Monday, October 26, 2009

Single Gender Schooling in the news

The Ottawa Citizen had an editorial today on the Toronto District School Board looking at opening an all-boys public school.

This issue of single gender schooling and classrooms has been in the news a bit over the last few years as parents, teachers, and administrators try to find ways of reducing the "achievement gap" between boys and girls in school. Now, as I blogged about earlier, we need to be a little bit careful when we talk about gaps. Still, there is quite a bit of anecdotal and research evidence that at least some boys are not being well served by our current education system.

One idea that comes up is the idea of single gender classes (in coed schools) or single gender schools. I did some reading today about single gender classes and the overall research seems to be mixed. I think the best quotes that I saw talked about the need for teacher training if single gender classes are to have an effect.

from Gender based courses:
Dr. Leonard Sax, director of the National Association of Single Sex Public Education, a nonprofit organization that supports the availability of same-sex educational programs when appropriate, said segregating classes without extensive teacher training and parental input can quickly backfire on administrators.
“You can engage girls in computer science. You can engage boys in art and creative writing. But that doesn’t happen automatically,” he said. “Just putting girls in one room and boys in another accomplishes very little. In can actually have adverse effects if teachers don’t have appropriate training.”
Without the proper training and without enough parental and administrative involvement, Sax said, the classes can reinforce society’s gender norms, not circumvent them.
“If you simply put girls in one room and boys in another, and teachers have not had appropriate training, the result is that you end up reinforcing gender stereotypes,” he said. “You end up teaching girls with shopping analogies and boys with sports analogies. That’s not helpful, because not all boys like sports and not all girls like to shop.”

Another point that I remember reading several years ago, but could not find when I went looking, is that many teachers naturally connect better with either boys or girls. I wish I could find the article where I first read this, but personally, it seems to be true. Our first assumption would likely be that men are better at teaching boys and women are better at teaching girls, but this is not always the case. I know that in my teaching, I have typically had a better teacher-student connection with the girls in my classes than with the boys. I have also run across an all-girls class taught by a woman where there was clearly a major lack of connection between the teacher and the students. This means that schools looking at staffing single gender classes need to be aware of the fact that it can be tricky to put the right teacher in front of a room full of boys or girls.

A final point goes to my wife's experience teaching English this year. She has embraced a lot of technology in the form of using wikis and a SMARTBoard interactive white board. Using technology, along with some other ideas she picked up from professional reading, has allowed her to bring in more interesting resources (e.g. Google Earth instead of a photocopied map), get students doing different activities than they normally have in an English class, and offer more choice to students. The response has been that several parents of boys have told her "For the first time, my son is enjoying English class." Now, typically, my wife has not connected super well with boys, but her differentiated teaching as well as adoption of useful technologies has let her get a lot more interest, enthusiasm and participation out of the boys in her class. So, in the end, maybe the way to fix the "gender gap" is just better teaching, not anything structural or administrative.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Looking at the States

Another New York Times column of interest, "The Quiet Revolution". David Brooks talks about what Obama is doing for education reform in the United States.

The most interesting part of the article for me is where Brooks talks about teacher unions as one of the main obstacles to education reform. This makes me uncomfortable, because I am a member of a teachers' union, but I feel like I am a strong proponent of education reform. I fully recognize that teachers' unions can be stupid and short-sighted when it comes to changes and reforms. But one thing that I think education reform advocates miss is that a lot of reforms in the past have been poorly executed and have hurt teachers in ways that hurt the education system. The teachers' unions are all, to some degree, trying to prevent those kinds of mistakes from happening again.

Brooks says:
The changes also will mean student performance will increasingly be a factor in how much teachers get paid and whether they keep their jobs. There is no consensus on exactly how to do this (my italics), but there is clear evidence that good teachers produce consistently better student test scores, and that teachers who do not need to be identified and counseled. Cracking the barrier that has been erected between student outcomes and teacher pay would be a huge gain.

The problem with making a reform when "there is no consensus on exactly how to do this" is that the reform can easily be done poorly. And teachers have too many experiences of short-sighted, foolish, or politically motivated administrators and politicians shoving lousy "reform" down their throats to be sanguine that this particular reform will magically come out all right.

For my part, statements like "there is clear evidence that good teachers produce consistently better student test scores" sound great, but what exactly does that mean in terms of dealing with teachers. Are three years of bad results evidence of bad teaching? Five bad years? Two good years, then three bad ones? A good year, two bad ones, another good year, then another two bad ones? It seems like no one knows, yet the reformers want programs in place NOW to link student results to teacher pay and job security. Pardon my cynicism, but I find it hard to believe that a program put in place with this little understanding has much of a chance of working fairly or properly or efficiently.

If education reformers want to get the majority of teachers on their side, the reformers need to come up with some valid and verifiable ways of linking student outcomes to teacher pay. Anything else is going to harm and infuriate the teachers who are the ones who will truly be implementing any reforms.

Friedman on the link between education and the American Depression

I just read a piece by Thomas Friedman called "The New Untouchables" where he links the weakness of the American education system to the Depression they are currently experiencing. (For the Americans it is a capital D Depression, it seems.)

Friedman says:
Just being an average accountant, lawyer, contractor or assembly-line worker is not the ticket it used to be. As Daniel Pink, the author of “A Whole New Mind,” puts it: In a world in which more and more average work can be done by a computer, robot or talented foreigner faster, cheaper “and just as well,” vanilla doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put on top. So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.

This is why our schools have to keep trying to improve. Even though the media and a lot of the public scream when the schools and boards try and adopt more modern methods of assessment and evaluation, we (teachers and other educators) have to keep trying to make good changes, even if the changes seem too "newfangled" to the casual observer. Going back to the "tried and true" methods of education is not going to work because we live in a different world now.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I did not realize the money situation was this bad

I just read a piece by Roger Martin talking about how funding for education in Canada, and particularly Ontario has been lagging compared to the US.

Martin's comments about how governments typically choose to consume current prosperity rather than investing in future prosperity is very interesting. I had not looked at policy choices in those terms before. It is an informative way to look at policy. Obviously it is a bit too sacrificial to solely invest in future prosperity, but just as obviously it is blind and selfish to solely choose to consume current prosperity.

I knew that Mike Harris had screwed over teachers as much as he possibly could, but I did not realize the degree to which education cuts have put us in a bad position. The new flat world means that we need knowledgeable citizens. If we fall behind in the knowledge economy, our children or grandchildren will be limited to working as call center reps answering technical questions for the really well educated people in India and China.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Edreformer looking at teacher evaluation

Edreformer has two blog entries today looking at teacher evaluation. Frequent conversation as teacher evaluation and Rhee-engaged. The entry about Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC laying off teachers who were poor performers rather than lowest on the seniority list is quite interesting.

Both entries and their links talk about the need to improve teacher evaluation, and I agree completely. Teachers who are weak need to be told that and they need to be helped to get better or they need to be removed from the system. And evaluations simply CANNOT be once a year or once every two years if they are to be effective. The evaluations need to be regular and positively focused. As well, teachers who are doing a good job need to be publicly praised, materially rewarded, and set up as role models for other teachers.

The one thing that I did see missing from the talk about teacher evaluation was proper support for all teachers, both weak and strong. So many teachers who try to do good jobs are told that they cannot have the resources (books, computers, movies, etc.) that they need, typically for budgetary reasons. But how can we expect teachers to be excited and passionate about teaching when almost all their ideas are shot down for non-pedagocial reasons? It is so easy for those teachers to give up on doing a good job and just inhabit the system. As part of any modified system of teacher evaluation, the education system needs a complimentary system to make sure that needed resources.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Math education in the news

Today, The Ottawa Citizen ran two stories about Mathematics and Math education. One story talks about fear of math and the other story talks about how much math people actually need. Reading the stories in the Citizen got me to another link "You will never use this Math again".

These stories are interesting to me since Math is what I used to teach and is also where I get most of my supply teaching work.

The "You will never use..." story is interesting in that it asks some valid questions about just how useful is our math teaching program? I was pleased to note that of the less useful topics referred to in the story, imaginary numbers and conic sections are no longer on the Ontario high school curriculum and rational functions is part of the optional Advanced Functions Grade 12 course. It is completely possible to graduate from high school, and even to get a grade 12 math credit (Math of Data Management) without being forced to learn any of those abstract subjects.

One point that Citizen's stories make is that in the past high schools and universities have often used mathematics results for the purposes of screening students, deciding who gets into what program. But Bill Byers, a retired math professor makes the point "...unless we can assure that the teaching of mathematics is really top rate, then what's the point of using mathematics to screen students?" This point becomes particularly troublesome when you think about Byers anecdote of the PhD female biologist who said that she could not do math. I have to agree with Byers' assessment. Of course she can do math! Someone, or several someones over the years, have brainwashed her. How many other students are we brainwashing?

"Now consider the fact that the vast majority of elementary school teachers are women, many of them raised before the math enlightenment. " from the fear article.

"The teachers who teach math should be trained in the teaching of math. If it turns out that the people teaching math hated math as students, then you are only adding to the problem." (Byers says)

People are already too prone to think that they are flat out good or bad at things, and that those strengths and weaknesses cannot be modified. Worse, people assume that if they are weak at something, they should just avoid it, instead of working harder. Our education system, and the teachers in it need to work extra hard to not reinforce those harmful beliefs. We need to teach all students that they can learn any subject, and that difficulty in a subject requires more work, not avoidance.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Why we need a new school model

I was sitting in the Staff Room of Lisgar Collegiate Institute the other day and the conversation turned to the stresses and expectations placed on teachers by the students. In particular, one French teacher commented on how hard it is to teach when, in a class of 25 or so, you have a half dozen students who complete work quickly and ask for more while at the same time you have a half-dozen students who are struggling with the material and need help.

Thinking about this conversation supported my belief that the school model needs to change to allow more individualized instruction. In particular, I think we need to use computers and other technologies to make it possible for students to learn at their own pace. There is no reason other than practicality that all students in a course have to take 5 months (in a semestered system) to learn the material. The reality is some students can learn the material in a month or two and other students may need 7 or eight months. Putting everybody on a 5 month time frame bores the most talented students and forces the weakest students to struggle. This is not a recipe for good education.

Here are some quotes from a speech by Jeb Bush reported on the EdReformer blog. I am no Bush fan of any kind, but what Jeb is saying makes sense and fits with what I have seen about the education system.
" an individualized system, students wouldn’t necessarily take the same test on the same day. Testing would occur when a student had mastered the required skills."
"...students could take more advanced classes and dually enroll in college before even graduating from high school."
"How could we possibly do this for 50 million students? We need to harness technology to tailor lessons to each child’s learning style and ability. This concept was only a dream a generation ago. Now it can be accomplished."
"We have the ability to create the iTunes of the education world where teachers and students could access rich and rigorous content from different sources to create a learning experience that meets the individual needs of the students."
"Technology wouldn’t replace the teacher but it would redefine their role. Lectures might be given online to thousands of students, while classroom teachers might become more like coaches or tutors available to provide one-on-one support, again based on whatever the student needed."

When I agree with Jeb Bush society needs to pay attention. The model of schooling and education in North America needs to be modified and updated.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Friedman on the "New Sputnik"

Another post not directly related to education, but I think this issue is going to change the world soon, so we better start thinking about it.

Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat) recently wrote a column about China's move towards green technologies.

I was struck by a couple of Friedman's points. First, he says "China’s leaders, mostly engineers, wasted little time debating global warming. They know the Tibetan glaciers that feed their major rivers are melting." The contrast with our leaders, who are lawyers and economists, jumps out at me.

Then Friedman adds "But they also know that even if climate change were a hoax, the demand for clean, renewable power is going to soar as we add an estimated 2.5 billion people to the planet by 2050, many of whom will want to live high-energy lifestyles. In that world, E.T. — or energy technology — will be as big as I.T., and China intends to be a big E.T. player."

The bottom line is that countries that want to be important in the world in 2050 had better set up their political, education, and economic systems to produce and support energy efficiency and renewable energies. Countries that do not will be the Third World countries of the mid-21st century.