Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Changing models of education, part II

Just found this article about the School of One, a pilot project in New York City.

Here is another attempt to change the school model to better fit modern students. Interesting to note that the program seems to not reduce the number of teachers or the cost of education, but rather to redirect the resources in a way that allows for more individualized instruction.

Very interesting.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Responding to the response to my response

The Citizen printed a letter in response to my letter of yesterday (see yesterday's post).

Read the response, by Rick Garber, if you wish.

It is always interesting when people manage to undercut their rebuttal with poor grammar. I can see at least two grammar errors in the three sentences.

He also misses the point of my letter. Stern spends almost his entire piece implying that liberal views do not mesh with reality. My response was to show how "illiberal" views also do not mesh with reality. Stern wants to use force to "restrain" people like the boy in question rather than trying to prevent the creation of more boys like this one. How does that make any sense in the context of limited resources? If your boat is leaking, the smart thing to do is to patch the hole instead of spending all your time bailing.

As for Stern's thesis, that evil exists, I don't disagree. But I firmly believe that you cannot decide that this 16 year old boy is evil based on one single account. Also, when it comes to confronting evil, I am much worried about evil in positions of power. There are plenty of dictators, warlords, and terrorist leaders in the world. It seems much smarter to me to worry about confronting them than some kid on Chicago's West Side. But, I guess it is easier to talk about "restraining" a 16 year-old in Chicago than dealing with some of the torturers who are the "good guys" in the War On Terror.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mind the gap

News stories often give statistics on gaps, differences in achievement or performance between different groups. The comparisons are often based on gender or ethnicity but can look at anything. Over the last little while, articles on education in media often look at various gaps between boys and girls in school.

One thing to watch out for when looking at gaps is that there are different ways to look at a discrepancy between two groups. For example, if we have a group of people who make $20,000 a year and another group who make $100,000 a year, we clearly have a gap. One way of defining the gap is to say that the difference is $80,000 a year. Another way of defining the gap is to say that the second group makes five times what the first group does.

Why does it matter how the gap is defined? To answer, I will continue with my example. Suppose after a series of government programs intended to close the income gap between these two groups that the first group's income has been increased by 50% to $30,000. During the same time the second group's income increased by 20% to $120,000 a year. Let's look at the gap again.

If we look at the gap as an absolute we now see that the difference in income is $90,000 a year. The gap is getting bigger! Does that mean that the government programs were a waste of time and money? Maybe not. If we look at the ratio of incomes, the second group no longer makes five times the income of the first group, the ratio has been reduced to four to one. So one way of looking says the gap is getting worse, another way says that the gap is being reduced. Which one is correct? Well, like most things in life, the answer is "that depends".

And what it depends on is the context of the information. If we are looking at which group is going to be purchasing more luxury vacations, then maybe the straight difference of $90,000 is the more important figure. If we are looking at more basic purchases such as housing or food, the ratio might tell the story more accurately. And, to make things more complicated, there are lots of other factors that probably should be considered before we can accurately talk about the gap. What about taxes? The high income group does not get to keep all of its $20,000 a year gain but taxes will be lower for the other group. That will affect the difference and the ratio too.

The critical thing is to recognize that there are multiple ways of looking at any statistical information and to try and find the one that makes most sense. If you want to improve your knowledge of statistics, I listed some possible websites in the comments section of my blog entry We want everyone to be above average?

Responding to the "illiberals"

This is not directly related to education, but I am proud that the Ottawa Citizen printed my letter to the editor.

I was responding to this piece. My response can be found here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Canada, child poverty, and education

An article in the Citizen today highlights a study showing Canada's worsening rate of child poverty. In terms of child poverty, children under 17 living in households with less than half the median income, Canada was 15th out of 17 countries, beating only the United States and Japan.

This matters to teachers, schools and the education system because poverty makes it harder for kids to do well in school. In the article, Brenda Lafleur, the lead author of the study says "So there are children who don't have enough food, shelter ... but then (the data) looks at how much it costs to go to school," she said. "What does it mean for a kid who can't go on a field trip or join a book exchange or have runners to take gym? All these add up."

The quality of the education that we give our children will be critical to the future economic development of our country and so all levels of government should be working hard on trying to reduce child poverty. But, our federal government is spending its resources on security (not poverty reduction) in the North, home renovation tax credits, and belittling the opposition. Our provincial government, while rightly banning the use of handheld communication devices in cars, is spending its time talking about banning the use of handheld devices while walking and dealing with financial scandals in government-run health and lottery programs. Meanwhile, the local school board is cutting budgets in schools because they are not getting enough money from the province to do everything that needs to be done.

When the next federal and provincial elections come around, I will be asking the candidates in my riding what their party is going to do about child poverty.

Standardized tests: analysing the analysis

In the Ottawa Citizen today there was an editorial that was critical of the performance of the local school boards in the recently released results of testing done by the Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) in Ontario.

This surprised me since yesterday I was blogging about a story in the Citizen talking about the same results. That story put a positive spin on the results, even though I felt the analysis was simplistic.

For those who want to look at the actual data instead of the simplistic summaries in the papers, go here and select a grade and year.

I wrote a letter to the editors of the Citizen, pointing out the flaws in the editorial, and I am also going to publish that letter here:

I would like to make a few comments about the editorial “Rising to the Test” in the Citizen on Friday, September 18. For the record, full disclosure: I am a public school board High School teacher in Math and Science (currently supply teaching).

My first comment is about interpretation of the test scores. All the results talk about the percentage of students who meet or exceed the provincial standards. For example, the Grade 3 reading test had 63% of students meet or exceed provincial standards. This makes it sound like 37% of Grade 3 students are failing in reading. However, when you look at the full results, you find that 27% of students achieved a Level 2 result, which is below provincial standards but is about the equivalent of a C. So, 90% of students are either within striking distance of provincial standards, have met the standards, or have exceeded them. Furthermore, in Grade 3 reading 8% of students scored at Level 1, which is approximately a D. In total, 98% of students got a result which would be a pass at school. Looked at one way, only 2% of are Grade 3 students are failing in reading. Yet the result that is put out by the Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is 63%. Could that be because if EQAO published a 98% pass rate then people might suggest that we don't need the EQAO?

Another comment I have deals with media interpretation of the results. The editorial states that “most Ottawa schools are underachieving.” Yet an online story in the Citizen yesterday had the headline “Area schools outperform provincial average in reading, writing, tests reveal”. So how did Ottawa area schools go from beating the provincial average to underachieving? The editorial mentions that for the public board “only 73 per cent of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in reading.” But 26% scored a level 2, Meaning that 99% of public board Grade 6 students are at least close to the standard. That does not sound like underachieving to me. If you want to truly claim that our schools are not up to snuff, you need to offer a better explanation than “ Many students in the nation's capital come from homes where the parents have high levels of education”, a statement that offers nothing to show how much better Ottawa should be doing based on this factor.

A third comment is about the statement “Strangely, some critics respond by questioning the value of standardized tests.” There is plenty of reason to be wary of standardized tests and their results, especially when that seems to be almost the only facet of education on which the media report. As an example, look at the statistic for primary math results published in the editorial. Ten years ago the primary math results were 56% (44% below standards) and now the result is 70% (30% below standard). So, in ten years we have gone from 44% to 30% below standards, almost a 1/3 decrease in poor results! Is this because math is taught so much better now than ten years ago? Not a chance.

Sure, some of the improvement is the result of improved teaching practices, but I am willing to bet a large sum of money that most of the improvement is because teachers have learned how to prepare their students for the test. I believe this is true because as a High School Mathematics teacher I see and hear about the Grade 9 EQAO Math test. A common refrain from teachers is that their students understand the questions quite well but have trouble answering them in the form that the test demands. The result is that teachers are forced to spend time teaching their students how to deal with the test format instead of teaching course content. So, results improve not because of more learning of content, but simply because of teaching to the test. If that does not raise at least some questions about the value of standardized testing, I do not know what will.

I agree that the results of standardized testing offer information that can be valuable when looking at how our well schools and boards are educating students. But the results need to be treated with care because the tests do not cover the whole curriculum, there are issues of teaching to the test, and there are issues with interpretation, especially as the results are often presented in a simplistic manner by the EQAO.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The old models of education are truly starting to be challenged

Here's an interesting article about a new thrust in online education.

The article postulates that it may be a decade or two before online courses really shake things up for universities. I'm guessing that some time after that a similar model for High School education is going to rock High Schools across North America, if not the whole world.

What is a cash-strapped school board going to do when a company like StraighterLine offers to teach all the Math classes for a flat fee per student that is way less than it costs that board to teach those classes? I'm pretty sure a bunch of the school boards are going to grab those savings. And once several boards prove that the online classes are as good as the old-style classes, then the dam is truly going to burst.

I had been thinking that my job as a High School teacher was recession and technology proof. Looks like I was wrong.

We want everyone to be above average?

The online version of the Ottawa Citizen just published a story about how well local school boards are doing relative to the provincial average.

As I read through the article, just about every statistic was compared with the provincial average. Essentially the article is saying "above average good, below average bad." This is not completely unreasonable, but it is simplistic and makes education look like a competition between school boards when it should be about simply doing what is best for the students.

The big problem with using average as the yardstick is that, no matter how you slice it, approximately half the school boards are going to be below average. That is how average works. Currently the province has a goal to have 75% of students score at the provincial standard or above on the EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) tests. As a reference, the provincial average for Grade 3 Math results is 70%. However, even if schools across the province made massive gains and all scored better than the 75% goal, still there would be about half the schools below average. Would that mean that those below average schools are bad? Nope, but that is probably what the media would report.

So, the moral of the story is that if you want to truly understand stories in the media, it is important to know about statistics and how the various statistical measures work. Otherwise you may end up trying to figure out a way to achieve the impossible of making everyone above average.

Breaking down barriers

In the Ottawa Citizen today, Elizabeth Payne wrote about a dance program being introduced in elementary schools in Ottawa. Her piece is unfortunately short on specifics but in general, I like the idea.

A quote from Hannah Beach, a dancer who created this program, is very telling:"I really think that we offer children such narrow ways to express themselves. Not all children have the capacity to use language in a way that helps them express themselves. Dance gives them those skills."

I agree. People are often limited by beliefs and barriers that have at least been partially imposed by outside forces. Beliefs like "I can't sing", "I'm no good at math", "I'm a lousy dancer" are usually started by other people. Over time, the beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies as people avoid the practice, trial and error that they would need to beat those limiting beliefs.

If this dance program can teach people to be creative and try things even when they don't feel confident, then I am all for it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tweaking to make things relevant II

My wife, Tania, told me this story yesterday.

Her Writer's Craft class is working on a research assignment where they find information about a certain historical period. The goal of the assignment is for the students to improve their research skills as writers often need to do research before writing, whether they are writing fiction or non-fiction. Tania has done this before and she and the teacher-librarian collaborate to put together the assignment and instructions for the students. As a side note, the teacher-librarian at my wife's school is terrific and exemplifies the combination of teacher and librarian that is so helpful to a school, its students, and its staff.

The best part of the story was how good use of technology allowed Tania and the teacher-librarian at her school to make the assignment more personalized and thus relevant and interesting for the students. Tania did sign ups for the various historical periods on Monday on her interactive whiteboard, which she saved as a PDF (Adobe Acrobat) file and emailed to the librarian. He then took the information from the PDF and added the student's names and chosen historical periods to his instruction sheet.

On Tuesday, when the students arrived at the library to begin their research, they received an up-to-date instruction sheet including the list of who had signed up for what. The students were impressed, which probably motivated them to work a little harder on their research.

Oh, speaking of technology, the results of the students' work will be posted to the class wiki. This means that anyone on the Internet can come across the students' work, read it, and use it. Compare that to a student handing in the research and only having the teacher read it, after which the work likely gets thrown out.

Stories like this are why I am such a big fan of appropriate use of technology in education.

The world is catching up

Well, you can sure tell which days I am not supply teaching. If you need a hint, try looking for days with multiple posts. :)

Anyway..., I was looking at some information from Statistics Canada on educational attainment, the percentage of people who have obtained a university degree. The good news is that "Canada surpassed 23 of the 30 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2007 regarding the proportion of its population aged 25 to 64 that had a university degree." Further good news is that more young Canadians are getting university educations than older Canadians did, 29% of Canadians aged 25 to 34 versus 21% of Canadians aged 55 to 64.

The bad news is that though our attainment rates are rising, they are not rising as fast as those in other countries. The 21% rate for ages 55 to 64 ranks us fourth out of thirty but the 29% for the age 25 to 34 bracket only ranks us twelfth out of 30. Other countries are catching up. This is worrisome.

Even more worrisome to me is that China and India, with about 20% of the world's population combined, are not listed because they are not members of the OECD. How fast are their university graduation rates rising?

All this makes me feel even more strongly that our education system has to keep working towards fully educating every student. Competition for jobs and opportunities is now world-wide because of the "flattening" of the world (read The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman if you want to know more). We cannot afford to be in the position of having a population where a larger percentage than other countries cannot compete for jobs and opportunities because of a lack of education.

The issue of homework

Well, last night my wife and I ran into our first piece of "homework from Hell". Our seven-year-old daughter who has just started Grade 2 in the regular, English stream brought home a review sheet about patterns. The sheet was double sided and contained approximately ten questions where the students were asked to work with patterns. Each question required the student to do more than one thing, for example in one question the students had to identify the pattern as increasing or decreasing, fill in the next two numbers, and write down the pattern rule. Each individual question was very reasonable but with all the questions and all the parts, this was a lot of work.

The upshot of all this is that after 40 minutes of work supervised by either me or my wife (we switched off twice because of how hard this was for us) the sheet was only about 2/3 finished. As my daughter asked plaintively if she could stop, I agreed. I wrote a little note to the teacher in my daughter's agenda about how long she had worked and how much got done. We will see how the teacher responds, if at all.

Now, the big deal about this is not the piece of homework and how long it took. I suspect that this will be an isolated incident. However, if we repeatedly get pieces like this, my wife and I will deal with it.

The big issue that I recognized is that my wife and I are both teachers. Not only do we have a good sense about how much homework is too much or too hard (most parents do, in my opinion) but we have the confidence and the means to express our opinions and make sure that they are heard by the teacher and the school. Just for starters, my wife and I are both on the school board email system so it is dead easy for us to fire off an email to the teacher.

But I started thinking about parents who do not have as many links and insights into the school system. What happens with them and their children if the teacher starts sending home too much homework, or work that is too hard? And I suspect that the answer is not good. I am willing to bet that when parents do not have the knowledge and/or the confidence to talk and negotiate with the teacher and the school about homework their children get buried under the mound of work they are told to do.

All this reminds me that, as a teacher, I need to be really careful and thoughtful about homework. There is a lot of debate in educational circles about the value of reducing homework. In my Honours Specialist upgrade course we had to do some research on the pros and cons of homework. Not every student benefits from homework while at the same time some students definitely do. If we want our students to get the maximum value out of their education we teachers need to find a way to build in some flexibility.

I am working on an idea to offer students choice in homework while still making sure that the homework is helping them. That however, is a topic for a future post.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The value of having technology in place

In the Ottawa Citizen this morning was a story about Bruce Cockburn playing concerts for Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. In particular, the article mentions "Cockburn sang his classic antiwar song If I Had A Rocket Launcher at every stop."

This seeming discrepancy of playing an antiwar song for soldiers made me think of how I would bring this into a classroom if I were teaching English or History. I thought about how I would want to show students the newspaper story and then I would want them to look at the lyrics of If I Had a Rocket Launcher. It might even be nice if I could play the song for the students. The quickest and easiest way to get the article, the lyrics, and the song is on the Internet. What is the quickest and easiest way for me to show students what is on the Web? Having an LCD projector in the room so that I can project what is on the computer onto a big screen. Unfortunately, most classrooms do not have a projector. Sometimes a department will have one that you might be able to sign out, but that means that you may not be able to get the projector on short notice.

If I don't have a projector, I have to print out the information and make photocopies or overhead sheets. That takes time, uses school resources (paper or acetates), and might mean that I can't teach this lesson until the next school day. Since today is Friday, that means not until Monday. Well, on Monday the lesson is not so topical and fresh and I am not as excited about it. On Monday, this is not as good a lesson as it would be today.

If technology is not in place, then teachers are forced to either ignore opportunities to produce topical lessons, or else teach those lessons later, likely not as effectively, when they can finally sign out or sign up for the technology that is required. When schools have technology in place, teachers can seize opportunities to use current information in their lessons to help make the lessons more relevant, meaningful, and interesting to the students. Which kind of school would you rather have?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How is a teacher like an NFL Quarterback?

Wow, Malcolm Gladwell continues to blow my mind!

Most Likely to Succeed compares the difficulty of finding a good NFL quarterback with the difficulty of hiring a good teacher. How are the two similar? "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired."

Some more quotes from the article:

"Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher."

"A group of researchers ... have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master's degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom."

Gladwell shows that good teaching trumps almost any other factor in education. My question is, "how do we use this"? His suggestion for the education field is to hire teachers without tenure and pay them based on performance, letting go those who are not good enough. An interesting suggestion, but determining teacher performance is always problematical.

How do you decide which teacher brings the most value to the school? How do you mesh teaching performance with contributions to the school like coaching sports teams, directing school plays, or supervising the student's council? How do you score quality versus quantity? Is it better to coach five mediocre sports teams or one National Champion?

If Malcolm can write an article about that, then he will REALLY blow my mind.

Old vs. new

Doing some reading I came upon this blog entry about our school system: School Year.

The author, Kateland, finds a lot of problems with our current school system and the way it is going. She singles out the Ministry of Education as being the major cause of the problem. Without agreeing or disagreeing with her assessment of the Ministry, I would like to look at one of her thoughts.

Here is one of her comments: "Apparently it is considered much improved to visualize a group of seven things filled with 8 items each and then count out the answer but I cannot imagine solving algebra equations when I do not know instantly that “X” times “Y” equals “N” without a moment’s thought."

As a Math teacher, I hear what she is saying, and certainly in the past many people have memorized their multiplication tables and learned to solve algebraic equations. But today anyone can do any multiplication on their calculator, or for most students, their cellphone, and I can teach people to solve algebraic equations using algebra tiles in a way that does not require knowledge of multiplication tables. So it does not seem necessary to me that we force all students to memorize their multiplication tables.

I want to be really clear here. I definitely recognize that for many students, memorizing multiplication tables will be useful. But education today has to be about trying to teach every student in the class in the best way possible. Teachers can no longer teach any skill just one way. We need to use all the tools at our disposal, multiplication tables, calculators, algebra tiles, computers, and more to find a way to teach students in ways that they will understand, value, and remember.

To me the key thing as a teacher is to recognize which students would really benefit from memorizing multiplication tables and which students will be fine doing everything on their calculators. Or who should learn to solve equations with algebra tiles and who will simply be faster with the old, more abstract way. That is what teaching has to be about in the new, flattening, globalized world.

The times they are a changin'

My wife is also a High School teacher, and she mentioned how hard it is to book a computer lab for a class at her school. That got me thinking about how computers are becoming more and more necessary to education.

Currently, I would say that if a school of 1000 students has 300 computers for those students, some for students taking computer or computer technology courses, some for use by classes, that school is doing pretty well. What is going to happen when a computer becomes indispendable and all 1000 students need one? How are schools going to afford it?

Having a computer for every student is almost certainly not in the budget for any school board, but like I think the day is coming when every student will need a computer to get the best possible value out of his or her education. Maybe we, as a society, need to move away from a model of education where every High School student is in every class every day.

Many of these students have computers at home that are sitting idle while the student is at school. If the student was allowed to be at home while "attending school" through webcams, Second Life, or other technology, then he or she would have a computer without the school board having to pay for it.

Maybe the day is coming when students will be able to telecommute to school in the same way that some adults are telecommuting to work.

Tweaking to make things relevant

Yesterday I was supply teaching in a Technology class. The students were working with HTML and were given an assignment to complete a table of the top 5 Billboard songs, by adding artist and a picture of the album cover.

I have seen lots of assignments like this over the years, but what was neat about this one was that the list of songs was an actual current list from this week. Most of the time these types of assignments still use the information from whenever it was made (6 months ago, a year ago, two years ago...) which means the assignment seems stupid to the students. By taking the time to make the information current, this teacher made the assignment more relevant and more interesting to his students.

It is worth noting that tweaking the assignment was easy for the teacher because there was no physical handout. The assignment was stored on the school's server in a "handout" folder. To make the change, the teacher only had to edit the file. He did not need to then go and photocopy a class set. When technology makes it easy to keep assignments up to date, that means more teachers can do so and students will be a little more interested. Gotta love technology!