The Deprofessionalization of Teachers – Thanks to the Wisconsin Legislature

I would like to begin by stating that teaching is a profession. It is career that is difficult and it takes years of training to become a great educator. Most teachers that I know and work with are professionals and have spent time, energy, and money to become an educator. By the way, when I say professional, I mean a person engaged or qualified in a profession. But it seems to me that many people are attempting to treat teachers as amateurs or de-professionalize the career. Case in point, the Wisconsin State Legislature and specifically the Joint Finance Committee.

The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved a teacher certification provision as part of a package of K-12 budget items. The provision would allow anyone with a bachelor’s degree to be hired and licensed to teach sixth- through 12th-grade English, mathematics, social studies or science. It goes on to add any person with relevant experience — even a high school dropout — could be licensed to teach in any other non-core academic subject in those grades. Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) proposed the provision. She said she pursued the measure to help rural schools find and retain qualified teachers in hard-to-fill subjects.

Not only do I find this provision absurd, but also a slap in the face to me and any other professional educator who attained a college degree specifically for education. I earned a Bachelors of Science degree in elementary education from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a Masters of Arts degree in science education from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Texas A&M University, but I guess according to the Wisconsin Legislature it was a waste of time and unneeded.

I must disagree with this provision and the politicians who are backing it. From my continued work in education I have come to understand that teachers need to be educated and trained to become good professional educators. The profession of teaching is an art, combined with the science of understanding of how people learn. This is not information that is commonplace or knowledge that comes from life experiences. What is even more shocking to me is that the Wisconsin State Legislature has the same access to information and research that I do when it comes to education and teacher training, but I thought I would take some time now to help those politicians out. Hey, I know politicians are busy, so I pulled some information about what educational experts say about teacher certification and the history of that process.

Mohr (2006) stated that “for almost all of the last century, teacher preparation has been located within higher educational institutions; this is not the case anymore.” (p.1). Shortages of teachers and the forecasts that there will be more shortages in the future have produced a staggering number of initiatives which are producing classroom teachers on a fast track (Hart, 2004). These alternative programs have also caused some universities to disband their teacher education programs or to modify the programs to compete with these shorter duration alternative programs (Mohr, 2006). Sometimes these shortened time frames for obtaining certification come with less time spent in classrooms observing professional educators allowing for little reflection time. Now just imagine that there are no “fast track” certification routes needed, because any person can become a teacher without any training at all.

Imre and Akkoc (2012) found that “observing real classroom settings and reflections on these observations helped prospective teachers to develop their PCK [pedagogical content knowledge]” (p. 224). In the mid 1980’s Lee Shulman was credited with introducing the term for the knowledge that teachers needed to be successful in the classroom. “Pedagogical content knowledge,” referred to the knowledge of the specific nature of the subject matter needed for teaching (Shulman, 1986). Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) blends together the teachers’ understanding of common student errors, how to deal with these errors, what topics students usually find difficult, how to represent information in ways that are most successful and useful for teaching specific information (Hill et al., 2003). The use of this term, pedagogical content knowledge, also suggested that what an educated adult would know about a certain subject is not enough to be able to effectively teach that subject to students. To extrapolate this point, Hill et al. showed results providing evidence that content knowledge for teaching mathematics was much more than just the mathematics knowledge an average educated adult would use in day-to-day events. Imre and Akkoc (2012) also suggested adding extra time to certification programs for prospective teachers to discuss lessons and observe multiple teaching approaches to better understand the underlying procedures occurring in the classroom.

Wang, Lin, Spalding, Klecka, and Odell (2011) stated that “quality teaching from a cognitive resource perspective is related to the knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions teachers bring into the profession” (p. 331). Hollins (2011) went even further by citing six essential knowledge and skills necessary for quality teaching. They include

(1) knowledge of human growth; (2) deep understanding of the learning process; (3) deep understanding of the organizing ideas for a discipline; (4) an understanding of pedagogy; (5) an understanding of how to identify and develop appropriate classroom assessment approaches; and (6) an ability to maintain a strong professional identity. (p. 397)

If schools expect to employ high quality teachers, is it realistic to think that alternative certification programs should include all of these skills in fast-track platforms? Wiseman (2012) did not believe this was accurate. Alternative routes to teacher certification “allowed new teachers to enter the classroom with degrees in their teaching field with precious little, if any, pedagogical preparation” (p. 88).

Now just imagine if teachers enter the classroom with NO professional teacher training or educational background because of the way that the Wisconsin Legislature is attempting to change the certification process. Would you want your students to attend a class taught by a person who has had no formal training in the area of education, where the person in charge of educating your child has no understanding of pedagogy? Let me as this in another way. Would you want your child’s teeth cleaned by a person without any training, but they do have a bachelor’s degree in communications? It seems like an odd question, but dental hygienists must be certified and have attended classes to earn certification to clean people’s teeth. So what the Wisconsin Legislature is saying is that people who work on your children’s teeth must be certified, but those people who work with your child’s mind do not. THAT IS FRIGHTNING!

After saying all of this, I only have one question for the Wisconsin State Legislature, Rep. Mary Czaja, and Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, and that question is simple: Why? Why do you want to do this? Also, I don’t want a political answer; I want a truthful answer that is backed up with some sort of research or data that would explain this line of thinking, because I cannot think of a rational answer. If we are to believe Rep. Mary Czaja, that she is proposing this change to allow rural school districts to retain and find teachers, this makes me even more afraid. This is basically stating that we just want a warm body in the classroom, because a teacher is not a professional who is specifically trained to do a job and do it well, but any adult can do this. Tell that to the students who might have these adults in their classroom and how things could have gone differently if a fully trained educator was leading the class. Are we as a society OK with just finding someone to watch over students and not truly excite, engage, and educate them? All students deserve better than what Rep. Czaja seemed to state with her words.

I have an open invitation to any member of the Wisconsin Legislature supporting this provision, Rep. Czaja, and Governor Walker: let’s talk about this. I would be happy to meet you any place, any time, any date to discuss this provision and at that time, maybe you could answer my simple question: Why?

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Hart, L. (2004). Beliefs and perspectives of first-year, alternative preparation, elementary teachers in urban classrooms. School Science and Mathematics, 104, 79-88.

Hill, H., Ball, D., & Schilling, S. (2003). Developing measures of teachers’ mathematics knowledge for teaching. The Elementary School Journal, 105, 11-30. doi: 10.1086/428763

Hollins, E. R. (2011). Teacher preparation for quality teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 62, 395-407.

Hsieh, F. J., Law, C. K., Shy, H. Y., Want, T. Y., Hsieh, C. J., & Tang, S. J. (2011). Mathematics teacher education quality in TEDS-M: Globalizing the views of future teachers and teacher educators. Journal of Teacher Education, 62, 172-187.

Imre, S. Y., & Akkoc, H. (2012). Investigating the development of prospective mathematics teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge of generalizing number patterns through school practicum. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 15, 207-226.

Maccini, P., & Gagnon, J. C. (2000). Best practices for teaching mathematics to secondary students with special needs. Focus on Exceptional Children. 32(5), 1–21.

Mohr, M. J., (2006). An assessment of preservice teachers’ mathematics knowledge for teaching: middle grades mathematics. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University-College Station.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Research, 15(2), 4-14.

Wang, J., Lin, E., Spalding, E., Klecka, C. L., & Odell, S. J. (2011). Quality teaching and teacher education: A kaleidoscope of notions. Journal of Teacher Education, 62, 331-338.

Wiseman, D. L. (2012). The intersection of policy, reform, and teacher education. The Journal of Teacher Education, 63, 87-91.

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How Grades can Actually Improve Student Achievement

Grades are a funny thing to me as an educator. For parents and students, they are the “end all be all” of what happened in my class and what I gave the student. From my perspective as the teacher, they were the “end all be all” of what the student did in my class. These are two very different views of grades, and yet I still feel that grades are an antiquated system that is in need of a much needed update. Traditionally students receive either a letter grade (A, B, C, D, or F) or a percentage grade out of 100%. When a student receives a grade of a ‘B’ or an 84% on an assignment, what does this really tell them about their understanding of a concept? The student may think they are above average or that they have the information mastered, or more likely, they think, thank God I passed. In my opinion traditional grades like these tell the student and parents little about their understanding!

These types of traditional grades only lets the students know their overall performance on an assignment or assessment. It does not let the student know what they have mastered, where they need improvement, and most importantly, how they can improve. Of course if you have a high achieving student who spends time in metacognition, then they will analyze their personal understandings and determine where they need to improve. And as educators, we know that all of our students do this (did I lay the sarcasm on thick enough?). So how can we as educators use grading in a different way that will help students to improve and also take ownership of their learning?

One way is to shift from traditional grades to standard based grades. Standard based grading allows students to see where they need improvement and with some added formative feedback, the students can see how to improve. Standards based grading is not new and you can even view a short video that gives a synopsis here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7m4762pjH8&app=desktop Basically teachers determine what is important for students to learn or understand, which in most cases come from state standards or the Common Core standards, and then develop assessments (projects, assignments, quizzes, tests, etc.) that would allow students to showcase their understanding. This should sound familiar to many of you if you have read anything from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins as it is based on their Backwards Design plan.

Next, the educators develop a rubric for the objective that is being assessed. This sounds like a lot of work, and to be honest, it can be. But I feel that this is necessary to ensure that the students understand where they are going, where they are at now, and how to reach the next level. Let’s say that we are a 5th grade, reading teacher in Texas. Texas developed their own objectives known as the Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS), so let’s pretend that we are working on TEKS 5.3A – Compare and contrast the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction. This then would become the goal for all of our students that they would be able to compare and contrast themes from different fictional stories.

Looking at the objective, I would really want my students to be able to compare and contrast. But what does that really mean? Many times educators have objectives with these types of verbs and it is vital that the teachers understand what they mean so that students can work towards them. I would want to sit down with a team of teachers and define what it means to be able to compare and contrast. This is also a great activity to do with educators for all of the objectives they are responsible for, as it allows the teachers to feel more comfortable with the objectives and the expectations that they bring. For help with defining these verbs, I found a great resource that came from the International Baccalaureate program and that you can access here: http://www.binghamton.edu/gse/teacher-education/pre-service/edtpa/command-terms-IB.pdf Now that the teachers have determined the expectation for the students, this becomes the beginning of the rubric. I would set up my rubric in the following manner:

1-2 Points The student is able to identify the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
3-4 Points The student is able to paraphrase the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
5-6 Points The student is able to summarize the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
7-8 Points The student is able to compare and contrast the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.

I would then work backwards to determine what each descending aspect would mean. This could be as simples as changing the verb. Look at my example above to see what I came up with. Remember, I do not believe this is perfect, but it would be a great place to start and by working with other educators, I am positive that we could create a working rubric that is of high quality.

The rubric is not enough for a student to receive a grade (now a 4 or 6 or whatever) and know how to improve. Yes, they know the ultimate goal and where they are performing, but it is up to the educator to provide formative feedback to help the student understand what to work on to move up to a higher score. For our example, let’s say a student received a 5 on their assessment covering themes. This lets the student know that they are able to summarize themes, but are not quite to the level of comparing and contrasting. If the student is given feedback that lets them know that they can determine the major points of a stories’ theme, but they need to be able to give an account of the similarities and differences between two (or more) themes, referring to both of them throughout. As a student, I now know that I need to relate the two themes and that I need to practice looking at both themes and determining how they are alike and how they are different. Of course, the student will also need support from the teacher to do this, but at least they are not in the dark about how to improve. Can we say the same thing if the student just got a ‘B’ or an 87% back? I think not! This is crucial to allowing students in on their education. There is no need for a student to have to guess at how to become better, it is up to the teacher to assist in this.

You may be now saying, “Yeah that is great and all, but I work in a school that gives traditional grades and these grades represent GPAs that are needed for students to be accepted to colleges.” I hear you and I couldn’t agree more. But that is the great thing about developing the rubrics; you can then also create a conversion chart to go back to the traditional grading system. One example of this would be the following:

  • 7-8 = A
  • 5-6 = B
  • 4 = C
  • 2-3 = D
  • 1 = F

Or you could format it any other way to meet your district’s grading system.

I will also say that by shifting to a more standards based grading system combined with formative feedback, your parent-teacher conferences and conversations will be much more helpful and worth while. The reason being is that the parents will already know where their student is struggling and how to help them improve. There is no more guesswork as to how to get to a higher grade. It is all in the rubric, along with the formative feedback. Now your conversations with parents can focus on actionable steps that the student could practice or resources to go over to help the student improve their understanding and performance. I also believe that this type of system will allow your students to take more ownership of their learning because there is now a roadmap for them to follow. And isn’t that what we truly want for our students anyways? I know that is a goal for me.

If you have any questions about this, please leave feedback and I will comment back. Also, if you have suggestions on how to improve this system, I would love to learn from you as well. It would be great to hear from an educator who attempts this and then lets me know how it went and what they would modify or change. We can all learn from each other, just as students can learn from our peers. We don’t have to go it alone in our classrooms!

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Top-Down? Why Teacher Professional Development Needs to be Bottom-Up

In my last post I wrote about some ways to improve professional development for educators and I have been discussing professional development with some colleagues. From these conversations it dawned on me that most of the PD conducted in school districts and schools in general are created in a top-down format. What I mean with top-down is that the idea, goal, or strategy of the PD sessions comes from the district administration building or the administrators at the schools. I truly believe that this format has a lot to do with why we do not see systemic change occurring with teachers and other educators. Due to this top-down format, I believe that teachers view PD as being another thing that they have to learn and use, that was sent to them by the “higher powers” living in “ivory towers” that do not truly understand what is going on in “real” classrooms.

So as educational leaders, what can we do to change this paradigm? Well, I believe that we need to allow teachers to really think about where they need improvement and what would the best way to progress. This allows teachers to be more metacognitive about their teaching practices while at the same time treating educators as professionals. Educators ARE professionals and need to be treated as such; they come with extensive background knowledge and experiences that need to be incorporated into the professional learning communities. This aspect will allow educational leaders show teachers that we are all on the same team and we all are working towards the same goal: educating every student we come in contact with, so that the students can reach their ultimate potentials.

Now I wish I could take credit for coming up with these ways of improving professional development first, but these ideas have been around for a long time. For example, Thomas B. Corcoran came up with a list of guiding principals for teacher professional development way back in 1995. Corcoran’s list of guiding principals was:

  • Stimulate and support site-based initiatives. Professional development is likely to have greater impact on practice if it is closely linked to school initiatives to improve practice.
  • Support teacher initiatives as well as school or district initiatives. These initiatives could promote the professionalization of teaching and may be cost-effective ways to engage more teachers in serious professional development activities.
  • Are grounded in knowledge about teaching. Good professional development should encompass expectations educators hold for students, child-development theory, curriculum content and design, instructional and assessment strategies for instilling higher-order competencies, school culture and shared decision-making.
  • Model constructivist teaching. Teachers need opportunities to explore, question and debate in order to integrate new ideas into their repertoires and their classroom practice.
  • Offer intellectual, social and emotional engagement with ideas, materials and colleagues. If teachers are to teach for deep understanding, they must be intellectually engaged in their disciplines and work regularly with others in their field.
  • Demonstrate respect for teachers as professionals and as adult learners. Professional development should draw on expertise of teachers and take differing degrees of teacher experience into account.
  • Provide for sufficient time and follow-up support for teachers to master new content and strategies and to integrate them into their practice.
  • Are accessible and inclusive. Professional development should be viewed as an integral part of teachers’ work rather than as a privilege granted to “favorites” by administrators.

Notice how most of these principals all relate back to teacher as professional and more of a bottom-up design and much less of a top-down model. These guiding principals also relate back to my last post about professional development to include engagement, differentiated for teachers, collaborative, and being on going.

So if we know that this is the best way to improve teachers and thus improve opportunities for students, why haven’t things changed? It is an interesting question, but as many people know, change in schools happen at a glacial pace. But I also believe that not changing relates back to how change is initiated at schools; it is done in the same way that PD sessions are developed – top-down. The entire model of PD needs to be revisited to initiate the needed change to improve all who enter a school. Where should this change begin? In my opinion it needs to begin at the administrative building (central office) of the district. The people who are making decisions about PD for teachers usually reside in this building and thus need to use the guiding principals stated above and begin treating teachers as professionals. Survey the teachers, talk to the teachers, and do a needs assessment with teachers, so that the teachers can decide what is needed and how best to improve their personal teaching practices.

It is time that educators take control of their learning and time for teachers to be treated as professionals. The time has come to move away from top-down professional development and switch to a more bottom-up design. Yes, the administrative building staff has a wealth of knowledge about curriculum, instruction, assessment, English language learners, technology integration, and many other facets of education, but the mode of delivery needs to be changed. Every time a new training is developed and brought to teachers, I hear teachers talk about this being “one more thing added to their plate” which by the way is way too full. It is time for administrators and teachers to learn from one another, it is time for teachers to embrace being professionals, and it is definitely time for educational leaders to say “bottoms up”!

Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (1995, June). Helping teachers teach well: Transforming professional development. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Corcoran.

 

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Do I Have to Attend? Improving Professional Development for Educators

I attended a conference last weekend and found myself daydreaming and not paying attention in many of the sessions and as I walked out, I wondered if that was the best use of my time. I do not believe that what the presenters were sharing was unimportant, but I sure was not engaged in the topics. These sessions are all too common at educational conferences, but what is even scarier is that these types of sessions have become the norm for teacher professional development. Unfortunately, most teachers can share multiple examples of professional development sessions where an expert was at the front of the room talking about important educational information and yet the teachers walk out wondering why their time was wasted. Why is it that many teachers feel that their time in professional development sessions is wasted or that they do not get anything “real” out of these sometimes-long trainings? I do not believe that it is the information being shared in the PD sessions, but how that information is disseminated to the attending educators. As educational leaders, we must ensure that any time teachers are in a room for PD, there time is used wisely; a teacher’s time is too precious to waste.

When I look back at the best PD sessions that I have either participated in or lead, there are some shared commonalities between them. By sharing my experiences, I am hoping that more PD sessions can be planned to increase student achievement, no matter what the topic of the session entails. The list of “best practices” for teacher PD sessions is not very long, but I believe that each of the following qualities is vital for a positive and worthwhile learning experience. I believe the following are essential for teacher professional development sessions: Engaging, Differentiated, Collaborative, and On-Going. Each of these best practices can be utilized in any training session, for any topic. And if used to plan PD sessions, I believe that each session an educator attends will be successful.

Engaging

Having a session be engaging for participants seems so simplistic and basic that it shouldn’t need to be mentioned. But think about how many different sessions you have participated (or not participated by attended) where you found yourself unengaged. No learning can occur if the audience is not engaged into the session. Teachers must see the benefit in what is being presented and what the possible outcomes are for their professional lives. I also believe that the teachers are like the students they work with; they want to know “when will I use this?” It seems ironic that most teachers hate to hear a student ask this, but are the first ones to ask it in a PD session. But it is a fair and very important question, one that the presenter should have an answer to quickly and that answer should be directly related to the teachers in the audience.

Engagement can look different depending on what is being presented and the characteristics of the audience. Thus, PD session presenters must plan for engagement by the educators in the audience. This means that the presenter must learn about the audience and determine the best ways to get the audience’s attention and keep it. The main ways that I have attempted to keep the audience engaged is by asking high level discussion questions, humor, and connecting the presentation directly to their school and their classrooms. This means that I have to do some homework on who I am presenting to and I am hoping that I am presenting on a topic that can help push the teachers and the school towards a common vision. There are of course many other ways to engage an audience of educators and to see more you can go here: http://www.tero.com/engaging.html

Differentiated

Educators have heard over and over again how they must strive to differentiate their lessons for their students. So why then have so few PD sessions taken into account differentiation for the teachers? When presenting a PD session, it is vital to meet the teachers where they are. When I say, “meet the teachers” I am talking about having multiple ways for the teachers to access the information that best meets their needs. This includes planning sessions for digital learners and the more traditional learners. I have found in my experiences that most teacher groups are not ready to go entirely digital, but they are moving (slowly) in that direction. I must ensure that all of the teachers in the PD session have access to the information and that they are able to access it in a way that is familiar to them. For example, if I attempt to have all of the educators communicate on an online platform, but not all of the participants feel comfortable with this, then most of the time could be spent training the teachers on using the technology tool, instead of what the original goal of the training.

But to truly differentiate, I also need to include information that is “just in time” for the teachers. For example, when teachers are working on learning a topic and are wanting to push further or go deeper, the information becomes very important and the teachers are more likely to want to learn. This “just in time” information could be a journal article, a short video clip, or as simple as an answer to a question. But because it is “just in time” information, it is much more valuable to the participants and the session becomes modified depending on the teachers’ needs.

Collaborative

Collaboration is the aspect of PD sessions that is often overlooked. I believe the main reason that many PD sessions for teachers lack collaboration is due to time constraints on the session and the teachers’ day. Thus, the model of lecturing drives many PD sessions or as most teachers call it “sit and get”. The problem with this is that most of these learning sessions are one shot deals and if educators do not have a chance to discuss how to best implement the practices, will the practices truly be used? Doubtful, but by allowing teachers to discuss what is being learned and discuss often, there is a better chance that the teachers will actually attempt to use the lessons learned or strategies taught in PD sessions.

Another reason why collaboration is fundamental to PD sessions is due to how much knowledge and experience each of the teachers brings into the trainings. Teachers do not come into training sessions with a blank slate; they have a background that includes years of teaching and also years of learning about their craft. It is important that teachers are allowed time to take in some new information and then make connections to what they already know. This also allows ideas to flourish, as teachers take the new information and come up with fresh ideas of their own. When I have allowed teachers time to collaborate during PD sessions, it is not out of the ordinary that I pick up new ideas from the teachers, which I then share with other educators. This process of teachers taking new learning connecting it to their own understanding of solid educational practices is paramount to PD sessions, but could not happen if teachers do not have the time to collaborate with their peers.

On-Going

The final practice is also the one that I feel is missing from most of the PD sessions that teachers participate. As I mentioned above, many of the PD sessions for teachers are a one and done process. This format is set up for failure, as teachers attend a session, no matter how great it is, and then they begin to use whatever was presented. But if the teachers never again come back together to see how things are going, the topic simply fades away. I do not believe this happens because teachers do it on purpose, it is just that teachers become so overwhelmingly busy, that the training becomes lost in the shuffle or becomes just another binder on the shelf. To ensure that this doesn’t occur, the training cannot simply be a one and done, but it must continue to occur again and again throughout the school year and possibly longer.

This does not mean that every teacher must come together every week and partake in a session that was as intense as the first one, but the teachers should have the opportunity to work collaboratively throughout the year to discuss how things are going and to support each other as the session’s information is implemented. This could also include monthly webinars with the presenter or by district personnel who have experience with the topic. It could also incorporate watching short videos throughout the year and having discussions with fellow teachers to determine the next best steps. The campus leaders should also work with the teachers to help with the implementation throughout the year by providing the necessary materials or resources needed by the teachers for a successful and on-going process. Campus leaders should also include the PD topic in their teacher review forms or have the teachers include the topic in their professional goals for the year. This is not meant to turn the leadership team into police officers forcing the implementation, but if the topic is important for student success, then it would make sense that all educators are utilizing it.

I am hoping that these four “best practices” are found to be beneficial to educational leaders and those who present PD sessions for educators. This is by no means the end all, be all of professional development, but I feel that if these practices were implemented in all teacher PD sessions, the outcomes and implications would be of greater significance for teachers and thus students. Isn’t that what teacher PD sessions are for; improving teacher practices and student achievement? I believe it is and I am thinking that most other educational leaders do as well. The National Education Association wrote about the state of PD for teachers in 2013. I believe that this article also gives readers an insight as to how to improve professional development for educators. You can find that article here: http://neatoday.org/2013/04/29/no-more-sit-and-get-rebooting-teacher-professional-development/ I strongly recommend reading that article and utilizing the best practices I have shared to improve your next PD session for your teachers.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Connecting Algebra to the Students’ “Real World”

Many students going through public schools in the United States often utter the question, “Why do I need to learn this stuff?” This is an interesting question that many teachers or parents answer by saying, “you will use it when you are older” or “you need it to pass the quiz/test/homework.” But these answers fall short of getting to the heart of why certain topics are important for students to not only comprehend, but to understand. One such subject that falls into this category is algebra. Many high school students sit in class just doing or remembering enough to get through the class without actually internalizing or understanding what was happening in the classroom. Too often, the teachers, who are expected to be the experts in the area, themselves, do not fully grasp the importance of understanding algebra.

Usiskin (1995) attempted to give reason for why algebra is important to learn by stating that:

Without a knowledge of algebra, you are kept from doing many jobs or even entering programs that will get you a job; you lose control over parts of your life and must rely on others to do things for you; you are more likely to make unwise decisions, financial and otherwise; and you will not be able to understand many ideas discussed in chemistry, physics, the earth sciences, economics, business, psychology, and many other areas (p. 31).

This answer seemed to be just a more detailed explanation of the one given by teachers and parents for years. Although Usiskin (1995) did go on to explain the necessities of algebra more in depth and attempted to connect it to the students who might be in an algebra class. For example, he matches the concept of linear equations to understanding and calculating a phone bill, slope to how fast a car can change speeds, exponents to credit card bills and other issues in finance, quadratics to physics formulas, and logarithms to the Earth sciences. Usiskin also describes in detail how algebra can be useful in deductive arguments to establish truths. Algebra could be used to determine if something is always true, not just relying on many examples, which does not prove a statement to be true.

Usiskin (1995) goes on to state that many people use algebra because it can make things easier to understand and can bring enjoyment through discovery, and proving results. He also adds that many adults attempt to avoid algebra at all costs, by using computations that can take much longer and is comparative to “people who go to a foreign country but do not know enough of the language to converse with native speakers in that country” (p. 37). These statements seem to hold true for most adults using algebra or other forms of mathematics, but it still seemed like better connections should be made for the students in grades kindergarten through twelfth deserve better explanations and more connections to their “world”.

But before connecting it to the world of the student, why is algebra so important in today’s society and in the realm of education. Spielhagen (2011) noted that algebra is the cornerstone to mathematics literacy, but went on to say that the instruction for students should be authentic algebra instruction. This authentic algebra instruction should not be one that weeds students out by only allowing a select few to enter the world of algebraic thinking. Instead, algebra should be used to increase equity to bring forth increased excellence in the performance of students. Algebra is a vehicle that must be used to get more students accepted to four-year colleges (Spielhagen).

So how did some school districts attempt to have more students take algebra? One way was to mandate all students in the eighth grade to take algebra. This is what occurred in Chicago, but it failed to achieve the goal of raising test scores. Even though this was viewed as a failure, many other school districts began implementing the same format with the same outcomes and also creating another problem. Many students who failed algebra in the eighth grade were assigned to repeat the course in high school, where many students failed again and some even did worse the second time around (Spielhagen, 2011).

This problem of where algebra fits into the American mathematics curriculum is still creating confusion and arguments in the field. There is no national curriculum for all to follow, but even with some standards set in place, Spielhagen (2011) identified the states’ rights argument for sabotaging the “algebra for all initiative” (p. 5). This is a strong sentiment that is taken head on by Cueves and Yeatts (2001), in the Navigating through Algebra series. This series attempts to show how algebra permeates through all levels of mathematical learning and is very important for students to use and learn about from a very young age.

According to Cueves and Yeatts (2001), “algebra is dynamic and a necessary vehicle for describing a changing world” and is “a natural extension of arithmetical thinking” (p. 1). But much must be done to how students are introduced to algebra and how this learning leads to higher level understandings about the power of algebra. The algebra curriculum must be coordinated from grades K-12 and must be well articulated for educators to understand, so that each stage is developmental and coherent for students moving through the grades (Cueves & Yeatts). The students, who go through each grade level building upon previous knowledge, must be continually challenged to learn and apply algebraic thinking in new situations. These situations should be anchored to the lives of the students, including use for algebra in the schools, home, and other life settings. Instead of more concepts for students to memorize, a few “big ideas” should be selected as the focus of study, and these ideas should transcend the grade levels.

Beginning in the elementary grades, teachers need to expose students to a variety of algebraic concepts in the classroom. These concepts should be presented in a fashion that they make sense and connect to what students already understand or at least know about; some of these concepts and methods are described by Schwartz (2008). Some of the basics of algebra that Schwartz described were equations and equality, inequality, variables, integers, and graphing on a coordinate plane. The way that teachers could present these algebraic concepts to young students include using items that students are familiar with such as balances or number lines.

For the areas of equations and inequalities, Schwartz (2008) describes using a balance to demonstrate each item. The equal sign is placed above the balancing point or fulcrum of the balance to represent that each end of the equation must be the same for it to balance perfectly. This opens up the idea of having more them one term on both sides so that students do not get the misconception that the equal sign is a symbol that instructs students to perform an operation. This would lead the students, with some instruction, to the understanding that there could be infinite many correct responses to equal a certain value. For example, 5+4=3+1+5 while at the same time 9=3+1+5, etc.

Moving from equations to inequalities, students could use the same format of a balance to understand the concepts of greater than or less than. Students could manipulate both sides of the balance to determine if quantities are greater than or less than another quantity by viewing which way the balance tilts. Students have many misconceptions when it comes to inequalities, because they assume that they can be manipulated in the exact same manner as equalities (Prestege & Perks, 2005). These misconceptions have been linked to students not understanding the meaning of what inequalities represent and how they are affected by multiplication and division of negative numbers (Blanco & Garrote, 2007). This deeper understanding is what educators must look for and aim for. This understanding should begin in the younger grades for future success in higher-level algebra courses.

Educators can then focus on the concept of representing a quantity with a variable. Utilizing the concept of the balance, students could begin to realize the usefulness of a variable or come to appreciate “a variable as a place holder” (Cueves & Yeatts, 2001, p. 3). Students can begin by representing unknowns with an empty box that needs to be filled by some quantity to make the equality or expression true. In algebra, it is important for learners to understand that there could be multiple answers that could make a mathematical statement true. For example, a student might be asked what number is less than 19, or visually as      >19. A student might respond with 18 and they would be correct, but educators “eventually want learners to understand that any number that is less than the stated number can fulfill the requirements” (Schwartz, 2011). The empty box could then be replaced by a letter variable, and students could make connections that they represent the same idea.

Students could also begin working with algebra by developing an understanding of patterns and relationships. Educators should begin with young children by incorporating concrete manipulatives that the students can see and touch. One example comes from Hatfield, Bitter, Edwards, and Morrow (2005) that explains a type of function machine that the teacher can use to spark interest in the concept of pattern. The teacher begins with a shape that is a specific color. The teacher drops the shape into the function machine (a box with other shapes inside) and pulls out a different object that has either changed in shape, size, or color. The students watch as other examples are put into the function machine with their specific outcome. Students then work to explain what the function machine is doing to change the original shapes all in the same way. This then leads to students creating their own function machines, but instead of shapes, numbers are put into the machine with different outcomes. Students can then attempt to describe what is happening to change each input value.

These relationships and patterns can then be organized so that they are easier to understand or view. “By using tables, charts, physical objects, and symbols, students make and explain generalizations about patterns and use relationships in patterns to make predictions” (Cueves & Yeatts, 2001, p. 2). From these initial tables, students could then begin using coordinate planes to graph coordinate pairs to discover the relationship between the ordered pair. This graphic representation is important because it “allows us to find an output number that is associated with any input number without having to actually do the computation for that pair of numbers” (Schwartz, 2008, p. 257). This could then lay the foundation for older students when the concept of rate of change is introduced.

When students are beginning to move into using integers, educators can involve using a number line to help students visualize about what is really happening when integers are combined (Schwartz, 2008). Another method for allowing students to work with integers is to introduce a game involving a letter carrier (Hatfield et al., 2005). This game allows one student to be a letter carrier and delivers either checks (positive integers) or bills (negative integers). The other students start with a certain amount of money (usually a positive amount) and then begin to receive checks or bills from the letter carrier. The students then must calculate how much money is left when they receive each type of delivery. The concepts of adding a positive integer (checks) or adding a negative integer (bills) could be explored and discussed. To further the exploration, the letter carrier could be prone to mistakes and must retrieve letters that were delivered to the wrong places. The letter carrier could then come back and take away checks or bills to allow students to subtract using positive and negative integers.

The same game, utilizing the letter carrier, could be developed for multiplication of integers also. The letter carrier could deliver multiple checks or bills at the same time, and the students would then need to calculate the total loss (negative) or gain (positive) received at the time of delivery (Hatfield et al., 2005). To incorporate division with integers, Schwartz (2008) suggests taking the idea of bills and checks a step further. The example given describes a situation where a person owes $36 dollars to four different people. This idea could be represented as -36÷4. This allows students to work with dividing a negative integer by a positive integer. Schwartz then describes how students could then take the $36 dollars that they owe and view it as 36 individual IOU’s. Next the students would be asked to make piles that would represent negative three dollars. This could be represented by -36÷-3 to show that there are in fact a number of piles greater than zero, or a positive integer.

As for dividing a positive integer by a negative integer, Schwartz (2008) admits that, “there may be some highly unusual situation that occurs that would be represented by a positive number divided by a negative number, but we do not see such situations in everyday life” (p. 255). Thus the best way to explore this situation would be to have students make connections between multiplication and division to determine if the quotient would be positive or negative.

All these situations bring to light what the outcome of learning algebra should be for students, “being able to represent generalized relationships” (Schwartz, 2008, p. 261). Algebra education needs to reflect this ideal by incorporating methods that best teach algebraic concepts in context, focus on learning, focus on the mathematics in elementary grades leading to algebra, create a substructure that assists all students leading to algebra, and investigate what is happening in each classroom to determine what the teacher is doing to help students understand algebra (Hatfield et al., 2005; Schwartz, 2008). Educators and policy makers must remember that algebra is easier to learn at a younger age and practically anyone can learn it (Hatfield et al., 2005).

So if algebra can be learned by anyone, why have so many students failed in courses offered in schools? Robert M. Capraro (2011) made some insights into why this is happening, especially in the state of Texas. Capraro argues that to improve mathematics education, a regular tetrahedron should be used as a model. A regular tetrahedron is a shape where “all sides are the same and no matter how it falls, it has a stable base or foundation on which to build” (Capraro, 2011). Each face of the tetrahedron represents a facet that builds quality mathematics instruction. The first face represents a rigorous curriculum that was developed as a scope and sequence for educating students in mathematics. Each previous concept builds upon the next so that full understanding is the goal to be achieved.

The second face of the tetrahedron is that assessments should be developed around what the content being taught. This just makes sense, due to the fact that how would an assessment be deemed valid, if it were testing information the students have not come in contact with? Capraro’s (2011) tetrahedron’s third face is representative of quality teachers in each and every mathematics classroom. He explains that, “teachers are the linchpin or keystone to mathematical success for children” (Capraro). Educators need the appropriate knowledge and understanding of mathematics to support high levels of education in the classroom with different levels of students.

Finally, the fourth face of the tetrahedron represents models of education that “offer evidence for improving mathematical learning” (Capraro, 2011). Models should be useful to teachers but at the same time build a professional learning community within the school district. The model should build upon the teachers’ strengths to develop higher levels of expertise and mathematical knowledge to support mathematical education in the classroom. This face also incorporates the partnerships between school districts and colleges of higher learning so that the gap can be bridged between high school and the university level.

Looking into the future of algebra education in the United States, it seems that a couple of items come to the forefront. First, teachers should be introducing algebra to younger students, even beginning in the lower grades of elementary schools. Focus should be on a couple of “big issues” that encompass algebra at all different levels. Students should also work with algebra in context of their world. Connect lessons and content to what students already are familiar with and have the students uncover how algebra is useful in their lives. Last, educators and policy makers need to understand what it takes to create a system for mathematical learning to occur in the classroom. This system cannot be viewed as one-dimensional, but a tetrahedron with multiple faces that allows focus to shift from one to the other, working in harmony on one ultimate goal, giving every student the best opportunity to understand and embrace algebraic thinking.

Blanco, L.J., & Garrote, M. (2007). Difficulties in learning inequalities in students of the first year of pre-university education in Spain. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 3, 221-229.

Capraro, R.M. (2011, September 15). Testimony given to the State Board of Education, Austin, Texas.

Cuevas, P., & Yeatts, K. (2001). Navigating through algebra in grades 3–5. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Hatfield, M.M., Bitter, G.G., Edwards, N.T., & Morrow, J. (2005). Mathematics methods for elementary and middle school teachers. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Prestege, S., & Perks, P. (2005). Inequalities and paper hats. Mathematics Teaching, 193, 31-34.

Schwartz, J.E. (2008). Elementary mathematics pedagogical content knowledge: Powerful ideas for teachers. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Spielhagen, F.R. (2011). The algebra solution to the mathematics reform: Completing the equation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Usiskin, Z. (1995). Why is algebra important to learn? American Educator, 19, 30-37.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Everything I Know about Formative Assessment, I Learned in Kindergarten

For some reason I was thinking about one of my undergraduate classes today and a question that the professor asked us. He asked, “What would every teacher love to know about their students before school began?” It is an interesting question and I will admit that no one in our class was able to give the answer that the professor was looking for. Of course, all of us in the class had never taught a day in our lives, and were just beginning to learn the ins and outs of education. Yet when the professor gave his correct answer, I don’t believe I totally understood. You see, the professor said that every teacher would love to know what each student knows and understands so that the teacher wouldn’t have to waste time going over material that the student already comprehends. At that point in my life, I truly did not understand teaching and learning and did not appreciate what a teacher does every day. Today, I feel I still don’t totally understand teaching and learning, but I attempt to increase my knowledge daily, and I am beginning to appreciate that answer that he gave years ago.

Just imagine, everyday your students come into your classroom and hand you an index card that shows what each student knows and understands, or if we are using our imaginations, before every student goes to bed, they send you an email or a text listing all of the information they know and just for kicks they also include their misconceptions. Think about the power that would come from that knowledge of your students! You could base all of your lesson plans on your students’ prior knowledge and set up activities for each individual child to ensure that everyone is growing and learning. Of course, this only happens in our wildest fantasies (man, if this is my wildest fantasy, I am a nerdy teacher), and all of our students come with different levels of understanding, different amounts of prior knowledge, and of course distinct misinformation that have created misconceptions that are harder to get rid of than herpes (ok, not my best example, but I hope you get my point). So what are teachers supposed to do? You guessed it; attempt to determine what each student knows through formative assessment.

As easy as it sounds to use formative assessments, I truly believe that this is the area where most teachers are at a loss. When I talk about formative assessment, I am thinking of the following definition: “assessment(s) carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning” (Shepard, Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, & Rust, 2005, p. 275). In my experience most educators do not truly understand what formative assessments are or how to use them. I think that this issue for teachers has occurred for a couple different reasons. For one, teachers have to collect so many grades from their students so that they can fill out a report card to send home to parents. These grades usually come from assessments that students take to show what they know. So yes, teachers use assessments all the time, but these assessments are not truly formative assessments because the information that comes from these assessments are rarely used to direct, modify, or improve teaching or learning.

Another reason that I believe teachers do not utilize formative assessments as they should, is because once teachers hear the word assessment, they instantly think of a test or a quiz, usually and unfortunately a multiple-choice assessment. Why? My guess is that this has come about in the age of high stakes testing, where most of the assessments are multiple-choice. So teachers immediately think of multiple-choice tests when the work assessment is mentioned. This is most troubling to me, as there are so many ways to assess students’ understanding than just through tests, especially multiple-choice tests. Think about how much more information you could glean from a student just by talking to them. Weird, right? We are supposed to talk to our students? YES! Talk to your students and find out what they know by asking questions, listening to their responses, and then ask follow up questions to learn even more about your students. There are many different types of formative assessment strategies or models. If you want to learn about other types of formative assessments, David Wees put together a presentation that shows 56 different types. You can find his presentation here.

Even if teachers used the different types of assessments that were in the example, they still wouldn’t be formative assessments. The reason I say this is that it really isn’t the type of assessment that the teachers uses that makes it formative, it is what the educator does with the information learned from the assessment that makes them formative. The word formative is defined as: serving to form something, especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development. So what should educators “form” with the information from the assessments? Their next lesson, their next small group presentation, their next whole-group presentation, the next reading assignment, the next problem they are going to model, etc. Teachers need to use the information from the assessments to improve their teaching, which should also improve the learning occurring for each student. Also, each student will have different needs. I know that you are shocked that all of your students know different things, but why are we not using this knowledge to help all students? There are many excuses for why we as teachers don’t do this for every student, but if we all share the vision of education as being one where all students learn, we should utilize information we know about each student to modify our teaching to enhance their learning.

The teachers who I have worked with that are the best at using formative assessments to enhance their teaching have been kindergarten teachers. Yes, I said KINDERGARTEN TEACHERS. Now I hope you understand that I am not now, nor have ever been a kindergarten teacher. But when I have observed kindergarten teachers, they are the master of formative assessment, as well as some other things (How can you get a bunch of 4-5 year olds to follow directions? It’s a mystery to me). These kindergarten teachers use formative assessment out of necessity, in my opinion. They are charged with getting all of there students to a certain level by the time the school year ends, and each and every student who walked into their classroom started at a different level. They are continuously assessing their students and then using that information to determine what they will be doing, not just the next day, but what activity they will be doing in the next five minutes. I was observing a kindergarten teacher working with a small group of students. The teacher was working with the students on numbers, specifically one-to-one correspondence with numbers and objects. The teacher asked one student how many toy bears were in front of the student and then listened and observed to what the student did and said. I asked the teacher why she was doing this and she said that depending on what the student said and did, determined her next question or the next activity. This, to me, is the picture of formative assessment. The teacher assessed the student’s understanding and then used the information to enhance or guide her instruction.

If you are reading this and not a kindergarten teacher, you are probably saying, well yeah that works for kindergarten teachers, but that will never work for my classroom because [insert reason your room/students are different]. I understand that your classroom and students are probably different, but I believe that we should focus on becoming better educators and focusing on things that we can control (see my previous post called: Why so negative?). I believe that all teachers could learn from kindergarten teachers. Think about the kids that come into kindergarten classrooms, they are 4 or 5 years old, most of them have never been in a school environment before, and some of them have limited communication skills, yet kindergarten teachers are able to utilize formative assessment strategies.

I believe that educational leaders may not be utilizing the knowledge and experiences that kindergarten teachers have to offer. Educational leaders should have kindergarten teachers lead professional development sessions on formative assessments. They can share their experiences using formative assessments to guide and enhance their teaching and their students learning and then have other grade level teachers discuss how they could utilize these strategies with their students. It could also send some shockwaves through your different teams because the kindergarten teachers may be hesitant to present to upper grade level teachers and the upper grade level teachers might be stand offish to learning from kindergarten teachers. These PD sessions would send the message that we as educators can learn from others, even those who teach a different subject or grade level. I think this could be the beginning of a larger professional learning community across grade levels. Learning from other educators is a must and creating teacher leaders is vital to a strong school culture. Learning from kindergarten teachers is a small step in this direction.

Shepard, L., K. Hammernes, L. Darling-Hammond, and F. Rust (2005), “Assessment”, in L. Darling-Hammond and J. Bransford (eds.), Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be able to Do, Josse-Bass, San Francisco, CA, pp. 275-326.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Hey Teachers, STOP Answering Questions!

If you are a teacher or if you every attended school with a teacher, the title of this post may seem counterintuitive. Aren’t teachers supposed to answer questions? Aren’t teachers supposed to be the givers of knowledge to the young minds sitting in their classrooms? In my mind the answer to both of these questions is a resounding, NO! I believe that posing questions is a vital part of the education process, but answering these questions is not what the teachers are getting paid to do. Think about it, if the teachers could not answer the questions that they pose or their students ask (well most of the questions that students ask) would we want them in the classroom with the students in the first place? Probably not, so why then do teachers jump at the chance to answer questions in the classroom? It may have to do with showing the students that they know a lot about everything, or it may be because they want to help their students understand things, or it could be that they just don’t want students to struggle. Either way, I am here to tell teachers to stop it, just knock it off already. Let the students attempt to answer the questions, let the students help each other determine if an answer is logical or if it makes sense, and basically assist the students by asking more questions and then just get our of the way!

If you are in the world of education, you probably have heard the saying about teachers being the “sage on the stage” and how we are now attempting to be the “guide on the side.” I believe that this is an important shift, that is currently taking place in the thinking and actions of teachers, but I am getting sick of hearing those empty words if they are not accompanied by some positive actions or changes in teaching styles. The two statements above are actually the verbalization of moving from a teacher-centric classroom to a student centered learning environment. We need teachers to move away from planning and thinking about teaching to planning and thinking about student learning. This is huge change in teacher mindset and it will take time, but just by saying we are going to change doesn’t actually mean we are going to change. If you don’t believe me, ask most teachers today if they want to be a “sage” or a “guide” and I am guessing that most, if not all, will say that they are attempting to be the guide in their classroom. But if you observe some of these same teachers classrooms, you will see the adult at the front of the class, being the giver of information and answering most of the questions.

I do not write this to blame the teachers for this reality, that I feel they are stuck in. There are many different variables that keep teachers at the front of the class, spewing information and answer as many questions as they can. One of the biggest reasons that I feel teachers do this is because of the amount of information they feel they need to cover in a finite amount of time. Many teachers feel outside pressure to cover as much material as they possibly can in a miniscule amount of time, because the teachers know that their students will be taking a standardized test of some sort, that will then be used to determine if the students have learned enough about the right things during the year with their teacher. Thus, teachers then feel that if their students perform poorly on these assessments, it is a direct indicator of their poor teaching skills.

I also believe that teachers utilize this teaching strategy to maintain organization in their classroom. They want to ensure that they are able to cover all of the necessary content during the school year and what would happen if a student asks a question that takes the class off in a tangent that is not on the curriculum? That would be lost teaching time and that would mean that the class might not cover all of the needed material in time for the test. Teachers are also able to use this teaching style to stay in control of the classroom. They are worried that if they give up some of the control of the classroom to the students, then chaos could erupt and then nothing would get done. The classroom would be in disarray and their classroom management skills would be called into question and this again would reflect negatively on their capacity to educate students.

Yet the biggest reason I feel that teachers have changed their styles of teaching to becoming more “guide-like” is because much of the discussions about becoming a guide are too philosophical. Teachers do not use philosophies in their classrooms unless they have learned a strategic way to implement the philosophy. If you are or have ever been a teacher, think about any training session that you have attended that was based on teaching philosophies. Were you excited to go back and implement that philosophy, if there were no examples of how to do this or what this would look like in a real classroom? I know in my experience, these sessions just frustrated me and made me feel that the presenters did not understand my classroom and what I was going through on a day-to-day basis. So I began to think about how to shift teachers away from being a sage and becoming more guide-like. This lead me to how teachers use questions and the amount of questions that teachers answer during a typical day.

Teachers typically ask students questions that have a specific answer that the teacher is looking for. These questions are very low level and can typically be answered with a short response quickly. These questions allow teachers to cover many facts or tidbits in a short period of time and students begin to realize that the “smart kids” will answer the questions quickly and the rest of them will just need to sit there and wait for class to be over. This is a terrible way for students to spend their time in class, but in reality I think it happens more often than we think to a lot of students. This brings me to my first tip for asking questions: Wait, just wait. Wait time as been around in teacher education for a long time, but how well to teachers utilize this practice, especially with the time crunch that most of them feel they are under? But this simple act of waiting and being silent, allows all students to digest the question and then determine an answer to the question. This is vital for students with special needs or English language learners. Imagine if you are learning English or have a slight cognitive delay. The teacher asks a question and you begin to either translate the words in your head or are attempting to figure out the answer and before you know it, another student has answered the question and the teacher is now 3 more questions down the road and you are left there thinking, why try.

Teachers must understand that there are two different wait times. The first wait time comes after posing a question to the students. This wait time is to allow all of the students to digest the questions, think about all that they know that relates to the question, and then formulate a response. Different students take different amount of time to do this, but if the teacher would simply pose a question and then silently count to ten in their head, this would give ample time to all of their students to answer the question. But the more important wait time comes after a student has answered the question. The teacher then waits again, SILENTLY, to allow the students to think about the response and if they agree, disagree and why. This is how discussions can begin in the classroom allowing many more students to participate. Believe me, this wait time can seem like an eternity and a lot of “dead air” but I believe this is vital to allow every student access to the conversations and knowledge that is abundant in the classroom.

The next questioning tip I have for teachers is to not tell students if they are right or wrong when they answer a question. Teachers must also have a “poker face” when it comes to this practice. The reason I feel that this is important for teachers is because if you are continually telling students if their answer is right or wrong, this will teach students to not raise their hands or to not participate in class for fear of being wrong. If you are a struggling student in a classroom and every time you share an answer in class, you are told that you are wrong, my bet is that you are just going to stop participating. It also works this way on another level as well. If a student responds to a question and the teacher says, “You are absolutely right. That was an amazing answer.” More than likely, no student will want to attempt to answer the next question. How could their answer compare to the last student’s answer? So it is just easier for the student to not participate. This practice of not stating if an answer is right or wrong, also allow students to debate answers, with more supporting information. In combination with wait time, students now have the opportunities to have classroom discussions about answers to questions and talk to each other, instead of the teacher talking, one student talking, teacher talking, one student talking, etc. It creates the atmosphere of a learning community, where we can all learn from each other. This is important to remember when a student asks a question of the teacher. Why must the teacher answer this question? I feel that the teacher should have the student ask the other students in the classroom the question and have them discuss the answers together. Collaboration is skill that students are going to need to be successful throughout their lives, but how can it be learned if the teacher keeps answering all of the questions or telling specific students that they are right. This can kill the collaborative efforts of your classroom.

But in my mind, the best part of this action is that it will drive some of your “top performing students” crazy. These students are the ones who live off of being right or that a teacher has told them that they are right. This can be a dangerous thing for these students. In my classroom, I would talk with these students in private about this issue. They usually would come up to me and ask if they are right or not and then I would put it back on to them by asking if they though they were right. The reason I did this was because I wanted the students to become independent thinkers and problem solvers. I even told them that I was not going to be with them all of their life and that they had to determine if they believed they were right, based on what they knew or the evidence in front of them. It is a change in teaching strategy, but one that I think allows students to become better problem solvers and better communicators overall.

Lastly, to need both wait times and to allow these deep conversations to happen in class, teachers must ask higher-level questions that do not always have one right answer. This means that teachers must determine the questions they want to ask before the lesson begins. Teachers must determine the most critical portions of the objectives and then work backwards to the questions that would lead to the deepest conversations. While I feel that teachers must plan out these questions, they also have to be flexible at the same time to ask follow up questions to stimulate thinking and discourse in their class. This is not something that will happen overnight or even after a couple of days, this takes practice. To be able to ask a question, listen to the students’ responses, and then know what question to ask next to move the conversation further is not easy and takes time for teachers to develop. But any teacher can do it, with the support from their administrative team or the district by providing professional development on questioning skills.

The Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) has worked extensively to develop a new vision for public education, which you can see here: http://www.transformtexas.org/the-visioning-document/ One of the goals for student learning stated in TASA’s vision is the need for, “Students who are encouraged to cultivate their curiosity and who realize questions are sometimes more important than answers.” Isn’t this something that all educators would want for our students? I believe that it is and the first step to achieving this goal, in my mind, is to change how we as teachers use questions in the classroom. We need to shift from teachers answering questions to students collaboratively working on solving problems.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Why so Negative? Fostering Positive Teacher Attitudes

In my last post, I went over what I have used in my career to build positive relationships with students.  But what if the teachers we are leading do not have positive attitudes.  I have worked with many different educators over the years and many of them have wonderful attitudes.  They are happy with their job, most of the time.  They are positive and upbeat, most of the time.  They get along with their colleagues, most of the time.  We have to understand that teachers are people with emotions and they go through the same struggles everyone goes through (and then some), so why did I make it a point to backhandedly say they were generally positive people?  Why didn’t I just leave it as they are happy, positive, upbeat, etc.?  Why did I have to write “most of the time”, which even in writing seemed a little sarcastic?  I do not want to be thought of as a teacher basher.  I am not.  Actually I am far from it.  I believe in teachers.  I believe that they are the ones responsible for pushing students forward, to opening doors to places their students haven’t even thought about. But for some reason, they sure do focus on the negative side of things.

Let me do some back tracking before you stop reading this and begin to hate me and everything I have to say about teachers.  I believe teachers have been trained to focus on the negatives.  They have been trained to believe that whatever is happening to them, must be looked at through a negative lens and they must then defend what they do.  This isn’t just a one-time occurrence and I believe that this happens daily to many of our teachers.  Just think about how the US education system is portrayed in the media.  I can seem to be constant negativity that teachers take personally.  Teachers take this personally because teaching is a very personal and emotional occupation, which can be very draining.  Then think about when administrators meet with teachers to discuss data for their schools or their students.  Usually this data/information is done in a way that could be construed as judging or comparing one teacher against another.  Many teachers sit in meetings being lectured about how they need to improve their students’ scores on one assessment and many times, there is no mention as to the baggage that many of their students bring with them on a daily basis.  It is impossible to believe that teachers are working with their students on the content all the time.  Teachers must also work with their students on other behaviors, such as how to work with others in a respectable manner, how to positively collaborate with others, efficient ways of utilizing technology, getting students to think creatively as well as critically to solve problems, and the list goes on and on.  Then throw in the difficulties that each student brings with them into the classroom on a daily basis, and teaching becomes overwhelming, especially with some administrator showing you how poorly your students are doing on an assessment.  If this happened to you on a daily basis, I would imagine that you would begin to focus on the negatives on things and how to defend yourself.  It seems only natural this would happen.

So what do we as educational leaders do?  Do we just tell our teachers that they have to do better and that we are hear to listen to them?  That may seem like it could help, but what this sets up is a cycle of negativity being poured onto the teachers and then they return the negatively to you.  This can be a vicious cycle that is never ending and could result in the entire climate of the school to decline.  This negativity would spread like the flu through an elementary school.  It would go from one teacher to the next, then on to the administration and students, and then to the parents and community at large.  This small illness becomes an epidemic for a school and the community and ultimately, disaster.  I believe that by just talking about supporting our teachers is not nearly good enough, we have to model positivity to our teachers and show them that we expect positive attitudes in our school.  But we also have a responsibility as educational leaders to take it a step further.  We must understand that teaching is a very personal occupation, where teachers put their hearts and souls into their craft.  We cannot just jump into constructive feedback and expect the teachers to accept it, we must build up our entire school community through actions first, to show that we are all learning here, no one is perfect, and we can all get better.

The first thing that I tell teachers, when I am working with them, is that we are going to focus on the things we can control. This seems like such a tiny aspect of leading teachers, but believe me, many teachers are constantly focused on things that they cannot control, which leads to worries, which leads to stress, which leads to negativity (did I just take a quote from Yoda and Star Wars about the Dark Side?).  Teachers tend to focus on the students who are struggling in their classrooms.  Most teachers want all of their students to be successful, and thus focus on the students who are struggling.  Many times the struggling students are English Language Learners, students in special education, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, or have other struggles that cause them to underperform when compared to peers.  If you don’t think teachers focus on the types of students they have in their classrooms, just show them some data of two different classes and ask them why one class performed at a higher level.  More likely then not, the student make up of the classes will be mentioned.  Another thing that teachers focus on that they cannot control are the questions that appear on a standardized test, weather that is a state assessment or a district assessment.  I would agree with the teachers that some of the questions that appear on these assessments are not perfect, but why do spend so much time and energy focusing on this?  This won’t change the question that the students have to answer.  It just seems like a waste of time.  I believe that worrying about a thing we cannot control is like a rocking chair.  It will give us something to do, but it won’t get us anywhere.

The second thing that I do when I work with teachers is to focus on growth. I focus on the growth of the students and the growth of the teacher. Too many times our focus goes one end-all, be-all item, like grades, state assessments, or passing rates. What do these tings really tell us anyway? Basically they tell us how a student is performing at the end of a grading period, end of a semester, or the end of a school year. It is a snapshot of the student at one period of time. That is it! On its own, it really doesn’t tell us anything more about the students or the teacher. But what if we modified this slightly and instead of focusing only on the end, we put our efforts into focusing on student growth? I believe this modification would help the teachers shift their mindset from focusing on students who are close to a passing grade or passing a test, to focusing on challenging all of their students to become better, to understand more, to be better problem solvers. I also believe that once we as leaders focus on growth, it takes the negative aspect out of analyzing student data, as we are attempting to get a bigger picture of the student, not just a snapshot. This would then take some of the pressure off of the teacher and then harness the energy into growing all students. I believe that if we focus on student growth, the final scores and passing rates take care of themselves, which is a nice little bonus.

Finally I believe that educational leaders must use the knowledge base in their school to improve the entire staff. Just think about the collective knowledge that is in one school, your school and now imagining harnessing all of that knowledge to push the entire staff forward. Just imagine it, teachers learning from other teachers, principals learning from teachers, assistant principals learning from cafeteria workers, teachers learning from custodians. What a beautiful thing. An entire educational unit becoming better by just observing, listening, and collaborating with other members of the community. To allow this to happen, leaders must become vulnerable. They must model to their staff that we can learn much from our colleagues and that this is an important aspect to build up positivity in everyone. This modeling shows our teachers that we do not know everything and that we are striving to learn more, learn from experts, and we believe we have a school filled with experts. We as leaders can ask teachers to present professional developments to other teachers or just allow time for teachers to observe other classrooms. This is vital to positivity as it shows our teachers that we believe they are all professionals and that they have knowledge that we feel is important. I whole-heartedly believe that teaching is one profession that is not treated as a professionally. Once people feel respected and treated professionally, shockingly they tend to work more professionally and respect others’ opinions and thoughts. This doesn’t happen over night, but is vital for building positivity in a staff.

I understand that educators and educational leaders have a multitude of things that take up their time during the school day and at night, but shouldn’t working on positive attitudes be one of them? I feel that if we increase our positivity levels, more positive things will happen to our teachers, our students, and ultimately our schools. As I reflect on my work with teachers and teacher leaders, one thing is for sure: The happiest people do not have everything. They make the best of everything they have. Stay positive and keep moving forward!

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Developing the “Tri” in Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning

In my last post I ended it by discussing, what I called, the Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning. It was basically a combination of Lee Shulman’s work on pedagogical content knowledge with a teacher’s understanding about how to build positive relationships with their students.  This is how I wrote about it last time:

In the mid 1980’s Lee Shulman introduced a term for the knowledge that teachers needed to be successful in the classroom as “pedagogical content knowledge” referring to the knowledge of the specific nature of the subject matter needed for teaching (Shulman, 1986). “Conceived as complementary to general pedagogical knowledge and general knowledge of subject matter, the concept of pedagogical content knowledge was thought to include familiarity with topics children find interesting or difficult, the representations most useful for teaching a specific content idea, and learners’ typical errors and misconceptions” (Hill, Ball & Schilling, nd, p.5).  I agree with Shulman that teachers need to have pedagogical content knowledge, but I also feel that there is a vital part missing, teachers building relationships with their students.  This may be even more important that pedagogy and content knowledge.  Teachers need to build positive relationships with their students, care about their students’ well being, and know where each student is coming from.  With this addition, teachers would know the content (what to teach), the pedagogy (how to teach), and relationships with students (who they are teaching).  This is a trifecta of teaching for student learning, which is a lofty aspiration, but one that I am willing to chase instead of just gaming the system.

But how do we, as educational leaders, get our teachers to embrace all three aspects of the trifecta?  Through my experiences, I know that I have participated in either college courses or professional development sessions that have covered different strategies or methods for teaching specific content, which is pedagogy.  I have also attended PD sessions and courses about the content material that I was either currently teaching or would be teaching in the future, the content knowledge that I needed.  But I know that I have never had a class or PD session specifically about how to build positive relationships with students.  Think about it, have you ever attended a learning opportunity specifically about building positive relationships with students?  If you have, I would love to hear about them in the comments section.  Now don’t get me wrong, I have attended many sessions where student relationships were brought up or mentioned as being important, but I haven’t seen it specifically offered.  Jimmy Casas and Joy Kelly presented one that came very close about building school culture. (By the way, if you haven’t heard of Jimmy and Joy, you should look into them.  They are doing amazing things in education in Iowa and on the Internet.  I suggest you follow them on Twitter: ‪@casas_jimmy ‪@joykelly05) Jimmy & Joy’s session made me think about how to best create a positive culture at school.  They shared the importance of the Three R’s: Relationships, Relationships, and Relationships!  In my opinion, that rule is THE RULE when it comes to education (most likely in every facet of business or other careers as well) and yet this aspect of education is rarely presented to teachers in a way that they could learn strategies on how to build positive relationships with students.

That got me thinking as I wrote about the Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning. Why do we as educational leaders not assist our teachers in building positive relationships?  It probably has something to do with the finite amount of time that teachers have and how important content and pedagogical knowledge are to teaching.  But in my mind, if teachers built positive relationships with students, it would be easier to use pedagogy and allow for the learning of the content.  In my experience, it would also cut down on the time spent on classroom management and would probably increase the amount of student engagement taking place in the classroom.  This is all well and good, but you might be asking, “Well smart guy, you have said that you think relationships are so important to teaching, how do we assist our teachers in building these relationships?”  That is a great question (and not just because I wrote it myself)!  I want to share with you what I have purposefully done in my teaching career that has helped to build positive relationships with my students.

  1.  Ask your students questions – specifically about what they are interested in or what they like.

It sounds simple, and it really is.  Get to know your students.  What do they like to do outside of the classroom, what do they want to be when they grow up?  What are they excited about?  Then follow the student answers up with follow up questions. This shows that you are interested in the students’ lives.  But you must be sincere.  Kids know when teachers are just asking general questions and aren’t really paying attention.  If you want to build a relationship, it starts with you as the adult, modeling how relationships begin.  It begins with getting to know the other person and then connecting with them.  You might even share a passion with the student, as I found with some of my students.  I know a lot about sports, Star Wars, Transformers, super heroes, Harry Potter, video games, etc. (you may have noticed, and yes, I am a bit of a nerd).  This common interest can be used to begin building a positive relationship and many of your students will be amazed that you are a real person with actual thoughts not about the class you teach.

  1.  Listen to your students and learn from your students.

This connects to the previous action of asking questions.  You MUST listen to your students’ responses to the questions you ask them.  It is one thing to ask your students questions about their lives, but it is another thing all together to actually listen to the responses and take note of the responses.  I previously mentioned that I have shared some common interests with former students, which made the connection easier.  But believe me, there are many more times that a student begins telling me about their interests and I have no idea what they are talking about.  Some examples of these are: Pokémon, WWE wrestling, Mine craft, One Direction, Selena Gomez, Snap Chat, and many more. But you know what I did when a student brought up something that I had no idea what they were taking about?  I asked them to tell me more about it and then I, once again, listened.  You have no idea how much I have learned from my students about Pop Culture and technology.  This action also shows my students that I do not know everything, am not scared to admit that I don’t know everything, and that I value their knowledge!  I believe this action also begins to build relationships.

  1.  Smile!

Yes, this sounds silly.  But trust me, it is a very positive action and one that can be underutilized by teachers.  Not all teachers, but think about those days in late October. The freshness of the new year has worn off, it seems like the next break is a million years away, and both students and teachers are a little tired and used to each other.  Are you smiling at every student during those days?  Probably not, and I am not talking about walking around with a creepy “Joker” smile on your face which probably makes you look like you need a straight jacket!  I am also not talking about a grin that looks like you are judging everyone and that you can’t believe what he or she just said.  I am talking about a genuine smile that tells people/students that you are actually happy to see them.  This will take some work, especially with some specific students who you may be thinking about right now.  But these are the kids that need to see a smile the most.  They might not see a smile all day unless you do it.  These students may be used to all adults scowling at them or just looking indifferently in their direction.  Believe me, a genuine smile can go along way in building a positive relationship.  Think about when you are walking down the street and you come across another person, you look up at them and they are smiling.  That little gesture can have a positive effect on you for the rest of the day and it only took milliseconds and minimal effort.

  1.  Model positive relationships.

You are the teacher in the class and the adult who has much more experience with building relationships, so use this to help show your students how relationships work.  Let them know that everyone will screw up at some point in their life, some more than others.  But model how people handle this in a positive way.  Take them aside and discuss the behavior that was incorrect and discuss how the student should have handled the situation.  By doing this, it shows the student that you are not happy with the choice that they made, but it also shows that you care about the student.  You care so much, that you don’t want them to make the same mistake again.  Yes there may be consequences due to the student’s choices, but you must discuss with the student the expectations that you have for them and why you have them.  You can explain that you believe the student is capable of achieving great things, but it depends on the choices of the child.  This allows the student to understand that they have some control and you are there to help out when needed.  The child doesn’t disappoint you, the child’s choice does.  This is a HUGE difference.  When you have a positive relationship with your students, classroom management comes down to expectations and following up with the students.  In my experiences, the worst thing I have ever said to a student was, “I am disappointed in the choice you have made.”  The reason I say this was the “worst” thing I said to kids was because of the relationship we had and that they didn’t want to disappoint me.  I attempted to model for the child how they could have handled the situation differently and most of the time, they responded positively.

  1.  Follow up or check in with the student often!

This is one that I learned from Jimmy Casas.  He mentioned how after working with a child, he would make sure that he followed up with the student to see how things were going, weather this was after a discipline issue, a personal tragedy, or a positive experience the student just went through.  Casas also mentioned a 1-2-3 method: Write a personal note, followed by a personal conversation, followed by another face to face visit.  This seems like a lot for one single issue, but think about it from the student’s aspect.  Not only did you show you cared the first time you talked, but you followed up three more times.  You are NOT an adult who says they care at first, but then forget about the kid.  You truly care and will continue to care for as long as you are near the student.  This is huge and I feel can lead to a long lasting positive relationship with the student.

I know that there are probably other aspects of building positive relationships with students, but I believe that these are the 5 most important and it keeps it easy to remember for teachers.  These are not steps to be followed in order, but in generally they happen in the above sequence. It also depends on the student and what they need.  As educators we know that it is easier to build positive relationships with certain students compared to others.  But in my mind, those “other” students are the ones who are in most need of a positive relationship with an adult.  Believe me, it will take longer to build a relationship with those students because they are wary of adults who say that they care about them, because they are the kids who have been burned by adults in the past.  That is why #5 is so important.  It shows that you haven’t forgot about them and that you want to know how things are going on a consistent basis.

Thinking back about the Trifecta of Teaching for Student Learning, most education leaders help teachers with content and pedagogy, but maybe the five tips above can help start conversations about the third part of the trifecta: building relationships with students.  Just as it takes people time to become experts in either content or pedagogy, it may take time for teachers to feel comfortable with connecting with students.  Please understand, I am not stating that teachers should be friends with their students, as I think this is a mistake some young teachers make.  I am suggesting that teachers must show that they care for each and every one of their students and their well-being.  Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  Teaching is much more about content and pedagogy.  It is about caring for all our students and ensuring that they are on the path to becoming well-rounded individuals, which includes building positive relationships with others.

I know that these are just my thoughts, but I would love to hear what you believe could be added to the five tips I listed for building positive relationships with students. Leave a comment, as I know I can learn much from your expertise.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Gaming the System

I was talking to a colleague of mine about the current accountability system that is used for public education in Texas, which I am sure is a lot like other systems around the country, and he mentioned something that stuck with me and made me think for a few days.  We were discussing how to educate principals on the accountability system and how to help principals improve their students’ performance.  My colleague was talking about how he was going over some data points and the principal asked a question about AP tests.  The principal wanted to know how the school could increase the number of students who take the AP assessments, without decreasing the percentage of students who pass the AP assessments.  My colleague called this “gaming the accountability system”.  I am sure that many other administrators have thought about this, how to get the most improvement on the accountability system with a specific strategy, or attempting to get “more bang for their buck”.  But is this what we want as educators and educational leaders?  Do we really want to settle on focusing on specific student populations, specific content areas, and specific assessments with the only goal of improving accountability scores?  It seems as if we as educators are setting our goals to meet standardized tests and accountability systems.  But is this why you got into education?  There is a reason that you can think of a favorite teacher, but not of a favorite assessment.  Our students and all children deserve better than educational leaders “gaming the system”.

Gaming the system has been going on as long as there has been a system, and not just by principals or school administrators.  Teachers have been attempting to game the system, even if they are not planning on it.  In previous years, when the accountability system was just about how many students could pass a test, teachers would focus their instruction and time on the students who were close to being able to pass the assessment so that the passing rates would increase.  I am not blaming the teachers, it is the system that they found themselves in and thus did what they thought was best to meet this system.  But why is this the system that we have in the first place?  Where did the idea about testing students to determine if schools were functioning at high levels come from?  Here is a quick overview of the modern history of testing in the United States:

The US started to notice a decline in test scores starting after World War I, a military exam was modified to determine the best suited for further education and higher-employment (Petersen & West, 2003, p. 3). We know this test better as the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT. By the 1950’s this test became a requirement for entrance into most colleges in the nation. Soon this test eventually became a tool for a measure of public schools’ achievement (Schmidt 2008). But then in the 1960’s SAT scores began to decline and the American public and government became concerned and sought to intervene by passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson developed a multi-tiered educational reform that identified the correlation between low-test scores and students living in poverty, provided funding to schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students, and thus, intended to improve educational opportunities for minority and lower-class children in an attempt to raise the test scores for the entire nation. This funding program is known as Title I (Schmidt 2008).

Then in 1983, Terrel H. Bell published the now famous A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform in America. The report claimed that, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” (Bell, 1983). This report increased the level of concern of parents and government officials for the state of the public education system in the United States. Another concern that came from the report was the US’s low ranking when compared to scores of students from other countries throughout the world. Even though this report became a rallying cry for educational reform, it actually never influenced any federal reform.

Then in the 1990’s the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) became a hot button topic, as this was a non-biased testing agency that recorded how students from across the nation were performing and if there was improvement in different states. In the state of Texas, a testing program to hold districts and students accountable was in use and NAEP scores began to rise. As governor at the time, George W. Bush was convinced that testing and accountability was at the core of this rise in the NAEP scores. He took these ideas to the White House when he became president in 2000, and was able to pass the No Child Left Behind law in 2001. Even though “Texas is cited as a state in which the increase in the percentage of students meeting the standards was paralleled by increases in the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the low level of the state’s tests and the very different trend lines of the state and NAEP tests call this conclusion into question. More troubling still is that the increase in test scores was not accompanied by increases in outcomes of high value, such as increased high school completion or college attendance” (Mathis, 2003).  I believe that in education, many politicians are attempting to game the system even before the system is in place.  Education has many variables, which creates a complex system that is never black and white, but an infinite number of shades of gray.  But for politicians to win elections, they need money and votes.  I believe to obtain money and votes, they have to show people that things are either working or not working.  The easiest way to do this is to show one number (test score) and then show if it is going up or down.  Very easy to understand, but in this case, basically informs the populace of nothing.  And if we have an uninformed or misinformed populace, it is very easy to manipulate.  Which is why I feel public education is the most important aspect of a functioning democracy.  (For more information about this, you can read the transcripts from CNN’s High Stakes: The Battle to Save our Schools which details how the testing model was created in Houston, TX and even at that time, many were gaming the system.)

So as educators and leaders, what should we do?  Should we continue to set our sites low and just game the system to improve the school’s scores, or should we aim higher?  I believe that we as educators need to create a vision of education that allows all students to succeed and become problem solvers of the future. We cannot make this a simple system where all we focus on is the assessments and accountability system.  Educators should NOT be “Data Driven”! I believe educators need to be STUDENT DRIVEN and data informed.  Students are why we are here and we owe it to ALL of them to become better people, informed people, people who ask questions and solve problems, not just be able to answer standardized questions or only focus on the small group of students who can help us to increase our school’s ratings.  How do we do this?  I don’t believe there is an easy answer to this or just one answer to this.  It is too complicated of a problem to be able to answer it in one sentence or one paragraph, and especial in one blog post.  What I do believe is that we need passionate and engaged educators who have a different type of knowledge base.  In the mid 1980’s Lee Shulman introduced a term for the knowledge that teachers needed to be successful in the classroom as “pedagogical content knowledge” referring to the knowledge of the specific nature of the subject matter needed for teaching (Shulman, 1986). “Conceived as complementary to general pedagogical knowledge and general knowledge of subject matter, the concept of pedagogical content knowledge was thought to include familiarity with topics children find interesting or difficult, the representations most useful for teaching a specific content idea, and learners’ typical errors and misconceptions” (Hill, Ball & Schilling, nd, p.5).  I agree with Shulman that teachers need to have pedagogical content knowledge, but I also feel that there is a vital part missing, teachers building relationships with their students.  This may be even more important that pedagogy and content knowledge.  Teachers need to build positive relationships with their students, care about their students’ well being, and know where each student is coming from.  With this addition, teachers would know the content (what to teach), the pedagogy (how to teach), and relationships with students (who they are teaching).  This is a trifecta of teaching for student learning, which is a lofty aspiration, but one that I am willing to chase instead of just gaming the system.

Stay tuned, as I may discuss the trifecta in a future bolt post.  I would love to hear your feedback and questions as my main goal for this blog is to open conversations and create questions.  I feel questioning ideas are at the heart of problem solving and vital to education and growth.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Bell T.C., (1983). A Nation at Risk. Retrieved June 16, 2008, from http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html

Hill, H., Ball, D., & Schilling, S., (nd). Developing measures of teachers’ mathematics knowledge for teaching. Unpublished manuscript, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Mathis, William., (2003). No Child Left Behind Costs and Benefits. Retrieved June 17, 2008, from http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0305mat.htm

Peterson P.E., & West M.R., (Eds.). (2003). No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of Accountability. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Schmidt, Tom. (2008) Scratching the Surface of No Child Left Behind: How No Child Left Behind Unfairly Affects Schools with Significant Proportions of Disadvantaged Students. Dominican University of California p1-39.