Mar 2009

Teach more content, please

I’m going to admit one of my biggest secrets here on the Net—I watch American Idol. OK, now that that’s done, I’ll proceed.

My youngest loves to sing and decided, after watching Peter Pan at the Muny, to be on stage some day. Since music is not one of my talents and she is still quite young, I asked a musically inclined friend for advice. He suggested just exposing her to a wide variety of music. I thought about that advice last season while watching American Idol; it was obvious to me that both of the two finalists were comfortable with an array of musical styles and had experience with them. Several of the top ten were true “just off the street” beginners, which really showed as they made it further in the contest. They were able to sing really well the style and songs they were used to but struggled when pushed out of their comfort zones and when asked to learn more songs each week. Those who had been performing for a long time (a lifetime, really) could pull from a wide background even if they knew the style the wanted to sing professionally. The winner needed to do more than just practice scales but to be familiar with the history of music and use that to help him develop his craft.

Likewise, kids need to know about the world around them to read. Practicing decoding is not enough. Studying vocabulary, even word etymology, isn’t enough. In fact, discussing the finer points of well written fiction isn’t enough. Kids need to be exposed to a myriad of topics and to experience a wide variety of activities to comprehend what they’re reading. The YouTube clip above demonstrates this well. (hat tip Matthew K. Tabor)

I can think of three ways to increase the content of what is taught in the elementary schools.

1. By upper elementary school students should be spending more time on content rather than process. As a booklover myself, I love the fiction that elementary teachers encourage and appreciate the variety of styles they require (mysteries, historical fiction, science fiction, etc.). I understand that kids pick up a lot about the world around them by reading fiction, especially if directed to certain books and genres. However, students rarely are required to read non-fiction except academic books such as textbooks and an occasional biography. I love Jay Mathew’s idea of assigning a non-fiction book to high school students and would like to see this start in elementary school.

2. Most schools use an incredibly high percentage of their minutes for reading with math taking up the lion’s share of the rest. Science and social studies are given substantially less time. Some teachers will make the most of their time, essentially double dipping it, by assigning books that relate to the science or social studies topic being covered. Well organized teaching teams can plan together to include other specials also; for example, elementary Spanish teachers can coordinate science or social studies topics when possible. Still, a more balanced schedule would give appropriate time for all areas, especially important in districts that can’t rely on the families to take the kids on a lot of vacations throughout the country (Williamsburg!) or make frequent trips to the Science Center. Adding time to the school day is probably needed.

3. Make the science and social studies MAP tests required, not optional. What gets tested gets taught.

I would love to hear other ideas. I especially liked the baseball and cricket examples in the YouTube clip above. Don’t miss it!

Teacher quality matters

If improving teacher quality is the number one (hat tip Lee Rakes) way to improve education, what are some ways districts and states can do that? I wish I had the magic answer, but I do think we have some examples for the right direction.

1. Support beginning teachers better. Mentor teachers are a start but not enough. One year my dad worked in a quasi-administrative position as a support for first year teachers in his district. The situation was ideal for those teachers because he was in a solely supportive role, not evaluative. He also observed experienced teachers who excelled in challenging situations the first year teachers were having so that he could share ideas. Since his position was districtwide, he facilitated conversations between teachers in different schools. I would take this idea and expand it to include the first three years of teaching. The position could be full or part-time for a master teacher, depending on the size of the district.

2. Provide more time for working collaboratively. Teaching in isolation can lead to burn-out and lack of growth. Working as teams, either as grade levels in elementary school or middle school or as content areas in high school, can help the more inexperienced teachers learn, invigorate the veterans and improve everyone. Time for cross-team work such as interschool or across the grades needs to increase also. Parents at my kids’ elementary school were surprised to learn that teachers only met with their counterparts at the other elementary schools twice a year and on specific topics. A subject such as math may not be addressed formally at all in a year. I, personally, thought the district was generous in giving them two times to meet—an obvious difference in perspective from an educational point of view than a business point of view.

3. Require meaningful professional development. I’ve been to workshops, conferences, classes and meetings that have made me a better teacher and ones that have been a waste of time. Targeted professional development though is necessary for any profession, including teaching. One of the reasons I chose my children’s pediatric group was that the doctors attended weekly lectures at Children’s Hospital. Doctors also must keep up by reading journals and attending lectures and conferences. I expect educators to do the same.

4. Change student teaching structure. Student teaching should be a one-year, paid internship for those who have already completed their degree. Schools have a commitment to student teachers and I like that my children’s pediatric group has residents, but as a parent I don’t like student teachers. They are put in charge of the class too quickly and make transitions hard on the younger kids. A one-year internship would give them a better feel for teaching in a more gradual manner. Teaching is a challenge; we should provide support instead of taking the “throw them in and see who makes it” approach.

5. Increase teacher pay. This is a capitalistic economy. To get a stronger teaching pool, we need to increase the pay. I’m not talking about the exceptions or individuals but about the profession as a whole. This may not be the only change needed, as Bill Gates said on Fareed Zakaria’s show last Sunday, but it is certainly one of them.

6. Increase difficulty level of teacher education schools. This is a whole area in itself, but if we are going to work on increasing teacher pay and making the profession more respected, the typical teacher ed program can NOT be the easiest school at the university. Period. Requiring teachers to act like professionals by keeping up with education research starts in teacher ed programs. The direction of education is often decided by politicians and “policy experts.” Too many teachers stay out of the discussions. Besides the theory, ed schools need to have their students involved in schools early, not wait until student teaching. (See posts Get them into the classrooms, Lessons from med school)

7. Change the salary schedule and change to a system in which districts can fire the teachers who have quit teaching.

Improving teacher quality and teacher ed schools is one of my passions. I would love to hear other ideas.

Charter schools as partners?

Is St. Louis moving to a “portfolio” approach to public education, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls New Orleans where charter schools make up over half of the public schools? Duncan said the model works as long as accountability requires the quick closing of poor performing schools.

Kelvin Adams, the new SLPS superintendent, brings a willingness to work with charter schools. In a recent interview on St. Louis on the Air on KWMU, he explained his rationale.

It’s not about charters schools or not charter schools but about what’s best for our kids.

He talked about sharing ideas about what works between charter schools and regular public schools and how they influence each other.

State Sen. Jeff Smith has been twittering about attending committee and board meetings for Confluence Academy.

At achievement subcommittee mtg for Confluence Academy, charter skl susan uchitelle and I co-founded in 2000. doing well but need 2 do bettr

At Confluence Academies board mtg. They're the charter skls I co-founded in 2000. We're abt to move into a new bldg, the stl pub library...

I haven’t focused on the charter schools, but he got me to thinking about the quality of charter schools here in St. Louis. So I thought I would do a quick mini-check. I randomly chose fifth grade comm. arts MAP scores to compare and 11th grade for the high school charter schools. Since Lift for Life only has middle school scores, I included its eighth grade MAP scores.

I can definitely see some charter schools than need some attention. Confluence, St. Louis Charter School and Lift for Life seem to be doing the best but with a lot of room left to improve. The CAN! charter school for high school drop-outs has been closed.

With KIPP coming to St. Louis to provide some upward competition for the charters and an openness to charter schools from the new SLPS superintendent, a dynamic partnership that incubates new ideas and improves education for all may be coming to the Lou.

I need a 20 on Callahan

Kelvin Adams, the new superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, said during an interview on KWMU’s St. Louis on the Air Monday that the SLPS would have a person at every school who would be responsible for monitoring attendance and a developing relationship with each family in order to improve attendance.

I immediately thought of this ad.

SLPS reported an attendance rate in 2008 of 88.9 compared to the state average of 94. This is a dramatic increase over the 2006 low of 80.3 but is still not high enough. Improving attendance is a first step toward improving quality, including test scores.

Change the salary schedule!

Christian Science Monitor has an article out on changing the structure of teacher pay (hat tip Abner Oakes tweet), which discusses giving bonuses for various incentives such as improving student performance or working at a high-poverty school. I have some more ideas.

First, as long as districts follow a salary schedule, teachers should get one-for-one credit for teaching in other districts; i.e., they should be given credit for teaching five years if they have taught five years when being hired at a different school district. Not giving one-for-one credit unfairly eliminates them from changing districts—they get “locked in” to a particular district after teaching for only a few years since they would have to take a pay cut to move to a different district. This elimination of competition between districts is bad for teachers. Only the wealthiest districts currently can lure experienced teachers by giving one-for-one credit since most districts do not. Let’s even that playing field.

Second, tenure needs to be much, much, MUCH! harder to get. It should not be automatic but should be something to work toward like at the college level. Professors apply for tenure going through an arduous process. I recommend the same for K-12 teachers.

Third, first year teachers should have a reduced teaching load to go with their lower salary. (I’ll expand on this idea in a post later this week.) As they gain experience and ability, they should gain responsibility, recognition and salary.

Fourth, non-performing teachers should be fired.

A more flexible salary schedule with teachers applying to move to different teacher levels equivalent to college’s instructor, assistant professor, associate professor and full professor would be a hybrid system between a strict schedule and open negotiation.

Do content areas play together?

I expect, and will pay extra for, my computer programs to integrate seamlessly, or at least as seamlessly as possibly, which is constantly improving. When software doesn’t work together, customers are irritated and pressure the companies to play nicely. (Right now chat protocols are not standard, which is quite irritating!)

Districts are slow to learn this lesson. They still see each department as individual “silos” in foreign policy speak or islands unto themselves. Yes, they may spout some PC integration speech, but the way curriculum is developed and then presented to the school boards individually does not lend itself to a comprehensive outlook but a segmented one. If a school board is asked to increase funding for one department, will it consider funding requests by departments who will give their curriculum reviews two or three years later?

The asst. supe for curriculum would act as a “czar” in Obama’s world (why are we using Russian terminology?), but I’m not convinced that that is enough. I’m not advocating for the dissolution of departments; rather, I would like to see a change of methods used in curriculum planning at a district level.

I chose Parkway by random and searched its Board Docs for math. It completed the last comprehensive math review (pdf) in 2006 and, as is traditional, will review it again in another five years with updates in between. In going over the report given to the board and posted on the Board Docs, no mention is given to how the math department is connected to the other departments. Nor is any mention given to how recommendations would affect other departments.

I decided to check if its neighbor Rockwood had shown wider thinking. Nope, and their latest math review (pdf) was just approved this January. However, I do like Rockwood’s Curriculum Advisory Council, which looks over completed curriculum reviews and makes their comments/suggestions before they are submitted to the board. The council is made up of teachers, principals, board representatives, parents and students (plus more including counselors, librarians etc.). While I would like for the council to have input before the final document stage, I think this is an excellent idea although it still doesn’t address my concern about looking at the broader picture. At least though the council wouldn’t be made up only of experts in that particular field who tend toward tunnel vision so they could and probably do ask questions about how the proposals affect the wider body. This is an idea that all districts should follow. Maybe we can start to at least build some tunnels between the silos.

Stay in school!

Today the Everyone Graduates Center issued a report (pdf) on graduation rates. Missouri was one of the states going against the trend and improving its rates. Yeah! While we didn’t make as great of gains as states like Tenn., we weren’t as far behind to start with either, so I would rather be in our position. In fact we are one of the states with the higher graduation rates. Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin have the highest graduation rates.

As Missouri increases its graduation requirements, which go into effect for the class of 2010 (e.g. 3 math courses instead of 2 and 24 credits instead of 22), I wonder how that will affect the graduation rates. States such as Alabama improved grad rates while tightening standards, so it can be done.

Defining graduation rates seems to be a problem as various states have traditionally defined it differently. In fact the percent for Missouri given in the report mentioned earlier is different (and lower) than the percent given on the DESE website. Just trying to do some preliminary research is frustrating, to say the least.

Whatever the definition used, the city of St. Louis has decreasing graduation rates instead of improving (62 percent in 2004 to 49.8 in 2008). Because of the sheer size of the district, helping the city with its problem helps the state.

Longer school year?

Arne Duncan is looking at longer school days or years to help improve our country’s education and to help our students compete in a global economy in which many countries such as India and China go 20 to 30 days more a year. I’m sure students won’t like this idea, I doubt teachers will, and I’m not confident parents will either. However, I think that we should consider a longer school year.

I was at a committee meeting last night at my children’s elementary school in which the principal was telling us about a decision made to change the allocation of minutes. Every addition of time is a trade-off. Adding more minutes to the school day isn’t necessarily the best decision since young children need some time to play, but a longer year would ease the minute turf war and reduce summer retention problems.

The parents at the meeting kept asking about when the teachers were able to meet together district-wide by grade level. Teaching has traditionally been a solitary profession but is increasingly team-oriented as planning is done in groups. To facilitate this districts need to provide time for teachers to meet in various teams. Some districts do better at this than others, but all of them need to do more.

School year length ranges from 190 days for Farmington to 167 for Wheatland in Hickory County and Appleton City in St. Clair County. The St. Louis city and county districts have a narrower range from 174 to 178 with Ritenour as an outlier at 182 (good for it!). (Numbers from DESE)

The length of school day in St. Louis county and city ranged from 6.6 in Kirkwood (with quite a few districts at 6.5) to Jennings at 6.0. Jennings has a shorter day and one of the shorter years, but other districts mixed the two. For example, Clayton has one of the longer years but shorter days to allow for after school teacher meetings. Some of the districts such as University City and Bayless had a longer day at 6.5 hours but relatively shorter year at 175 days. Kirkwood, Ladue and Ritenour have students attending the most hours. Jennings and Hazelwood are at the bottom.

The number of hours taught ranged in the state from a high of 1209.5 (Centerville in Reynolds County) to 1014.5 (Calhoun in Henry County).

I predict that the we don’t have a significant change in the next couple of years but a quickening of the incremental pace we’ve been having in the increase of time as pressures mount on districts to improve. The state will need to come in and establish minimums for the rural areas that don’t face the same competition.

Fire those non-performing teachers!

So, should we be able to fire teachers? Of course. I can’t stand the current system and don’t think it helps teachers or students at all.

Focusing on getting rid of teachers in the first three to five years before they’re tenured and no longer able to be fired is counter-productive. This is the time when schools should be doing everything possible to help new teachers—those first few years are tough, tough, tough.

Requiring districts to keep poor teachers is detrimental to students because they are not learning and to teachers because it lowers the professional standards. Having had a math teacher who, literally, sat at his desk day by day and did not teach AT ALL (except the many, many days he was being observed), I feel for kids who have teachers who have quit working. This would absolutely not be allowed in any other profession. Why in teaching?

More help for beginning teachers coupled with the ability to fire truly non-performing teachers would go a long way toward improving learning.

Parents as experts?

Photo by Brittany_G

When I go to the doctor, I expect to work with someone in a partnership to figure out what is wrong or to assess my current health situation. I don’t want a doctor who is offended when I suggest possibilities or when I do research on the net. I respect his or her experience and expertise, but I know my body. The best doctor/patient relationship is a partnership. If it isn’t, I’ll go elsewhere. There may be times in an emergency situation when I might rely more heavily on the doctor’s expertise, but usually if I don’t agree or don’t feel I’m being listened to, I’ll seek another opinion (or just avoid going—not a good alternative). Unfortunately, too many doctors still have the “god complex,” and bristle at any give and take.

School districts are facing the same philosophy tug-of-war. Educators want parents to be more involved in their kids’ academic lives, but not everyone agrees on their role in the school district. How much say do parents collectively have over curriculum? Does a district appoint a parent to the curriculum committee to give lip service to including parents’ views or do they actively seek and incorporate their input? Do the teachers and administrators have a “we know better—we’re the professionals” attitude, or do they value parents as equal experts with a different perspective?