November, 2011

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Teacher evaluataions again

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

On November 23 California was notified that it was once again out of the running for federal money in the Race to the Top funding. In this round of possible funding, states were competing for $200 million.

Diana Lambert and Vanessa Gibbons, both of the Sacramento Bee, reported on the rejection. According to Gibbons, California lost out on $49 million. The reported reason? State officials would not sign off on “endorsing the establishment of statewide teacher evaluation methods…”

As Eduskeptic has said many times before, it’s not quite that simple. It is clear that the states have to play by the federal rules to get federal funds. Not every has to play either.

Teacher evaluations in California are generally subject to negotiations with teachers unions or associations. Districts simply aren’t legally able to unilaterally impose evaluation systems on teachers. For the most part, this works out pretty well, unless of course one is intent on either bashing teachers, teachers unions/associations, or collective bargaining in general.

Evaluating how effective teachers are is difficult at best. There is no clear cut way to do it. It is important to note that business models applied to evaluating teachers simply won’t work. Business is not in the same boat as education, no matter how much business types wish it to be so.

It is relatively easy to evaluate workers on an assembly line, or in a cubicle farm. Since the business has complete control over raw material and processes, metrics are easy to apply.

The software end of the tech businesses is the same. Evaluation is based on whether the code produced works. Either one produces workable solutions to whatever software issue is at hand or not. Proof is immediately available. As soon as the code is launched, the system either works with the newest release, or crashes everything in sight.

Teachers, and districts, inĀ  the public sector, do not have that kind of luxury. Public school teachers have no control over the raw material they work with: the children who show up in their classrooms. Districts have no control either. Whoever shows up is put into the mix, and the school year begins. 180 or so days later, a grade level is completed, and the children either stay in the same grade level or move on to the next.

It is extremely problematic to fairly evaluate teacher performance over those 180 days, or over a few years. The mix of children changes constantly, from day to day in some cases, and every year for everyone. The curriculum is subject to change as well. Just because a district pushes one set of books and approaches this year, which the teachers are responsible to know, with little or no training, is no indication that the same approach with the same materials will be in place the following year.

Within each classroom is a mix of children who range from simply not ready to the very bright, and every iteration in between. The only constant is the teacher. One fabulous year may be followed by a year that is beyond polite description.

Developing an evaluation system that works across the entire state, any state, is an admirable goal. In California, no one has yet come up with one. No one else has either, despite what the feds say.

The teachers in California aren’t against a good, fair system. They are rightly concerned, as is the State, that just cobbling something together to get the federal money would simply not be worth the damage done to the profession, and by extension, the children in our schools.

If you have the solution to this issue, let me know. As always, assume nothing, verify everything.

Transitional Kindergarten

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Beginning with the 2012-2013 school year, children in California will have to be 5 years old by November 1 to enroll in Kindergarten. By the 2014-2015 school year, children will have to be 5 by September 1 to enroll.

As a long time Kindergarten teacher (24 years when I retired), the shift to children being a full 5 years old at the start of Kindergarten simply makes sense. As the Eduskeptic has reflected on many times, developmental processes cannot be made to happen sooner than is natural. There is no amount of anything that will make it happen.

The problem with children who are a few months shy of their 5th birthday when they enter Kindergarten isn’t necessarily how they will do in Kindergarten, or maybe even first grade. The problems, for the most part, show up later. Starting school on a relatively equal basis with the other children is a good idea.

California has established a “transitional kindergarten” to accommodate those children who are not 5 by the time school starts.

An article in the Sacramento Bee, on November 14, provided some information regarding transitional kindergarten. This new “grade level” accomplishes a couple of things that probably aren’t part of the up front reasoning behind the move.

Districts will be able to keep teachers in the classroom. Districts budgets are based on the number of enrolled children. If all of the not yet 5 year olds weren’t enrolled somewhere in the district, revenues would drop. By the time September 2014 rolls around, it could be a significant drop, as the full impact of the 5 year old requirement hits home. Transitional kindergarten eliminates this issue.

Another thing it does is provide what one hopes is a very high level of day care for all of those not quite 5’s. It’s a gift to the parents who were counting on having there little one in school as soon as possible. The goals are currently unclear, but rest assured that there will be goals aplenty, which brings up the question of whether a child could fail to “pass” transitional kindergarten.

It will be a challenge for districts to come up with the appropriate people and method of caring for these very young children. Teachers of young children, being the caring and professional people they are, will undoubtedly do their very best for these young ones.

The issue of age appropriate starts in Kindergarten has been discussed by Kindergarten teachers since the first Kindergartners stepped into classrooms. The state legislators have been batting the idea around for 25 years, according to Sen. Joe Simitian, who was quoted in the Bee article.

He authored the legislation that created transitional kindergarten. His take on it is that it will be a “game changer” (Sac. Bee). While it is unclear in the article, authored by Diana Lambert of the Bee, who said that it will “ultimately lead to better test scores, fewer children placed inappropriately into special education classes and fewer held back in school”, there is no supporting link or evidence related to the statement. How such a “grade level” would do such a thing is at this point a mystery.

Here is another quote from the article: “TK will focus on improving motor and social skills to prepare children for the academic rigors of kindergarten.”

It’s a pretty simple statement, except for the last four words: “academic rigors of kindergarten.” Academic rigors should, in the Eduskeptics opinion, never ever be used in conjunction with Kindergarten. Ever. Never.

That kind of statement reflects a very disturbing direction in our schools. The only rigors children in Kindergarten should encounter is who will be line leader, what’s for lunch, what’s going on in their world, how many A/B patterns can you make, and what stories will we hear today.

More to come on this issue as the days flow by. As always, assume nothing, verify everything.

Teachers, districts, parents

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

The K-12 educational institutions throughout this country have a few things in common. They cost a lot of money to run, they are complex, they are full of children, adolescents, and adults. Some work better than others, and the ratio of working to not working so well changes all the time.

The constant clamor for change is always there too, no matter where the school is located, and no matter what the grade level mix is. That is, in the Eduskeptic’s opinion, as it should be. Education is not a static enterprise.

It is common today to hear complaints about teachers, the system, the results. Political agendas are liberally mixed into the goulash of what is wrong and how to fix it. For some rather strange reason, teachers seem to the main target of those who rail against the public system.

Teachers in the K-12 system, with rare exception, have professional credentials to teach, gained after a five year march through the University and teacher ed system. The credentials are pretty specific as to what the individual may teach. Having a credential for self-contained K-8 classrooms does not permit one to teach any stand alone subject to rotating groups of students. A specialized credential for a single subject is required to do that.

It is true that some teachers come into the field with other licensed skills, or gain them while also teaching. An RN, PhD, Marriage, Family, Child Counseling, Nutritionist license pop up occasionally.

Except for the nurses, schools generally don’t have other licensed professionals on the payroll, in the classroom. School psychologists simply have a Masters Degree, and credential and expertise in testing. They are not Phd level psychologists who are licensed or able to provide psychological services.

Here are some things that regular classroom teachers are simply not either licensed to do, or necessarily have the requisite skills for: counseling of any kind, including marriage, psychological or any other kind, medical or legal advice or expertise, nutrition, qualified expertise in any of the alphabet named syndromes, disabilities, or special needs, life style coach, clairvoyance, palm reading, or the ability to see into the future, to name a few.

We simply teach. That is what our license permits us to do. Expecting a teacher to enter into other professional fields without the proper credentials or expertise is simply wrong. Yet, every day, it happens. Teachers are increasingly finding themselves pressured to be all things to all people.

Classroom teachers already have a full day teaching. Districts need to place professionals in the schools to address the other issues, if the district believes that is necessary. Parents need to understand that teaching is in and of itself a rather intense, full time endeavor.

If other services are needed or wanted, parents and district officials need to figure out how to offer them, or not, outside the confines of the classroom.

Let the teachers teach. Let the other professionals do whatever it is they have a license to do.

As always, assume nothing, verify everything.

Gadgets, gizmo’s–yea or nay?

Friday, November 4th, 2011

In the two previous posts, the Eduskeptic wrote about technology use in the classroom and whether it did any good, was useful, or had any proven results.

Todays musings target an ongoing question: is any of it necessary for learning? At what grade level? The short answer to the necessary part is no. As to the grade level issue, it depends.

Children in the elementary grades do not need the techno gadgets in order to learn. Some say that the use of computers (just one of the available techno gadgets) in the early grades is just plain wrong. Others offer a more diffuse opinion, saying that it can’t hurt.

If one adheres to the Waldorf, Steiner, Montessori or developmental philosophies, then computers, especially in the early grades, simply aren’t a necessary part of the learning formula. From a teaching perspective in the public sector, mine to be exact, they don’t need to used at all in the early years. They can be, but don’t have to be.

The balancing act is this: with every minute spent on the computer, time is taken away from hands on imaginative explorations either inside the classroom or outside. Children learn best by doing. The tactile quality of what they use, coupled with auditory and olfactory input (what they touch, hear, and smell), is extremely important in the process. There is no way to replace those experiences. The stick, that lovely piece of wood that exists all over, is actually in the National Toy Hall of Fame. It is probably the most versatile toy on the planet. Its ability to morph into a wand, pony, spear, bridge, best friend, is unlimited. Imagination dictates what it may become.

Young children need to be active. Running, jumping, swinging, climbing, rolling about are all part of learning how to do things. Mud, snow, rain, dirt, rocks, are all part of it. They need to be able to explore without adult interference. They learn so much by doing so.

They learn patience, what works and what doesn’t, how to fix what doesn’t work so well, how to cooperate, how to be compassionate, how to lead and follow, what cause and effect are, how to make up and follow the very complex rules they invent for the very complex games they invent. The result of all this is that they learn about the real world and how they fit into it. Their imaginations create all kinds of wonderful experiences. Skinned knees, hurt feelings, the wonder of a best friend, smiles and tears imprint their brains with very real lessons.

Without all that, the joy of being a child is lessened. None of that can be had on a computer, not because computers are bad, but because computers are not animate. A day in the mud cannot be had on any computer generated program.

Young children need all of that curiosity and activity in order to have the letters and sounds and words they study make sense. Dry, wet, cold, hot, hurt, joy all come from real experiences with real things. Those things pop up when connected with words.

As children progress through the grade levels, increasing use of the available technology offers tools that help them put their ideas into a universal format that othermakes can understand. If the use of a computer program helps a 4th grade student to read or write better, use it.

The ability to use the tool, and understand the consequences of using it, stems not from the computer, but from the lessons learned rolling around the floor, the dexterity that comes with climbing things, figuring out what comes next, and the expanding curiosity that comes with it. There is a time and place for everything.

As always, assume nothing, verify everything.

Gadgets, part 2

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Technology. Gadgets. Same thing? Useful in the classroom? Worth the money spent on them? The educational community deals with these questions every day. The level of comfort, and the enthusiasm regarding their use, varies from school to school.

During the Eduskeptic’s time in the classroom there didn’t seem to be any clear delineation of willingness to adopt new technology, in whatever form it came in, based on the age of the teaching staff, administration, or support staff.

What was stratified was the basic familiarity with the technology. The younger staff grew up with computers and all that they have evolved in to. Those of us of a certain age possibly took longer to understand some of the operating skills required, but we did learn.

One frequent question is this: Are computers/technology necessary for children to learn?

From the vendor standpoint, the answer is yes. The common refrain is that schools are responsible for not only educating children, but ultimately getting them ready for the working world of the future. It is only possible to do so with a robust computer/technology program.

From the educator standpoint, the answer is diffuse. The technology is good to have, but it may not actually be necessary. Given the pace of change in the techno world, it is fundamentally impractical to get children ready for tomorrows technology systems using what exists today.

Teachers, in general, will use any tool at their disposal if it will help children learn. Keep in mind that the span of abilities in any classroom is very large. A tool that will help one or some children may not do anything for others. The art in this process is being able to apply the correct tool at the correct time.

Computers can be useful in most classrooms. For children who are struggling, programs on a computer may be what they need to practice, review, and move on to the next lesson. For advanced students, computers can fill the need to go past what is being presented, and stay engaged in the learning process. For the vast middle group, individual explorations are possible.

None of this is possible without a good teacher in the classroom. The teaching end of the business remains critical to the learning process. The teacher puts together the lesson and hopefully brings it to life. The computer/video screen/recorder/smart board allows for either remediation, review, or extension of the lessons.

The Internet allows for anytime, anywhere academic learning. Children who are natural night owls can plug away later in the day. Children who are early risers can start early in the morning. Being out of the classroom doesn’t mean being out of the loop. Actually, it never did. It’s just the method of staying connected to the learning that’s changed.

The biggest drawback to the proliferation of all the techno gizmos in the classroom is this: technology is the black hole of education funding. There is no end to it, and it only seems to grow.

While there doesn’t seem to be any definitive research to either support or disprove the usefulness of computerized learning in schools, the Eduskeptic can say that the entire spectrum that comprises “technology” in the classroom can be helpful to children and teachers. The caveat is this: nothing in my experience suggests that a good teacher is secondary to the learning process.

Without inspiration and insistence on excellence by a real teacher in the classroom, the personal touch by a caring teacher, all the technology in the classroom just sucks up electricity, and produces not much else.

Next time the Eduskeptic will address whether any of that stuff is really necessary, especially in the younger grades.

As always, assume nothing, verify everything.