Saturday, December 7, 2013

Teachers are not Oracles

One of the characters with whom I attended Glebe Collegiate Institute from 1984 - 1989 was named Andrew Potter.  I remember Andrew as a bit of a rogue element in class, particularly Grade 11 English.  When we started reading Othello, we read scene 1 in which secondary characters give the back story of Othello and Desdemona's courtship and marriage.  Our teacher then asked us what character we were most interested in meeting, clearly expecting the answer to be "Othello".  Andrew's immediate and excited answer, based on the descriptions of her beauty? "Desdemona!"

Another time I was giving a presentation in that same English class, I forget what the topic was, and the teacher angrily woke Andrew up from his happy sleep on the desk.  Andrew was not too fazed by the teacher's anger but was a good enough guy to apologize to me after the class.

I think it is fair to say that our Grade 11 English teacher would have been convinced that Andrew was never going to amount to anything in the field of writing or literature.  Today it was announced that Andrew Potter is the new Editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper.  Also today, Kate Heartfield reposted on her blog a column Andrew wrote in 2001 about Nelson Mandela and citizenship.  It is a deep column, full of terrific ideas.  Since high school, Andrew has also worked as a university professor, written a book, and co-written another.  Not bad for someone who would fall asleep in English class.

My point here is that as teachers we often think we know how things will go after school for our students.  We are positive that the bright, hard-working students will go on to have successful lives and careers and we are pretty sure that sure that the lazy, annoying students won't go very far at all.  The example of Andrew Potter should serve to remind us that people change and that the student is not the future adult.

In my time as a teacher I have heard so many stories from adults along the lines of "this teacher told me I would never amount to anything".  Hearing those stories always makes me a bit sad because it means that some teachers, who should have been supporting and helping their students, were wasting everyone's time making negative judgments that most likely were not even correct.

If you are a teacher, please do not tell any student anything that can be construed as "you won't amount to anything".  No matter how lazy, wasteful, annoying, or rude you think they are right now, you never know how they will turn out.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Some serious people think education needs serious changes

This past week, a conference was held in Waterloo called the Equinox Learning 2030 Summit.  The goal of the conference was to look at how education in 2030 (the Grade 12 year for students born this year) can and should change from the way it is today.  The Communique summarizing their findings is interesting reading.  If you do not want to read all six pages of the communique, this blog post from the conference summarizes the summary.

In this post I want to address the statement from the blog post that "portfolio work could replace letter-grades as the primary criteria for evaluation".  That one statement resonated the most with me, although I also like the other main ideas of changing teacher roles and changing student groupings away from age-grouped classes to more ability-grouped classes.  My last post (quite a while back, I had a busy semester 2) discussed how giving grades takes parental and teacher focus away from student learning.  Watching The Agenda on TV last night (October 4, 2013) made me think about what we, as a society, are doing with the grades teachers give.  

The answer I came up with is that grades provide some limited feedback for parents but otherwise the only organizations that use grades are Colleges and Universities for the purposes of student admission.  No employer looks at grades.  If an employer feels that a prospective employee needs to have a certain skill then the employer uses the interview process and/or the training process to make sure the employee has that skill.  Why can't post-secondary institutions do the same?  I would estimate that teachers spend 15-20% of their time and get 50% or more of their stress from creating evaluations (tests, projects, etc.), marking evaluations, and defending the evaluation process.  Yet all that time, effort, energy, and stress is only in aid of providing a free service to post-secondary institutions, some of which are private, profit-making organizations!

A student's final grade is supposed to represent that student's overall achievement in terms of mastering the curriculum expectations.  Yet courses at high school typically have 10 - 15 overall objectives on which the students are supposed to demonstrate their ability.  How does it make any sense to turn 10 - 15 different skill/knowledge sets into one single grade?  Current changes towards strand-based evaluation in high schools will mean that teachers will have the information necessary to report on every single one of the 10 - 15 overall objectives for any course.  It is foolish to create a situation where the teacher has all that detailed information but is then forced to lose all those details by turning that information into one single grade.

I hope that provincial education bureaucrats and school board higher-ups are paying attention to the Learning 2030 Summit's conclusions.  Those conclusions look like a path towards an improved education system for the children being born right now.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Education Could Learn from Soccer

In the February 16 Ottawa Citizen I was quite interested to read Richard Starnes' "Beautiful Game" column about changes to soccer for children in Canada.  In the column he talks about how children in under 9, under 10, and under 11 year old leagues will not be competing for titles.  Rather than focusing on winning games and trying to be first in the league the focus is meant to be on improving skills.

Starnes mentions that many parents and coaches will be unhappy about the changes but points out that this is a selfish reaction from the adults.  He does not say this directly but, the way I see it, those adults want to make themselves feel good by saying "my team/my kid's team won the league championship this year".  It is not about motivating the players, or rewarding the team that improves the most, it is about making adults feel good on the backs of children.

My mind immediately jumped to some conversations that I have had recently with other teachers about marks and marking.  In particular, talking to teachers who have children in the school system I get a sense of what parents are thinking when it comes to their children's marks.  Even for teachers, who ought to know better, the focus is about the mark, the number or the letter, rather than the mark as an indicator of learning.  Our whole culture, from kindergarten to university seems fixated on marks to what I view as an unhealthy degree.

Here is where the connection to soccer comes in.  I think that marks are only really serving parents. If a child gets all As, the parent gets to be proud and tell everyone.  It is like winning the league championship.  If a child has Bs or Cs or Ds you can talk about illnesses or injuries and how he or she will do better next year just like a sports team undergoing a "rebuilding year".  But none of that is about how much the child learned, whether he or she will retain that learning, whether he or she developed skills and habits to assist future learning.  And yet those items are what really matters in the long run.

I wish that education would take a cue from soccer and get rid of marks in elementary school.  It is well understood that almost all children will be moved up through the grades based on their age anyway, so marks really serve no purpose.  Instead of counting As and Bs on the report card, maybe parents will take time to read the comments instead.  Those comments take dozens of hours for elementary teachers to write yet my impression is that only a tiny minority of parents read them because all they want to know is "A, B, C, or D?"

It is great to see soccer putting the focus on learning and improvement for its young participants.  I wonder how long it will take the education system to do the same?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

More stuff about Bill 115

I have just been watching "The Teachers' Agenda" episode of TVO's Agenda program.  Looking at some of the comments posted as well as some of Steve Paikin's devil's advocate comments I wanted to raise a few issues.

1.  The issue of the banked sick days.  The provisions around those days were negotiated in previous contracts.  That means that the school boards and province typically had to pay less money in wages and benefits because the teachers were willing to make concessions in return for keeping the sick day banking and gratuities.  So taxpayers, school boards, and the province have already received value for those banked days and gratuity provisions. It is hardly fair for the government to take from teachers something that teachers have already paid for.
2.  The issue that the private sector has had a tough time over the last few years but that the public sector has not and that is why the government has to apply Bill 115.  True, the private sector has had a tough time recently.  But previously the private sector was doing really well (late 90s, early 2000s) while the public sector was being hammered by Mike Harris and his "Common Sense Revolution".  The private and public sectors tend to go in opposite cycles.  This is the nature of the beast.  The workers in the public sector do not expect 5% and 10% yearly wage increases when the economy is booming, even though that may be happening in the private sector.  It is not reasonable to pull the public sector down when the private sector is doing badly if the reverse (pulling the public sector up when the private sector is doing well) is not on the table.
3. Extra-curricular activities.  This seems to be the current lightning rod because Bill 115 has not allowed teachers any other method for expressing their displeasure.  Extracurricular clubs, groups, and teams are run almost entirely on the goodwill and volunteer time of teachers.  Teachers are not given any compensation of any kind for their efforts and, in my experience, are rarely even thanked by the students and/or the parents.  Yet many parents and media commentators are currently talking regularly about how critical and important extracurricular activities are for students.  I would be more sympathetic if the current pronunciations matched behaviours that occur when teachers are putting in all the voluntary time. 
4. Teacher salaries + benefits + vacations versus the private sector.  Back in 2000 I left a permanent teaching job and worked at Mitel Networks Corporation for about three years.  When I started at Mitel I got a significant yearly pay raise (roughly from $46,000 to $60,000).  Based on a ten month teaching year I was making about $4,600 a month teaching versus $5,000 a month at Mitel.  At Mitel I had various medical and insurance benefits, including sick days and the option of long-term disability, that were very similar to what I got as a teacher.  I also got vacation days that I could take at any time (unlike my time as a teacher).  Mitel also offered a pension benefit of 5% per year.  Finally, I was able to be promoted and earn raises based on my performance, which worked out to about a 10% raise after my first year, in comparison to the 2 - 3% raise (starting from the lower yearly salary) I would have earned as a teacher.  So my experience in the private sector was that compared to teaching I was able to earn more money, get similar benefits, and get two weeks of vacation that I could take any time.
5.  Hourly salaries.  This issue came up in the comments.  Every once in a while some commentator takes an experienced teacher's salary (about $90,000), divides by five hours of work a day (the absolute minimum that a full time teacher can work) and roughly 200 work days a year and gets a value of around $90 an hour.  I don't have statistics for all teachers but I know that my wife, who does not yet make $90,000 a year typically works 50 hours a week, not including any volunteer activities, when she is teaching full time.  Based on working about 40 weeks a year, that means that she works right around 2000 hours a year, the same as anyone working forty hours a week for fifty weeks.  So my wife is making less than $45 an hour, unlike the $90/hr that biased commentators like to invoke.

My point with this post is to try and provide some information about teachers and their working conditions that are based in reality in contrast to the ideas and numbers being thrown around by teacher-hating commentators.  I hope it helped.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Student Evaluation, Another Analogy

Two of my previous three posts have been about some of the still controversial, among both teachers and the public, pushes for reform of how student marks are calculated.  One post was about not assigning zeroes for work that was not done and the other was about not using averages to calculate student grades.

Today I thought that I would try to combine the ideas of those two posts using an analogy that I hope all Canadians will understand, hockey.

Determining a student's final grade is a little bit like the General Manager of an NHL hockey team trying to decide how good a player is.  If the GM is looking at a player who has scored 25 goals in each of the last four seasons, then the GM can be pretty confident that he is signing a player who will score around 25 goals next year.  In the same way If I see a student whose marks are 65, 65, 65, 65 I can be confident in assigning a mark of 65.

The difficulty arrives with players and students who are not so consistent.  What about a player with scoring stats of 20, 20, 25, 30?  I think most of us would guess that player should be scoring goals in the high-20, low-30 range next year.  My point is that we are not looking at his average of goals, which is 23.75, but rather at the trend of his performance, and expecting that he actually rates better than his average.  As a teacher I am trying to do the same thing for students.  A student with marks of 60, 60, 65, 70 should probably be rated in the high 60s even though the average is 63.75.

We also need to reflect negative trends.  A hockey player with 30, 30, 25, 20 has averaged 26.25 goals per season but I doubt the GM should pay him like a 25+ goal player.  Similarly a student with 70, 70, 65, 60 has an average of 66.75 but probably should be evaluated in the low 60s.

What about flukey results?  Imagine a hockey player with 20, 20, 40, 20 over the last four seasons.  His average is 25 goals a season but that 40 goal season looks like it was more of a fluke than anything else.  As a GM I would probably pay the player like a 20 goal guy.  The issue is the same for a student with only a few good results.  A student with marks of 60, 60, 100, 60 has an average of 70 but probably should only be given a mark in the low 60s since that one 100 does not seem at all to be representative of his ability.

Let us also look at zeroes.  Imagine a hockey player who scored 30 goals a year for three seasons then was suspended for all of his fourth year for drug infractions.  His goals are 30,30,30,0 and he is averaging 22.5 goals a season.  Some people might say "well, it is the players fault he got suspended and scored no goals, he should have to face the consequences" and suggest he be paid like a low-20s goal scorer.  However, I bet most NHL GMs would be willing to pay that player based on him scoring almost 30 goals in the following season.   That is because the previous consistency is very strong evidence of the player's underlying ability.  Also, does anyone really think the player would have scored no goals if he had played last year?   So if I look at a student whose marks are 70, 70, 70, 0 (did not hand in the project) the average is 52.5.  But the initial consistency suggests that this student's learning is near 70.  So we should give a mark in the high 60s that reflects our best estimate of the student's learning, not an average that suggests the student is barely passing.

I hope this analogy has helped you understand that teachers who are trying to follow current best practices are trying to estimate underlying learning based on consistency and trends, rather like we might try to evaluate hockey players.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A school board trustee hits the nail on the head.

Today's Ottawa Citizen published a very well-informed op-ed piece today about the issues around bill 115.  The piece, written by public school board trustee Pam Fitzgerald makes some excellent points that the real issues of Bill 115 are not really about money or democratic rights but about the educational initiatives that have been launched over Dalton McGuinty's time in office.

Ms. Fitzgerald talks about how changes to processes involving student responsibility (plagiarism, incomplete work), increases to teacher responsibilities (testing, record-keeping, report cards), and the addition of many at-risk and special needs students to the classroom without sufficient support have greatly affected the role and workload of teachers.

Here are three insightful paragraphs from the article.

"Many of these initiatives appear to be laudable but they are frequently implemented with undue haste and perhaps with a sense of political expediency. There is little say on the viability, and the process of implementation and collaboration is frequently lacking.

New initiatives with unforeseen consequences for students, teachers and school administrators often simply serve to stretch teachers to the limit at the expense of time, creativity, and flexibility in the classroom. (my italics)

While it’s recognized that differentiated instruction and a little student autonomy improve learning, teaching itself has become more standardized.(again, my italics) Unlike other professions where a standardized approach might improve the product and despite some improvements in test scores, standardization in education has led to frustration for students and teachers alike. As the world-renowned and well-respected educator Sir Ken Robinson might say, we are using the 19th-century factory model to teach 21st-century minds."

Later on in the article Ms. Fitzgerald makes the point that that the government continues to use a "do as I say, not as I do approach".  Any teacher can easily name a half-dozen policies, programs, or initiatives that fit that mold.  We are to try to provide individualized instruction to our students but the principal wants all teachers teaching the same lessons.    Or we are forced to attend professional development about the value of giving students choices.  We are told that, despite our experience and judgement that some students cannot handle it, we must give all students more responsibility around assignment due dates and then also put in the time and effort to deal with lapses but our marks had better be in by 9am Monday even if exams were only written on Friday.

I could go on for a long time, but I think you get the idea.

In the end, I cannot recommend highly enough that anyone interested in education or the issues around Bill 155 should read Ms. Fitzgerald's article in its entirety.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Why a No Zeroes policy is good for learning

Recently in Alberta there has been a large to-do over the suspension and subsequent dismissal of high school teacher Lynden Dorval.  The main issue involved in the disciplining of Dorval was his refusal to follow his school's No Zero policy for student assignments that did not get handed in.  Many people are referring to Dorval as a "hero" for standing up to what they view as watered-down, permissive education. 

Ken O'Connor, an internationally recognized expert on evaluation and grading wrote a good defence of No Zero policies in the Edmonton Journal in June.  I want to explain and expand on some of the issues he raised.

The first thing that Dorval's supporters do not realize is that teachers following best practices do not use averages to calculate final grades.  When you don't use averages, then giving a zero or not becomes irrelevant.  A student who has done work to demonstrate the learning demanded by the course curriculum deserves to be recognized for that learning even if he or she has not done all the work.  A student whose missed work means that he or she has not met all course expectation should not be granted the credit, even if an average of his/her marks would give a grade above 50%. 

Secondly, allowing a teacher to give zeros allows both teachers and students to avoid responsibility.  A student can choose to not do work and "take a zero", avoiding his/her responsibility to do school work.  A teacher can give a zero to  that student and avoid the responsibility that I feel a teacher should have to follow up when a student has a problem so significant that work does not get completed.  I ask parents out there, if your child did not do a school assignment, would you want the teacher to give a zero and forget about it or instead follow up with the student (and maybe you too) about what the problem was and how it can be fixed?

The third point that Dorval's proponents seem to be missing is the idea that grades and marks should try to accurately reflect student learning.  If a student does not produce work, assigning any mark to it actually makes no sense.  It would be a little bit like a meteorologist saying "On Thursday it rained most places in the city but because of a technical problem I did not get a rainfall reading so I will treat Thursday's rainfall as zero".  Assuming that a measurement should be zero because you were unable to take the measurement is going to skew your data.

Now that you have read this post (and Ken O'Connors piece as well, I hope) you should have a better understanding that No Zero policies are not about watering down education or being permissive with students.  No Zero policies are about trying to provide the best educational and learning opportunities possible to our young people based on what we know right now.  If you are looking for more information on current best practices in assessment and evaluation, checking out Ken O'Connors books is a great place to start.