Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Facebook, Bogus Timeline Posts, & Authentically Helping Others

If your Facebook timeline is like mine, rarely does a day go when you don’t see a post that asks you to share it because your act of sharing will somehow benefit the subject of the post. For example, today I found a post from a well-meaning friend asking me to repost a photo with a description that stated, “If this boy gets 100 shares he gets his heart transplant for free!” Most of us would immediately repost without question, after all, it’s the least we could do in situations like this.


If this boy gets 100 shares he gets his heart transplant for free!

But here’s the real problems with these posts: they are bogus just about every time. Or so it seems. Lately, when I’ve seen these posts, I’ve gotten into the habit of googling the bylines, and just about every single time an article from Snopes.com comes up telling me the post is bogus. Snopes usually provides a bit of additional background as well, such as who is really in the photos, when the post began circulating, and other variations of the post. Web sites like Snopes are excellent tools for helping sort out fact and fiction from the web.

Part of us wants to believe that we can help someone so easily with the click of a button. We may even justify our reposting of things like this because we say, “What can it possibly hurt.” But in some ways we are perpetuating a lie and just maybe giving people a false sense of having done something good for another human being when we’ve really done nothing.

But sometimes the real issue we have with the web is our own personal approach to it. We turn to the web sometimes to only verify the world as we wish it could be or want to it be. For example, we want to believe that there are people like this little child who need a heart transplant, and there are people like us who can help. Better yet, just maybe, these opportunities to repost these requests for help exist to give us an opportunity feel better about all the time we waste thumbing through these social media sites.

Perhaps the truth is simply this: you can’t really believe much of anything that comes through your social media feed, and if you want to really make a difference in someone else’s life, turn off Facebook and help someone face-to-face this holiday season. In the real world, need can be a bit more obvious and you don’t need Snopes to fact check. If you take a hard look at the real world around, I bet there’s someone whose needs are apparent, and we might have to do a bit more than simply repost.

Friday, December 5, 2014

NC to Adopt Curriculum with Ties to ALEC & Koch Brothers? Cause for Alarm and Concern?

In a recent post on her blog, Diane Ravitch called attention to the continued machinations of the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. According to a post entitled “North Carolina Plans to Adopt Koch-Funded Social Studies Curriculum,” the state of North Carolina is planning to adopt a “Founding Principles” curriculum develoiped by the Bill of Rights Institute, which is an organization with strong ties to both the Koch brothers and ALEC, and whose purpose is to teach and “promote a conservative interpretation of the Constitution.” (See here for more information regarding connections between Bill of Rights Institute and ALEC.)

ALEC has a solid presence in  the North Carolina Legislature for the past several years, so it isn’t surprising that it passed laws requiring a history curriculum that might be more in line with its conservative views. The fear I have is that with the implementation of this new curriculum, ALEC continues to solidify its hold on North Carolina and will begin to utilize public education as the means to indoctrinate students with its worldview. Rarely do these organizations seek balanced approaches to learning; most often they seek to stifle those who hold dissenting views. Let's just hope that's not the case in the Old North State.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cliques in High School and What We Can Do About Them

When most of us were high school students, we often encountered the cliques, the pecking orders, and groups we had to navigate around and through during our high school experiences. Many times these experiences left us with unforgettable memories and even scars as we were struggling to fit in. It turns out that we as educators might be able to do something about “teen cliquishness” after all.


Sociology researchers Daniel McFarland, James Moody, David Diehl, Jeffrey Smith, and Reuben Thomas recently published their findings regarding “Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure” in the American Sociological Review. Without getting too deep in the details of this study, or getting tangled in their terminology, it turns out that there might be things about our schools that contribute to the development of these cliques. (See Edmund Andrews excellent summary of this study’s findings “Stanford Research Explores Why Cliques Thrive in Some High Schools More Than Others."


First of all, it turns out the organizational setting, or “network ecology” of a school has a great deal to do with how cliquish that school is or becomes. "Schools that offer students more choices——more elective courses, more ways to complete requirements, bigger range of potential friends, more freedom to select seats in classrooms——are more likely to be rank-ordered, cliquish, and segregated by race, age, gender, and social status.” These “pecking orders, cliques, and self-segration are less prevalent in schools and classrooms that limit social choices and prescribe formats of interaction.”


According to McFarland et al., “Smaller schools inherently offer smaller choice of potential friends, so the ‘cost’ of excluding people from a social group is higher.” In addition, the structured classroom offers more guidance on student interactions with “prescribed routes” and an “encouragement to interact on the basis of schoolwork rather than on the basis of their external social lives."


Some of the other interesting findings of this study include:

  • Large schools tend to "accentuate teens finding friends more similar to themselves."
  • Larger schools offer a broader range of potential friends, as well as greater exposure to people who are different, but the "freedom and uncertainty spurs students to cluster by race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status."
  • A school’s openness to choice spurs cliques and social-status hierarchies.
  • "Schools with a strong focus on academics, where teachers have a hand in setting the pace and controlling classroom interactions, teenagers are less likely to form friendships based on social attitudes imported from outside the school. Friendships are more likely to develop out of shared school activities and similar intellectual interests."

McFarland does caution against the idea that students are better off in smaller schools with less choice. There is still more to learn on this issue. Still, as we ponder our school’s climate, we might want to think about the ways our schools are helping facilitate the division and cliquishness often found in high schools. For the first time, we may not be able to do away with cliques, but there might be some ways to foster a more inclusive culture of acceptance in your school.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Myth of the Powerful Teacher Doctrine: Excuse to Keep Funding Low

“The research-based truth is that the teacher effect (i.e., 10-20% of the variance in test scores) is not strong enough to supersede the powers of the student-level and out-of-school influences and effects (i.e., 80-90% of the variance in test scores) from one year to the next.” Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education


The current push by the Obama administration, Arne Duncan, and many state departments of education to solely tie student achievement to teachers, demonstrates that they are ‘true believers’ when it comes to the power of the teacher. That sounds magnanimous. It has the smell of being a strong supporter of teaching. In practice, it continues to erode the quality of our schools. Why? 


In defense of the massive increase in testing and the use of those tests in high stakes decision-making, these individuals point to one assumption: “The teacher is the single most powerful influence on student achievement.” All we need do is focus on the teacher. Ignore that teachers don’t receive adequate funding for their classrooms. Ignore the fact that the school has not been able to buy textbooks in over six years. Ignore the fact that the heating systems, the plumbing systems, and ceilings are all falling into disrepair and crumbling. In a word, under Race to the Top and Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waivers, schools have been given the go ahead and excuse to spend all the funding they can on testing and ignore funding for resources for the classroom and for professional development. In addition, schools have also been given permission to ignore the effects of poverty and other outside-the-school influences on achievement as well. This agenda of relently laying the burden of all learning on the back of the teacher has allowed states to continue to pour increasing amounts of money into testing and accountability systems with the belief that because the teacher is the most important influence of student learning, nothing else matters.


You will see variations of that statement, but this belief about teachers is the heart of what I will call the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine,” a statement of faith so many policymakers, politicians, and even educators have so recently declared allegiance to. It is used as an excuse to ignore and wall-off a whole range of societal problems, such as child poverty and lack of healthcare, because they do not matter as much as the teacher. It is also used the dimiss the need to adequately fund schools, because tied to this belief is another myth, “Just throwing more money at our education problems won’t fix them.” No one is advocating “just throwing money” at problems. What we do advocate is providing money for the resources needed to give our students a quality education. The cheap, mythological fix that all we need do is shift the entire burden of student achievement to the shoulders of teachers is simply throwing less money and creating many new problems. After all, why would anyone want to be a teacher in a system that demands results without providing the means to bring about those results?


So what is wrong with “The Powerful Teacher Doctrine?” We, as Americans, love our heroes, and we have created quite a few, and are quite fond of creating them when none exist; just look at our movie industry. Now, in the interest of school privatization, in the interest of dismantling the teaching profession, and in the interest of accountability promotion, it has been declared that achievement is to be balanced entirely on the backs of teachers. In doing so, we have created conditions in our education system so that teachers may demonstrate their “heroic efforts” against all odds to increase student achievement. We want our teachers succeed against powerful odds, so we create a system, both educational and socially, that forces heroic action. These conditions are created by our politicians, policymakers, state education leaders, who continue to use the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” to starve schools, classrooms, and teachers of funding, because all that matters is getting a good, heroic teacher in those schools in classrooms and student achievement will increase. Our education leaders and politicians keep education funding stagnant and then expect our schools and teachers to overcome the mess they’ve created.


It is no doubt that education funding remains stagnant. Just look at North Carolina as an example. I haven’t seen a new textbook in five years in our school, and that’s in any subject area. Our legislature this year provided a meager $25 million on the table for textbooks statewide. By the time that’s distributed to the schools, schools like mine only receive around $2,500. Now, how many textbooks can you purchase with that? Just look at the price of a popular science textbook. Take Glencoe’s current student biology text priced at $87.48. If you do the math, purchasing a class set of only 30 is $2624.40. A class set means that not every student gets a textbook either. This is a pure example of how our state politicians and education leaders are using the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” to keep education funding low in the area of textbooks. After all, the extension of this belief is, "The omnipotent teacher is resourceful and can find ways to teach students without resources.” All we need are good teachers in the classrooms and the resource problem will take care of itself.


This “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” drives other areas of funding as well. North Carolina spends a miniscule amount on professional development too. Teachers are often forced to pay out of their own pockets to attend national conferences in their teaching specialities because there is no funding for such activities. Once again, this belief that good teachers will find ways and resources to improve their instruction is the underlying belief. Many good teachers do find ways to learn how to improve their craft. But when one looks to the medical field or business, these organization invest in resources for professional learning. Not so in public education. The expectation is that teachers come out of college, fully-developed professionally and willing to pay for their own training if it is needed.


My whole point here is not to deny the impact a teacher can have on students in their classrooms. They do impact student learning. The problem I have with the “Powerful Teacher Doctrine” is that our politicians, policymakers, and some educators use it as an excuse to not adequately fund and provide resources needed for education. School leaders often buy into this argument so much, that they forget to advocate for increased resources. They make a conscious decision that “advocating for increased resources for my school or district” is outside my sphere of influence, so they give up. It is this very thinking that has put our schools in the starved conditions in which they operate.

Friday, November 21, 2014

When Accountability Becomes a Wall-Street Tactic of 'Cooking-the-Books'

What happens when all that matters are test scores? Just ask former El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia who was sentenced by a federal judge to three and half years for a test-cheating scandal(See “Former EPISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia Gets 42 Months, Offers No Apologies for Scandal.”) Don’t get me wrong, I don’t shift the blame for one minute away from from Garcia. As a leader, compromising your morals to cook the books is never excusable, even if there’s pressure from elsewhere to do so. Yet, Garcia’s actions are understandable in a corporate American culture where “cooking the books” in order to deceive investors is acceptable. After all, is that not what the financial meltdown was about? Was it not about Wall Streeters who hid toxic loans from investors while making exorbitant salaries? “Cooking the books” has become an American management strategy, so should anyone be really surprised when school leaders like Garcia, or Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall does just that to make their school systems appear to perform better than they really are?

In his book, Who’s Araid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst)Education System in the World, Yong Zhao blames the accountability system based on high stakes testing. True. This obession with test scores in the United States is unhealthy. Our politicians and state education leaders have convinced many school leaders that obtaining higher test scores is the ultimate goal and product of school systems. No wonder there are cheaters who cook the books of school accountability to make it look like their districts are performing better than they really are. Accountability in the United States is evolving into the same game that Wall Street bankers play; cook the books to make it look like things are better than they are.

But at the end of the day who are these who cook the books really fooling? Are our students really learning more than they ever had? Are we actually producing the best graduates we have ever produced? Is our graduation rate really any higher than it has ever been? In some ways, I am afraid accountability in education has become a game that educators play. In a culture where numbers ultimately matter more than kids, education has adopted the exact same thinking that Wall Street adopted; whatever you can do to make your bottom line appear better than actually is becomes acceptable. Instead of focusing genuinely on the kids, accountability is game of data manipulation.

Garcia and Hall did a great disservice to education by cheating. Their actions are inexcusable. Yet, there are other educators still playing the game of accountability, shifting data points around, in order to make it “appear that their school or district” is on top.

Wall Street's “book-cooking” tactics have no place in education. What we do as educators determines the course of young lives, and when our focus shifts from that to numbers alone, we too are as guilty as those who wrecked the economy, and who “cook the books of accountability” for appearances sake.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Desk: Interesting Blogging App for Mac Users

I have posted about some Mac blogging software options before. Recently, I stumbled upon Desk, which offers some features totally unlike the other blogging options available. Desk is an interesting writing app for Mac users. It offers writers a distraction-free place for writing blogposts. The main features of this app are:

  • Currently supports several platforms including: Blogger, Wordpress, Tumblr, Squarespace, Movable Type, and Typepad.
  • Clean, distraction-free interface.
  • Assorted writing modes such as full-screen, transparency, day & night, and floating.
  • Save your work locally or in iCloud.
  • Automatic backups.
  • Manage multiple blogs on multiple platforms.
  • Access and update existing posts and drafts.

Desk App Day & Night View


As a Mac user, I have been searching for blogging software, and Desk is an interesting and functional option.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

9 Reminders for School Leaders When Reviewing Value-Added Data with Teachers

“A VAM (Value-Added Model) score may provide teachers and administrators with information on their students’ performance and identify areas where improvement is needed, but it does not provide information on how to improve the teaching.” American Statistical Association
Today, I spent a little time looking over the American Statistical Association’s "ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment.” That statement serves as a reminder to school leaders regarding what these models can and cannot do. Here, in North Carolina and in other states, as school leaders begin looking at  No Child Left Behind Waiver-imposed value added rankings on teachers, they would do well to remind themselves of the cautions describe by ASA last April. Here’s some really poignant reminders from that statement:
  • “Estimates from VAMs should always be accompanied by measures of precision and a discussion of the assumptions and possible limitations of the model. These limitations are particularly relevant if VAMs are used for high-stakes purposes.”
  • “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores, and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes.”
  • “VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects—positive or negative—attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”
  • “Under some conditions, VAM scores and rankings can change substantially when a different model or test is used, and a thorough analysis should be undertaken to evaluate the sensitivity of estimates to different models.”
  • “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions.
  • “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.”
  • “The measure of student achievement is typically a score on a standardized test, and VAMs are only as good as the data fed into them.”
  • “Most VAMs predict only performance on the test and not necessarily long-range learning outcomes.”
  • “The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data.”
In this season of VAM-viewing, it is vital that informed school leaders remind themselves of the limitations of this data. You can’t take the word of companies promoting these models as “objective” and “fool-proof” measures of teacher quality. After all, they have those multimillion dollar contracts or will lose them if one casts doubt about VAM use. Still, a 21st century school leader needs to have a more balanced view of VAM and its limitations.

Value-added ratings should never be used to inform school leaders about teacher quality. There are just too many problems. In the spirit of reviewing VAM data with teachers, here’s my top ten reminders or cautions about using value-added data in judging teacher quality:

1.  Remember the limitations of the data. Though many states and companies providing VAM data fail to provide extensive explanations and discussion about the limitations of their particular value-added model, be sure those limitations are there. It is common to hide these limitations in statistical lingo and jargon, but as a school leader, you would do well to read the fine print, research for yourself, and understand value-added modeling for yourself. Once you understand the limitations of VAMs you will reluctantly make high stakes decisions based on such data.

2. Remember that VAMs are based on imperfect standardized test scores. No tests directly measure teacher  contributions to student learning. In fact, in many states, tests used in VAMS were never intended to be used in a manner to judge teacher quality. For example, the ACT is commonly used in VAMS to determine teacher quality, but it was not designed for that purpose. As you review your VAM data, keep in mind the imperfect testing system your state has. That should give you pause in thinking that the VAM data really tells you flawlessly anything about a teacher’s quality.

3. Because VAMs measure correlation not causation, remind yourself as you look at a teacher’s VAM data that he or she alone did not cause those scores or that data. There are many, many other things that could have had a hand in those scores. No matter what promises statistics companies or policymakers make, remember that VAMs are as imperfect as the tests, the teacher, the students, and the system. VAM data should not be used to make causal inferences about the quality of teaching.

4. Remember that different VAM models produce different rankings. Even choosing one model over another reflects subjective judgment. For example, some state’s choose VAMs that do not control for other variables such as student demographical background because they feel to do so makes an excuse for lower performance for low-socioeconomic students. That is a subjective value judgment on which VAM to use. Because of this subjective judgment, they aren’t perfectly objective. All VAM models aren't equal.

5. Remind yourself that most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1 to 14 % of variability in test scores. This means that teachers may not have as much control over test scores as many of those using VAMs to determine teacher quality assume. In a perfect manufacturing system where teachers are responsible for churning out test scores, VAMs make sense. Our schools are far from perfect, and there are many, many things out there impacting scores. Teaching is not a manufacturing process nor will it ever be.

6. Remind yourself that should you use VAMs in a high stakes manner, you may actually decrease the quality of student learning and harm the climate of your school. Turning your school into a place where only test scores matter, where teaching to the test is everybody’s business is a real possibility should you place too much emphasis on VAM data. Schools who obsess about test scores aren't fun places for anybody, teachers or students. Balance views of VAM data as well as test data is important.

7. Remember that all VAM models are only as good as the data fed into them. In practical terms, remember the imperfect nature of all standardized tests as you discuss VAM data. Even though states don’t always acknowledge the limitations of their tests, that doesn’t mean you can’t. Keep the imperfect nature of tests and VAMs in mind always. Perhaps then, you want use data unfairly.

8. Remember that VAMs only predict performance on a single test. They do not tell you thing about the long-range impact of that teacher on student performance.

9. Finally, VAMs can have large standard errors. Without getting entangled in statistical lingo, just let it suffice to say that VAMs themselves are imperfect. Keep that in mind when reviewing the data with teachers.

The improper use of VAM data by school leaders can downright harm education. It can turn schools into places where in-depth learning matters less than test content. It can turn teaching into a scripted process of just covering the content. It can turn schools from places of high engagement, to places where no one really wants to be. School leaders can prevent that by keeping VAM data in proper perspective, as the "ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment" does.