay more. With a correlation number of -.26 though, that's not the case. Other market factors are in play.

The spread between minimum and maximum salaries is important as teachers want to know that their salaries will increase. Quality Counts suggests a ratio of at least 2.0 The St. Louis districts do that to stay competitive even if the rest of the state does not (state average 1.66).

❝In fact, the salaries and career potential for teachers are remarkably flat: The average maximum salary that a teacher can earn is just 1.85 times the salary of a raw entrant, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, based on figures from the 2003-04 school year.❞

To get a better grip on which districts tighten their salary schedules, I ranked them and included whether each district has been named a district of distinction by Missouri based on MAP data.

With Rockwood, Kirkwood and Pattonville the only districts under the 2.0 and on the bottom of the heap, I have to say that the compression ratio isn't the end all although I do think it's important. Studying all the districts of the state might show more of a difference rather than within a region or market area.

I ran some correlation numbers to try to figure out whether the compression ratio is more highly correlated to the maximum salary or the minimum.

Max. salary correlation .73
Min. salary correlation .24

Obviously it is tied to the max salary. Hancock Place did have the highest ratio with a low starting salary and high maximum salary. I was glad to see that the bad press it has received for its low starting salary isn't justified. Most of the time, however, low starting salaries meant little in terms of the ratio.

I doubt few prospective teachers compare salary schedules too closely as long as a district is within the regional norm, but I found it fascinating. Some of my assumptions were challenged, which will encourage me to dig deeper in the future.

Numbers from MSTA's salary schedule report

Debating at the Chase

I really want to see The Great Debaters while it is still at the theater, but I admit it is probably not the top choice for most high school students. That is where the Rams have stepped up. (If only they could step up during the game also...) Linebacker Chris Draft's foundation sponsored a screening for 300 St. Louis city school high school students last Friday, Jan. 11, 2008.

After watching the movie at the beautiful Chase, students heard a panel discussion moderated by St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Bryan Burwell. The panel consisted of community leaders, students, educators and Rams players Chris Draft, linebacker, Isaac Bruce, wide receiver, and Corey Chavous, safety.

The Rams had previously seen a private screening of the movie set up by Denzel Washington' son, JD Washington, who is on the practice squad.

Debating at the Chase is more inspiring than the Wrestling at the Chase!

Update--I really want to encourage readers to watch the video of Draft on Fox news I linked to above. I've also pulled out a couple Draft's quotes I like.

❝We need you guys [students] to be leaders. We need you all to step up, and the way to do that is research and facts, communication. Stand up and say we want to learn, we want to be better. How can we help St. Louis public schools be better?❞

❝We have to demand to be taught.❞

49th in teacher pay? Embarassing!

On the same week as the Quality Counts Report Card release, Mo. House Speaker Rod Jetton (R) introduced a plan to increase the state minimum for teacher's pay to $31,000, which is significantly higher than the current minimum of $23,000. The plan also includes other floors up to $46,000 minimum for the most experienced teachers. In fact he opened the 2008 session with increasing teacher pay as his first priority.

This raise would not affect the St. Louis area much as all but one St. Louis county district already exceeds the minimum (Hancock Place). St. Charles County also already meets the minimum, but some districts in Jefferson County would need to raise their salary schedules.

One of Jetton's problems is convincing the urban areas to go along with the legislation. Missouri has an urban/rural divide already, and some have the perception that the urban areas are going to pay for a benefit for the rural areas, again. Jetton counters that we need to entice young people to go into the profession in the first place and that improving rural education would also improve the county schools. (He called it the trickle up effect on the Paul Harris show on KMOX.) More practically, he said he was open to working with others to modify the bill.

The most interesting caller to me on Paul Harris's show (episode download) was the school board member who ranted about how big teachers' pensions were. I wouldn't want him on my school board--not necessarily because of his opinions but because of his lack of judgement in calling in to the show presumably against increasing teachers' pay. But maybe that's how he was elected. Jetton countered that his focus was on bringing young people into the profession.

Whatever your arguments are about whether to include benefits and the ten-month term in comparing salaries, 49th in teacher pay is embarrassing.

The unscientific but interesting Post online poll asked "What do you think of teacher salaries?"
73% They should be higher
6 They should be lower
21 They're fine where they are
(600 votes as of 1-11-08 at 8:54 a.m.)

The numbers really didn't change much as I had checked the poll Thurs. (78, 5, 17 with 348 votes)

Public opinion may be for increasing teachers' pay, at least until they see the bill, but we'll have to watch this one.

Data Mining


The Quality Counts 2008 Report is out, and Missouri didn't finish in the top tier. No surprise there.

One interesting question deep down in the report was whether a teacher had an identifying tracking number assigned (yes). Another was whether Missouri links teacher and student records by course/subject and assessment results (no). These questions were in between ones on teacher pay parity, mentor teachers and other traditional teacher quality questions. Mmm....

❝The day is not far off, teacher-quality advocates say, when a host of professional and policy decisions could be informed by analysis of data from thousands of teachers and students observed over time. Such longitudinal data allow researchers to measure changes in student achievement—and to link them with teacher characteristics.❞

Ah, a researcher's dream and a privacy advocate's nightmare.

❝For instance, teacher-preparation programs could be slated for overhauls—or not—depending on how well their graduates perform. Or state policies could reflect new knowledge about which qualifications indicate teacher effectiveness.❞

I already think teacher ed programs need overhauling, but research showing what works is always helpful.

❝While such systems have the potential to yield rich information on differences that affect student learning, they also raise a thorny question: Might teachers be ranked, assigned, or fired on the basis of such data?❞

The idea is to focus on student achievement instead of teachers, but in this day of accountability I don't believe that would really happen. As a researcher wanna-be, though, I see so much potential...

So many tech goodies! So little time!

I have been inspired this past month when I started reading the edublogs. When I go into the office this week to prep for classes, I will be spending time reworking some of my PowerPoints, thanks to Scott Elias and Tom Woodward.

One of my friends who took the Missouri required Technology in Education course for his teacher ed prep last semester told me that he struggled staying awake in class (he liked the instructur, really he did) because half the class knew nothing about computers. His idea was to offer two courses, Tech in Ed and Tech in Ed for neophytes. (Titles may be changed for PC purposes.) Students who have grown up with cell phones and have MySpace pages just have a different technology mindset than veteran teachers who are just becoming comfortable with email.

Some districts include use of technology as part of the teachers' evaluation, which would obviously encourage them to work to increase their knowledge. Dan Meyer wonders if forcing teachers to use technology is the answer. I think baby steps is the answer here.

Sometimes it seems as if teachers assign students projects using technology without helping them to properly focus. Anthony Chivetta blogs about the making videos interesting. A student blogging about the importance of thesis even in video--this writing teacher is in love. Woo hoo! I will keep his advice in mind when creating assignments.

Maybe I should also integrate a class wiki and make better use of that Smart Board. Sigh. I only have so much time!

Update--even before getting the post up, I turned one written project into a group wiki. Migrating to a new version of Blackboard over the holiday break just made this a whole lot easier.

Can I have my kid's score, please?

Last semester I had a student tell me about the sneaky way she had to use to find out her child's reading level. I was appalled. I never asked which district and don't want to know. My kids' teachers have told me the reading scores at conferences, which I had assumed every teacher in the country did. I was disappointed to find out I was wrong.

Jay Mathews lists parent participation as a way to improve schools. Participation can mean fundraising for the PTO, showing up for teacher conferences, helping in the classroom or even having a voice in school policies. If parents aren't even given their own child's assessments and standardized test results, then any talk about increasing participation is just so much fluff, happy talk, can-we-get-some-money-out-of-you talk.

If I had more time, I would survey the local districts for participation rates (using multiple methods of participating) and see which factors had the highest correlation rate. My guess would be education level, more so than median income. Secondary factors might include size of district and transportation method.

A theory of mine is that schools that don't provide bus service would have higher parent participation. They already have to walk or drive the kids to school. Double points for the schools that don't have efficient carpool lanes. The parents might actually have to go inside to pick up the kids and see the teachers. Find me one of those schools that doesn't have high parental partnership.

Parents that want to know how to become more involved or help their school become more open can be inspired by St. Louis's own Project Appleseed, a national resource for improving parental involvement. Actually, it has a lot of good information for educators also.

Schools usually include in their mission statements about the importance of parent participation. I want to see them walk it, which includes the first steps of thinking of parents as partners and providing them with all testing and assessment results, not just when the parents ask for it.

Daddy, can you work for Chrysler so I can go to Yale?

In her blog post Poor Kids Have It Easy, EduWonkette blasted Michele Hernandez's Acing the College Application (reviewed in the WSJ) for saying that kids from poor or working class backgrounds have an easier time getting accepted into Ivy League schools.

❝The cat's out of the bag, folks. Poor kids have the life and coast right into selective schools, according to a new book [...] Is she for real?❞

Eduwonkette, being Eduwonkette, provides great figures and studies to back up her indignation. I'll go a different route.

❝Best case: Neither of your parents attended college at all, your father is a factory worker, and your mom is on disability. . . . Worst case: Your father went to Yale as an undergraduate and then Harvard Business School and is now an investment banker and your mom went to Brown, holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and works as a research chemist.❞

Locally, if "best case" parents are factory workers that student might attend Fox, Hazelwood or a similar district. The district isn't losing accreditation but is isn't an Ivy League feeder either. Since those parents didn't attend college, they may support their child's schooling but have probably left the responsibility up to the school.

The "worst case" student probably attended Clayton or Ladue if public or MICDS or Burroughs if private. Those are all Ivy League feeders with the private schools being on WSJ's list of top 50 feeder schools. That student also probably had tutors or classes in the summer starting in elementary school, not so much to feed a resume but to enrich. Language immersion classes are popular as are courses at the Gifted Resource Council. If the parents thought math facts were not stressed enough, they probably enrolled the student in Kumon. Home libraries are large, and educational kits and projects abound. All this is just in elementary school.

Go back even further. Say the "best case" student is a transfer student and is able to go to the same public county school as the "worst case." Unfortunately, she'll come into K already at a disadvantage. The other kid has had a high quality preschool, has traveled abroad, been taken to lots of cultural events such as the symphony, participated in a children's opera and already knows how to read. The school will do everything it can, but it can't make up completely for the enriched home life.

Yes, obviously some kids overcome odds, but there is a reason for the statistics favoring the upper middle class and wealthy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would probably buy Hernandez's book for my kids. (I would NOT, however, buy Elizabeth Wissner-Gross's What High Schools Don't Tell You, the other book reviewed by the WSJ. Recommending students only write positive puff pieces on school activities if they want to be a journalist? Blech.)

Lessons from med school


I've always been impressed by the six-year pre med/med school program my brother attended at UMKC. Students there are accepted out of high school into an intensive program that combines pre med with med school so that they end up receiving both degrees at the same time. Practically speaking this means that students theory and practice are interwoven through the six years.

Students of varying years are placed together in a team with a docent. They make rounds with their team and are given increasing responsibilities at the hospital as they further their studies. They start making rounds the first week of school. I remember my brother needing to buy a lot of ties!

❝Docents are responsible for their own docent unit, comprised of 10 to 12 students. Year 3 students join a new docent unit and have individual offices at either the medical school or St. Luke’s Hospital. Docent units include Years 3-6 students, a clinical pharmacologist, an education team coordinator, a docent and other health care professionals.❞

We can implement quite a few of these into a strong teacher education program.

Get them into the classroom
Just like in my previous post, I believe students studying education need to be in the classroom right away. I love how the pre-med students were in the hospital making rounds their first week of college. What a great motivation! Integrating theory becomes so much easier when they see and experience teaching from the beginning.

Put them into teams
Teaching is no longer the isolated profession it used to be (or at least shouldn't be). Learning from each other and learning how to work with each other should be part of the culture.

Strengthen their academics
Truman University has experimented with requiring their education students to get their bachelor's in their content area or, for elementary ed students, in a related field like psychology and then get a master's in education. The students plan the program from the start as many of their undergraduate electives need to be education classes, especially elementary ed. I know that combining undergrad and grad isn't the answer for every program, but I do know that strengthening the academics overall is key.