Now That’s What I Call Achievement!

In a recent post, I wrote about Jacob Fialkoff singing the national anthem, unrehearsed and before a large audience, as an example of an achievement that made Jacob aware of both his capabilities and possibilities. I then recommended that we replace standardized tests with that kind of opportunity for all students and, by doing so, redefine student achievement.

In this post, I want to do more than suggest; I want to offer a blueprint for redefining student achievement. The blueprint is a set of criteria to assess high school students at the conclusion of a course. It begins with setting goals for the development of the students as learners and thinkers and then giving them the strategies for developing in the ways we determined are best for them and then, at the end of the course, asking the students to pull it all together and create something new with both those strategies we have taught them and the content we have explored. A surefire result of what the students will produce is that they will amaze us, just as Jacob amazed his audience.

An excellent veteran teacher ran into my office after administering his first exams with  that set of criteria and exuberantly proclaimed, “I can’t believe my students did what they did! I didn’t know they could do it!” I have seen that same reaction from innumerable teachers.  Nothing fires teachers up more than to see their students achieve.

Here is the blueprint for redefining student achievement:

                                  CRITERIA FOR MIDTERM AND FINAL EXAMS

Exams that assess student learning require that students: 

  1. Use critical thinking to identify, examine, and analyze the controlling concepts of the course.
  2. Apply and integrate knowledge and learning strategies mqdeveloped during the semester.
  3. Collaborate to increase individual achievement by having their ideas broadened and deepened through dialogue with others.
  4. Think creatively to explore ideas or problems that pull the course together.
  5. Engage in a new challenge which is a learning experience in itself.
  6. Demonstrate individual achievement.
  7. Reflect upon and assess their own development as learners.

High school students of all abilities and in various school settings have demonstrated  achievement with this kind of exam. In a school district in which I supervised 33 high school English teachers who taught students of all abilities, from those who struggled as readers and writers to those who were in AP courses and earning college credit from the University of Connecticut, all the students took exams, based on those same criteria. I read all 99 exams every semester and responded at length to the teachers about the ways in which they required their students of differing abilities to fulfill each of the criteria.

A wonderful result of the agreed-upon exam policy was the energetic and creative discussions about teaching and learning that came about among us as we talked together about creating those exams and grading them. I have copies of those exams and am happy to sharek them with other districts eager to pursue this redefinition of student achievement.

This kind of exam has redefined student learning in both suburban schools and urban schools, even ones termed “failing schools” as determined by standardized test scores.  In one of those schools termed a “failing school”,  a veteran, highly regarded teacher, after teaching her first semester with curriculum goals of developing the students as learners and thinkers and grading her first set of exams that followed the “Criteria for Midterm and Final Exams”, said to me. “I now know what it is to teach.”

Working with teachers, talking with teachers, and respecting the professional knowledge of teachers – that’s how we can redefine student achievement. Hiring standardized testing companies that require us to teach only what a standardized test can measure  and implementing the low-level Common Core standards not written by anyone who teaches has been a short-cut, but a short-cut to nowhere. It’s now time to abandon that short-cut and engage teachers in redefining student achievement. The blueprint of the “Criteria for Midterm and Final Exams” points the way.

MLK Speaks To Educators and Parents

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting and text
The function of education is not to make students successful takers of timed, standardized tests which correlate with only one factor: the socio-economic status of the test takers’ parents.
Education is our best means for creating learners and thinkers who are impassioned to imagine and create the world anew.
We can design schools in which the curricula is learning centered and character building, but first we must put aside the mind-numbing Common Core and assess students in ways other than by timed standardized tests that serve only one purpose: to make money for those who produce the tests.

Questions For The New CEA President – 5

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Bob Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Bob Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education and Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield. I have asked them twelve questions about issues regarding education that face us as a state. I have previously posted four sets of the candidates’ answers. Here are their answers to the fifth set of questions, which all deal with issues of funding:

Jeff Leake

10. What are your thoughts about education funding in Connecticut, including Governor Malloy’s current budget proposal to provide tax breaks through 529 plans (CHET) for funding private K-12 education? Using Education Savings Accounts to fund private school tuition and other private education costs is a terrible idea and will further deprive our real public schools with loss of funding

a. I addressed this question in a prior answer – the state is still not doing its part in adequately funding education in CT;

b. Allowing 529 plans to be used for funding any k-12 education is a terrible idea – these tax-sheltered accounts will only drain the necessary resources for schools and other public services;

c. In a report entitled Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, the authors assign CT a C-grade, because CT is still not putting the resources necessary in the school systems with the highest levels of poverty.

11. Do you have thoughts about how Connecticut should address the pension-funding crisis?

a. We must ensure that our teacher pension funding is fixed for good. That will mean re-amortizing the debt accumulated over decades of under-funding;

b.After the re-amortization, our pension board must continue to monitor our investments and work to maximize returns;

c. The state must commit to an ironclad commitment to paying what is required into the teachers’ fund each and every year;

d. I am aware that the Treasurer has other thoughts on this situation.

Bob Smoler

10. What are your thoughts about education funding in Connecticut, including Governor Malloy’s current budget proposal to provide tax breaks through 529 plans (CHET) for funding private K-12 education?

 I am for anything that puts more funds into public education without inappropriate strings attached. The key here is that money contributed to education through 529 plans should be in addition to increased funding from the state, not instead of the State’s funding. As mentioned above, public education should not be viewed as a line item in the budget to be cut, but rather a cherished asset of the state to be continually cultivated and invested in

11. Do you have thoughts about how Connecticut should address the pension-funding crisis?

 I addressed this question in a prior answer.  The CEA already has plans to request that the State re-amortize their pension obligations and that will help.   My first and foremost focus is to make sure the state funds their obligations to the current defined benefit pension plan. We owe it to our current and soon-to-be retirees to make sure the promises they were made are kept.

In addition to the above, I am intrigued by looking at a combination of guaranteed issue whole-life insurance products, social security, and defined contribution plans to meet more of the financial needs of teachers while potentially taking some of the financial risk off of the state. Teacher needs have changed and the state’s situation has changed too. I am very committed to finding a win-win situation where teachers’ financial needs are met during their active years and after retiring while the state’s obligations are also made more manageable.

 

Tomorrow, I will post the candidates’ answers to my last question: What have been your accomplishments over the past three years in your role as either CEA vice-president or president of a local chapter of CEA of which you are most proud?

 I also will post the brief concluding remarks of both candidates.

Tune in tomorrow for the GRANDE FINALE of interview questions! 

 

Questions For The New CEA President- 4

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Bob Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Bob Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield.  I have asked them twelve questions about issues regarding education that face us as a state. I have previously posted three sets of the candidates’ answers. Here are their answers to the fourth set of questions which all deal with the teaching profession:

Bob Smoler

7. How will you address the declining number of young people pursuing a career in education?

Many years ago, there was a severe nursing shortage and the industry developed a number of creative incentives for people to enter the field. I mentioned some of what I’d like to see happen in question 1, but we must recognize that teacher burnout, violence against teachers and the increasing risk to a teacher’s reputation as a result of a possible DCF referral or social media attack by a student or parent also plays a role in whether someone will enter and stay in the teaching profession.   The profession has also been under attack by sections of society that are anti-union, pro charter school and /or just looking to reduce the cost of public schools.

To counteract the above, the state needs to enact protections for teachers so becoming a teacher doesn’t involve putting your physical and emotional well being in jeopardy. Secondly, teachers need to take charge of our profession by making our voice heard in public forums and in the election process. Everyone wants to join a winning team and if teachers are viewed as respected and part of the solution, people will want to join the profession.

We also must recognize that many teachers are women, often with young families. Job sharing arrangements, paid time off to care for a sick child or parent, ability to continue your insurance at the standard teacher cost share rate after FMLA time has expired are all steps that could be taken to make the profession more family friendly.

8. Do you have any recommendations for the current way teachers are evaluated in Connecticut?

Teachers are in the business of helping student grow academically, emotionally, and ethically. We are striving to develop individuals that are capable of maximizing their own personal potential and contributing to society to the best of their ability. Teachers should be judged based on student growth over a period of time, not based on a given test. As mentioned before, student advancement in the key 21st century skills is part of the equation. As important, students need to learn how to advocate for themselves, how to handle the ups and downs of life, how to appreciate people from all backgrounds and thought processes. Personal development needs to be as celebrated as academic development. As a mentor, teachers play a critical role in all of these areas and teachers should be evaluated on how much they advance their students in each arena. I am on my district’s TeVal committee and am pushing to truly revolutionize the evaluation process.

9. What are your thoughts on teacher education programs in Connecticut, including the Relay Graduate School of Education?

Either teaching is going to remain a profession or it is not. Reducing standards for teaching certification, as the Relay Graduate School of Education does, is just going to allow less-qualified teachers into the classroom and degrade the type of education students will receive. From my perspective, teaching certification standards must remain high, and the state needs to create encouragements for individuals to get into the profession and meet those high standards.

 

Jeff Leake

7. How will you address the declining number of young people pursing a career in education?

  1. We need to craft a new vision of a teaching profession that is led by teachers and ensures teacher and teaching effectiveness;
  2. We need to imagine a profession built on the concept of collaborative autonomy, where teachers both teach and lead;
  3. We must identify, encourage and support minority candidates (high school and college) in order to change the racial makeup of our teaching force in CT;
  4. We must counter the negative narrative and demand the respect that our professionals deserve.

 8. Do you have any recommendations for the current way teachers are evaluated in Connecticut?

  1. With the help of strong union/teacher membership on the professional development and teacher evaluation committee, districts have developed evaluation systems that are comprehensive and that contribute to enhanced teacher practice and student learning and growth;
  2. In districts that have developed evaluation plans with limited union and teacher input, teachers describe limited confidence in the ability of the evaluation system to help them achieve continuous growth.

9. What are your thoughts on teacher education programs in Connecticut, including the Relay Graduate School of Education?

  1. Relay Graduate School of Education is not a true teacher education program but rather a factory for the charter school chains;
  2. Individuals interested in teaching as a career should enroll in institutions accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

A New Year’s Resolution: Justice For Kids

As we are thinking up our New Year’s resolutions, how about justice for our kids?

National standards do not make for justice. Multiple choice testing does not make for justice. Ignoring the effects of race and poverty on children’s ability to learn does not make for justice.

Kids’ backgrounds are not equal. Their test scores will never be equal. But their education can be equitable if we help all students to grow from where the are and to develop fully as engaged learners and strong thinkers .

Intentions matter. Let’s resolve in 2018 to educate all kids, not just test them.

Please watch this two minute video:

The Role Of The Artist in Trump-time

The result of the 2016 Presidential election silenced me. Listening to Meryl Streep’s speech when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes Award gave me back my voice.

Since November 9, 2016, I have questioned the point of writing about public education anymore. Why should I continue to criticize the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts when what I find harmful in them for students is now being normalized by the President-elect? How could  I continue to criticize standards that limit the amount of literature students read when we have a President-elect who boasts of the fact that he doesn’t read?  How could I criticize standards that recognize only predetermined right answers instead of critical or creative thinking  when we have a President-elect who says he has all the answers and doesn’t need dialogue with others to explore possibilities or revise his thinking? How could I continue to advocate for excellent public schools for all children as the bedrock of a democracy when that President-elect nominates for U.S. Secretary of Education someone who wants to destroy public education?  It all seemed futile.

Then I heard what Meryl Streep said about artists and journalists and knew that it applied to educators as well.  You can listen to her speech here:   https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=video+of+meryl+streep+speech+at+golden+globes+on+january+9%2C+2016#id=59&vid=c81a5c9dd5861ac45c2c81b50d1964b9&. Or you can read it below.

I love you all, but you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend, and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year. So I have to read. Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press, just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.

But who are we? And what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in — no — in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.

They gave me three seconds to say this. So an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like, and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work. But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good. It was — there was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.

Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence insights violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account –  to call them on the carpet for every outrage.

That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedom in our Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists because we are going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

One more thing. Once when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something, you know, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia said to me once, “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.” 

And that is what I will do. I will stop being defeated. I will end my two-month silence. I will let my broken heart energize my art as a teacher and as a  teacher of teachers.

I will go back to speaking my truth. I know what good education is and will advocate for it. I know what the art of teaching entails. I am passionate about children having the best possible education because I know first-hand how education that privileges diversity, independent thinking, and social responsibility can transform lives. I will not stop because of the disrespect, violence, and bullying that now surround us. I will not stop empathizing with the children in this country who so need us educators – especially now.

I will ask of myself what Meryl Streep asked of journalists: How can I hold power accountable and safeguard the truth. The truth I want to safeguard is that the purpose of public education is to build the minds and hearts of all students by developing their potential as engaged learners and increasingly independent thinkers in every way imaginable. To do that, I must go back to opposing the Common Core Standards, designed by entrepreneurs and testing company personnel instead of educators. I must also go back to opposing the evaluation of students by standardized tests because that kind of assessment reduces learning for all students, especially those who need engagement and stimulation the most. I must go back to opposing charter schools because they take  money away from the vast majority of children without notable results, and they encourage segregation. As Meryl Streep urged journalists, I must hold precious my responsibility to play a part in taking this democracy to its highest ground.

Meryl Streep is right. The oligarch-in-chief and the oligarchs with whom he has surrounded himself have incredible power and have the privilege of wealth. But we educators, like the actors and journalists, have our art. We can teach. We can speak the truth about kids, about learning, about diversity, about excellence.  With that art and with one another we can fight back.

Let’s get busy.

Closing The Real Achievement Gap

There‘s a lot of talk in Connecticut about closing the achievement gap between affluent students who are predominately white and poor students who are predominately black or brown, but there have been no effective actions taken and none are on the horizon. Instead, Connecticut gave up its own well-founded state standards and adopted the narrow and inadequate Common Core Standards, called them rigorous which they are not, and gave students standardized tests to measure their achievement of those quite limited standards. Then Connecticut waited for the test scores to see if the impoverished would catch up to the affluent. They haven’t and they won’t.

The poorer the Connecticut students, the lower their test scores. Standardized test scores, always and ever, are correlated with the family income of the test takers so it makes no sense to address the achievement gap by analyzing standardized test scores. The achievement gap that makes sense to address is the gap between those who succeed in their academic goals and those who do not, between those who graduate from college and those who do not.

That gap is a staggering one. For students who attended Connecticut public high schools and began college, the graduation rate is: 24.4% for black, 21.4% for Hispanic and 53.8% for white college students. Similarly, only 19% of Connecticut’s economically disadvantaged students who attend college earn a college degree as compared to 54.2% of their more advantaged peers.

Colleges and universities across the country have recognized this achievement gap in which the rich are sure to graduate and the poor are not. Nationally, 90% of college freshman born into families in the top income quartile graduate while only 25% of those born into the bottom half of the income distribution graduate. 

Colleges and universities are taking effective steps to solve the achievement gap among their students, but  Connecticut is not taking any effective steps to close the K-12 achievement gap. Colleges and universities are successful because they ask a question much different from the question that Connecticut is asking. The Connecticut question is: How can we reduce the gap in standardized test scores? The question that the colleges and universities are asking is: What can we do to improve student achievement?

As in so many things, asking the right question is the secret to success.

Research psychologists at Stanford University headed higher education in the right direction in answering the college and university question. They have for years been exploring the premise that students are often blocked from living up to their potential because of their fears about not measuring up to their peers and their doubts about their ability. They found that lack of achievement is often rooted in students’ feelings of not belonging to what they see as a community of achievers and considering themselves less academically able than others.

In one of the Stanford University studies, researchers provided students at an elite Northeastern college with a message about belonging. They informed them that everyone at their college feels overwhelmed and not smart enough and asked them to react in writing to that idea. This exercise had no apparent effect on the white students who took part in the experiment. But it had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study. The experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned grades in the top quarter of their class and cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

This study was replicated at a private Midwestern university with students who were the first in their family to attend college. The result was that the achievement gap between students who were the first in their family to attend college and the students whose parents had attended college was reduced by 63%.

In another Stanford University study, 288 community-college students enrolled in developmental math were randomly assigned, at the beginning of the semester, to read one of two articles. The control group read a generic article about the brain. The treatment group read an article that laid out scientific evidence against the theory of a fixed intelligence that cannot grow and change. At semester’s end, 20% of the students in the control group had dropped out of developmental math and, therefore, out of college, compared with just 9% of the treatment group. This intervention cut the community-college math dropout rate by more than half.

At the University of Texas at Austin, a chemistry professor, David Laude, worked with the same hypothesis as the Stamford researchers. He identified 50 students who had lower SAT scores, were economically disadvantaged, and the first in their families to attend college. He taught them the exact same curriculum and gave them the exact same tests as the 400 students in his other class. The difference was that he involved the fifty students in a program which gave them both a sense of belonging to a group of achievers and strategies for developing themselves as learners. The result was that this group of disadvantaged students, who were 200 points lower on the SAT than students in Laude’s larger section, had exactly the same grade distribution as the students in the larger section. The impact went beyond that chemistry class. This group  of 50 students who, statistically, were on track to fail, returned for their sophomore year at rates above average for the university as a whole and three years later had graduation rates that were above the university average.

Laude has now been appointed senior vice provost, charged with improving the four-year graduation rate. He instituted a program, based on the same premises as his chemistry program, for 500 students who are low income, first members in their family to attend college, have lower SAT scores, and a graduation rate of 20%. These 500 students are given $5000 a year scholarships for which they are required to be in leadership positions on campus, participate in campus internships, and attend weekly lectures on developing strategies for learning. Through these activities, students gain a sense of themselves as part of the community of achievers and learn how to learn.

Also at the University of Texas at Austin, David Yeager, a psychology professor and former Stanford researcher, has been commissioned to address the dropout rate among poorer students with lower SAT’s and the first in their family to go to college. As part of freshman orientation, he asked students to read articles that address their sense of belonging in an academically challenging environment and that discuss the brain as malleable and able to grow and change its capability with effort. With this simple intervention, the University of Texas cut in half the achievement gap between advantaged freshmen and freshmen who are black, Latino, first-generation, and/or poor.

Many colleges and universities are instituting programs to address the particular learning needs of students who are poor and first in their family to attend college. Brown hosted the first Inter-Ivy First Generation Student Network Conference in 2012, drawing students from across the country. Harvard, Duke, Georgetown, Brown and Yale are involved in a multi-year study in which they interview first generation students from low income families (usually an income under $40,00 year) to ascertain their needs. These programs for first generation college students seek to give students  both a sense of belonging and strategies for learning.

What can we in Connecticut learn from higher education? How can we close the real achievement gap? How can we close the gap between our children who become well-educated and accomplished human beings and our children who become dropouts from the world of education and accomplishment?

Here is a plan to close Connecticut’s K-12 achievement gap:

First: End high stakes standardized tests. With standardized tests, test prep becomes the curriculum, and all students – black, brown, white, poor, and affluent –  are deprived of real learning. Standardized tests also deprive the poor, the black, and the brown of a fair chance. Standardized tests hurt all children.

Second: Ask educators to design performance assessments which demonstrate what students can do, how they can think, how they learn, and what they can create in each discipline.

Third: Require each school district to create a curriculum which teaches students strategies for learning in a developmental progression from K-12.

Fourth: Hold all of us – teachers, school administrators, school boards, teachers unions, the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Connecticut State Board of Education, legislators, the governor – to the same standard. That standard is: What are you doing to bring all the students for whom you are responsible into the community of achievers?

Then, and only then, will Connecticut close its achievement gap.