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October 9, 2013

Can tests be worth teaching to?

It’s widely accepted that teaching to the test is a bad thing. The phrase itself summons images of robotic children reciting factoids and filling in bubbles with their number 2 pencils. The practice is said to suppress creativity and critical thought, and crowd out subjects and topics that aren’t tested. Classrooms become joyless.

But what if test prep didn’t mean memorization drills and a stripped down curriculum? What if students couldn’t tell the difference between assessment and a really interesting lesson?  What if the test was something teachers wanted to teach to?

That is one of the challenges the “next generation assessments” are attempting to meet. Two state consortia (PARCC and SMARTER Balance) are currently at work on tests aligned to the Common Core that will “measure the full range” of the new standards. This will include the abilities to think critically and creatively, reason mathematically and communicate effectively — skills that aren’t typically associated with standardized, multiple choice tests.

The consortia greatly benefit by the involvement of the country’s leaders in performance assessment, that is, tests designed to mimic rich “authentic” classroom instruction. The $346 million in federal dollars doesn’t hurt either.  Still, developing these tests while making sure they meet high psychometric standards for validity and reliability is an enormous task. Even if they succeed at creating the instruments, will the tests have the desired effect on teaching?

A new report from the RAND Corporation seeks to answer the question, can standardized tests be worth teaching to? The authors of New Assessments, Better Instruction reviewed over 130 studies examining the relationship between high stakes testing and instruction. They offer a qualified “yes”— as long as certain conditions are met.  These conditions don’t only relate to the test design, but also to policies governing implementation and accountability that lawmakers at all levels should heed.

First, the tests themselves. According to the report, the assessments should “mirror high-quality instruction.”  So-called “deeper learning” isn’t easily modeled in multiple-choice format. The authors caution that producing rich assessments may require sacrificing some reliability related to scores, but add that the resulting impact on instruction may be worth it.

The RAND authors also recognize the importance of finding the right balance for accountability. They write:

Research on the ways that high-stakes tests influence instruction suggests that if the test is unimportant or irrelevant to students, teachers, administrators, and parents, it is unlikely to have an effect on instruction. On the other hand, if there are very high stakes attached …. there may be severe “teaching to the test” that does not promote real deeper learning but focuses on superficial features of items.

The solution? Multiple measures for teacher and principal evaluation , accountability based on growth as well as status, and an integrated system that includes low-stakes, formative assessments for tracking student progress along with the high-stakes, end-of-year summative tests.

Already examples are emerging from the consortia that illustrate what tests worth teaching to might look like. The CPE team has been having a lot of fun trying out the SMARTER Balanced practice tests.  We admit some of these items had us momentarily humbled, but we still maintain we’re smarter than a 5th grader.  Try them out for yourselves here.

More importantly, we think that assessments like these could drive deeper learning and instruction especially if combined with sensible accountability policies.

Filed under: Assessments,Common Core,instruction,national standards — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 10:53 am





September 25, 2013

Benefits of state-designed curricular resources

TeacherIn late August, Texas State Senator Dan Patrick stood before the Texas Board of Education and argued against state-designed lesson plans. One of the central concerns of Senator Patrick and his growing mass of supporters was that state-aligned lesson plans, assessments and curricular tools from the TEKs Resource System (TEKs), Texas’ curriculum-management network, contained anti-American and anti-Christian values. Senator Patrick made the case that these flaws encouraged children to challenge family traditions that many Texan’s subscribed to. The senator also feared that TEKs materials were imposing centralized, common core related policies, which stripped local school districts of their autonomy. Whether or not Senator Patrick’s arguments are valid, what’s troubling is that he and his supporters haven’t acknowledged the general merits of state-developed resources or the state standards they uphold. As such, it is both timely and vital to explore two critical merits and their relevance to public education leaders.

1. Don’t set standards without thoroughly explaining them

Although, many policymakers are leery of centralized, state control over education, few argue for the complete dismantling of state education standards. Even Senator Patrick seems to agree with some form of academic commonality between districts. So, if most people generally agree that Texas, and all states, should spend time, money and human capital choosing standards then state officials surely must create measures to help schools hold students to those standards. To phrase this point as a question, does it make sense to place effort into setting expectations for curricula without ensuring that teachers understand those expectations and know how to apply them to their lessons? After all, curricular standards are purposefully written with brevity and broadness so that teachers have flexibility when designing individual lessons. While expert teachers may thrive with that freedom and require little support connecting standards to their curricula, inexperienced teachers do not possess the pedagogical experience to reach the same conclusions. But even with veteran educators, state-designed materials cross the bridge between standards and lessons so that all educators catch a glimpse of what’s expected on the ground level.

2. New teachers need curricular resources from experienced teachers

Hovering around 50%, it’s no secret that teacher attrition rates are a major issue in U.S. public schools. An article from the Huffington Post reminds Americans that a lack of quality resources and support is a major contributor to the large number of teachers that leave the workforce. Considering this, policymakers must acknowledge that, aside from political disputes about specific messages, new teachers need to know how veterans lesson plan. More specifically, beginners must learn how to take a broad, complex topic and separate it into monthly, weekly, daily and moment-to-moment components that are logically sequenced, aligned to state standards and challenging for students. Since state curriculum developers are proven educators, their eye for lesson planning should not be overlooked by new teachers even if the message behind particular lessons is disagreeable. Materials from other experts should be given equal consideration so that new teachers can hone their particular teaching style from a variety of quality resources.

Taking a step back, its important for education leaders and parents to acknowledge that support for some level of state standards necessitates an explanation of those standards at the school level from experienced educators. When clarity of those expectations is provided, parents can take solace in the added support and guidance that it provides to new teachers as they learn how to explain material. Political debates about content messages should, of course, not be ignored. However, they should include the general merits of states assisting districts in lesson plan sharing and support. – Jordan Belton

Filed under: CPE,instruction,standards — Jordan Belton @ 10:55 am





August 7, 2013

New York and Others Gain 300 Instructional Hours through TIME Initiative

Time-to-SucceedWhat would you do with 300 additional hours in a year? Would you take up a cross-stitching? Learn to speak Italian? Or, would you recommit to your ill-fated New Year’s resolution to exercise more?

New York’s Rochester Central School District, along with several other districts in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Tennessee are facing this very opportunity for the 2013-2014 academic year. They are each part of a three-year pilot initiative—to affect over 11,000 students—whose objective is to “boost student achievement and make U.S. schools more competitive on a global level”. The San Francisco Chronicle article highlights how an additional 300 hours in school equates to about 50 additional days of instruction. Just imagine what teachers and students can accomplish with all of that extra instructional time!

As demonstrated in the Center for Public Education’s article “Making Time: At a Glance,” research surrounding time in school supports the following three key ideas:

  • More school time can produce more school learning when time is geared towards academic activities (as opposed to extracurricular or non-academic areas).
  • Professional development can ease this transition by focusing on maximizing class time and student engagement.
  • Full-day kindergarten participants make more gains than their half-day program peers.

How are the five chosen elementary schools of the Rochester Central School District going to change in light of the Time for Innovation Matters in Education (TIME) initiative?

Students will spend an additional 90 minutes per day in school, with staff following flexible scheduling and staggered start times to ensure adequate staff-to-student ratios while keeping costs at a reasonable level.

Schools are encouraged to “reimagine” their schedules to offer academic enrichment, fine arts, and increased access for counseling opportunities and community projects. Some schools are developing thematic approaches to the increased time, proposing STEM learning; a focus on arts, health, and wellness; and college-and-career-geared visits to local cultural institutions.

According to in-school surveys, students are excited about the prospects of extended hours and their potential exposure to new and exciting ways of learning. Who wouldn’t be excited about building robots to roam the hallways, learning about the latest healthcare breakthroughs, and visiting museums?! The bottom line is that each community has collectively agreed to “step up” its game to improve student achievement in ways that are relevant and meaningful to budding learners.

Besides increased scores on state assessments, other outcomes measures expected to show improvement are attendance rates, participation/student engagement, and reductions in office referrals. Fortunately for this New York school district, administration, teachers, parents, and students are on board with the TIME initiative to boost test scores and improve the district’s dismal 43% graduation rate.

Programs expanding the amount of time children spend in school can be incredibly expensive and difficult to sustain over time. With an initial investment of over $3 million/year (guaranteed for the next three years) from the Ford Foundation, plus start-up funding from a variety of state and federal grants, the New York school district anticipates additional costs ranging from $1,200-$1,300/student (with 2,300 students served).

The average employee in the labor force might not be too enthused about spending the equivalence of an additional 50 days at work every year (understatement of the year!), but the community of Rochester Central School District is ready to invest in the time and resources needed to turnaround their underperforming public schools. I, for one, am rooting for each participating district in the hopes that each one can serve as a microcosm of scalable success.-Christine Duchouquette

Filed under: CPE,funding,instruction — Tags: , , — Christine @ 2:47 pm





May 3, 2013

Exciting possibilities: Coursera and professional development courses

Coursera, an organization currently facilitating free online access to courses taught by college professors, has announced it will be dipping its toes into the professional development arena.  I have to admit that when I read this headline, I was thrilled.  For teachers to have free, online access to courses offered by experts on education research and teaching methods is a step in the right direction.

First, these courses could allow schools to have resources for teachers to improve their skills that are differentiated for the specific content teachers teach.  Because hiring consultants is expensive, districts often rely on generic workshops that they offer to all teachers.  I’ve sat through my fair share of these: classroom management, assessment, alignment.  However, research shows that teachers aren’t interested in generic professional development, and it doesn’t have an impact on teacher practice or student achievement.  On the other hand, professional development that is tailored to the content one teaches, specifically exploring the elements of the course students struggle with, has been shown to make a real difference in teachers’ practice and students’ learning.  With free online courses, teachers could focus on courses tailored to their content area.

Furthermore, each teacher brings his or her own unique set of strengths and weakness to the profession.  Teaching is a job that demands a lengthy list of skills which are both emotional and cognitive.  Just as some students have more natural talents in certain areas than others, the same is true with teachers.  When I co-taught a class with another teacher, I got to see this full force.  My co-teacher managed the emotional needs of a class flawlessly, while my own strengths were in lesson planning.  Working together, we got to improve our areas of weakness.  Having online courses which are free for teachers allows teachers to think about what areas they need to improve on, taking courses focused on those areas instead of sitting through PD sessions not tailored to their area of need.  Just like we urge teachers to differentiate for students, recognizing that not all students are the same, access to online PD taught by experts allows for differentiation for teachers.

Second, it could save districts lots of professional development money that they can spend more wisely.  There’s a decent amount of evidence to show that districts spend a substantial amount of money on professional development, anywhere from 2 to 7% of their total budget.  Unfortunately, most of that spending is going towards one-shot, generic workshops.  Consultants are expensive, certainly one reason that districts can only afford to have whole-school, generic sessions instead of content-specific sessions.  Nonetheless, by spending copious amounts of money on consultants and staff for workshops, districts often don’t build in professional development support as teachers aim to implement those new skills into the classroom.  The reason that’s problematic is that research studies consistently show that teachers struggle immensely with new skills during implementation of those skills in the classroom, and that without support at this stage, teachers are likely to get frustrated and simply abandon the new skill altogether.  Of course, this makes sense.  Learning how to write is easier than actually writing; learning how to ride a bike is easier than actually riding a bike. Implementation is challenging.  Therefore, schools need to develop support during the implementation stage.   When schools do this, through individual instructional coaches who observe and conference with teachers or through time for collaboration, teachers improve their teaching and students learn more.

However, having teachers meet with coaches or collaborate with colleagues takes time, and teacher time is exceptionally expensive.  School districts either have to buy this time in a teacher’s contract, pay substitutes to cover classes, or hire more staff to reduce teaching loads.  Despite that fact, research on professional development shows that opening up this time and having teachers supported during implementation of new skills is exceptionally important.  In an analysis of over 1,300 studies of professional development programs, researchers found that programs that were less than 14 hours had no impact on student achievement .   But if schools were able to cut down on some of their consultant costs by having teachers participate in free, open Coursera courses, schools might be able to buy more teacher time for deep learning experiences such as coaching or collaboration.

Of course, in all discussions about the role of online courses, it’s important to note that they can never stand alone as one’s only exposure to learning, something that’s been validated repeatedly .  However, there’s good reason to think these courses could be a nice addition to a school’s professional development tool kit.  –Allison Gulamhussein

Filed under: CPE,instruction,online learning,teachers — Tags: , — Allison @ 10:06 am





April 23, 2013

The Common Core: Too Much, Too Fast?

The short answer: no and maybe.

Now to the long answer.

As a new teacher, one of the first concepts you learn is “scaffolding.”  Like the scaffolds beside a building, scaffolding in teaching is about building a supportive structure piece by piece so a student can get somewhere he or she couldn’t get by themselves.  A teacher might model with a “think aloud” of how to read for tone or teach symbolism with an easy text as a scaffold for analyzing symbolism in a more difficult text.  However, with a scaffold, a teacher doesn’t let the student off the hook, settling on an easier task the student can easily accomplish.  The student also isn’t just thrown into the deep end, urged to master a complex skill with no support.  The student is supported until he or she achieves a challenging goal independently. 

It struck me that just like teachers have to scaffold for students, we might think about scaffolding districts’ implementation of the Common Core and the bevy of high stakes tests that accompany the new standards. Just this month, students in New York City public schools took their first round of Common Core aligned exams, and the results were not pretty .  Teachers, parents, students, and principals reported the test elicited a number of responses, from humorous, to ludicrous, to heartbreaking:     

  • A child waking up from a nightmare where he was murmuring about bubbling in an exam
  • Weekend and after school test prep classes
  • Teachers teaching students yoga to help students relax during testing
  • Pep rallies to encourage students before exams
  • Rampant student stress and anxiety
  • Students crying at the end of the exams

In response, many have begun to question adoption of the Common Core, period.  Several parents have even decided to opt their children out of testing all together.  To some degree, one can certainly understand their frustration. 

Common Core implementation (which is soon to be met in many places with rigorous exams aligned with the more rigorous standards which are tied to high-stakes decisions like a teacher’s employment) is coming at an exceptionally fast pace.  Right before the start of the 2010-2011 school year, many states decided to adopt the Common Core.  However, after adoption, states had to coordinate their own roll out of the standards, and districts likewise had to process and design approaches to the new standards.  In the midst of all of this, classroom teachers had to learn a new curriculum and rewrite their own curriculums, learning and mastering new ways to teach in response to the Core. For teachers in New York, (assuming the most generous timeline where time for realigning the curriculum was given to teachers immediately upon state adoption) teachers would have had a maximum of two years before being held to high stakes tests aligned to the Core.  For anyone whose ever written the curriculum for a course within the time constraints of a public school teacher’s job, you know this is not enough.

In fact, that’s exactly the argument that’s been coming out of New York.  New York Times journalist, Kyle Spencer characterized the rapid pace of adoption in New York:

The standards are so new that many New York schools have yet to fully adopt new curriculums—including reading material, lesson plans, and exercises—to match.  And the textbook industry had not completely caught up either. State and city officials have urged teachers over the last year to begin working in some elements of new curriculums, and have offered lesson plans and tutorials on official Web sites.  But they acknowledge that scores will most likely fall from last year’s levels.

There’s a frenetic, sink or swim approach to implementing these reforms, and in that rush, policy makers are risking losing the Core altogether as backlash builds.

However, while the frustration of parents, students, and school faculty is valid, the answer is not to completely get rid of the Common Core.  The Common Core is a step forward in making schools locations of critical thought.  Consider some of the criticism of the Common Core coming from the New York area.  After taking a Common Core aligned test, a sixth grade student noted that, “When they ask, ‘What’s the main idea?’ and you have to put it in your own words, it’s a lot harder.”  Another student felt like she didn’t have enough time to fully complete her written essay on the exam.  Both of these tasks ask students to do things that we as a society want citizens to do, read something, comprehend it, and then respond with one’s own ideas.  After all, isn’t this the heart of a democracy—being able to understand ideas and express your own? Of course, this would certainly be less difficult for students if they weren’t asked to write, and instead only had to fill in multiple choice bubbles based on easier readings.  However, is reverting back to these easier tasks really the answer?   

Though getting rid of the Common Core isn’t the answer, districts and teachers (just like students learning new, complex concepts) do need scaffolds to transform classroom instruction to align with the Common Core.  Modeling a skilled teacher, policy makers could and should give teachers and schools support and time as they learn to raise instruction to the level of rigor the Core demands, delaying implementation or offering the tests first as low-stakes assessments so teachers can learn from them.  After all, a teacher doesn’t merely tell a student, “balance this chemical equation or else.”  The teacher also doesn’t let the student simply not balance the equation, but instead a great teacher gives supports and time for the student as he or she learns to balance the equations independently.

In our debates about the Common Core, let’s parse through what part of the policy we really disagree with.  Is asking our students to think, read, and write more the problem, or is it the rapid, breakneck speed by which the Core has been implemented?  I think for many of us it’s the latter rather than the former.  The good news is that thoughtful policy makers can craft solutions to create scaffolds for Common Core implementation, such as making the first two years of testing low stakes instead of high stakes, giving teachers more time to work collaboratively to rewrite the school’s curriculum, or lowering the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores as teachers get to know the standards more.  Hopefully what we won’t do, though, is throw the baby out with the bathwater by getting rid of the Common Core altogether.  -Allison Gulamhussein

Filed under: CPE,instruction,national standards,standards,teachers,Testing — Allison @ 2:14 pm





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