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March 18, 2016

Improving civics education is key to strong, equitable democracy

While the constant news coverage and interest in the presidential campaign might suggest Americans are well-versed in our country’s political process, data from the latest civics assessment of NAEP, colloquially known as the Nation’s Report Card, finds otherwise.

Indeed, the results show that there is not only a widespread lack of civic knowledge, but it is especially pronounced among minority students.

Administered on a rotating basis to fourth, eighth and 12th-grade students from participating schools, the data from the last Civics Assessment for 12th- graders show that 62% of African American students have a below basic knowledge of civics, and only 8% are at or above proficient. Meanwhile, 50% of Hispanic students possess below basic knowledge of civics, with 13% are at or above proficient.

What kind of knowledge gaps are we talking about?

Based on the sample questions in the NAEP assessment, most minority students in eighth-grade cannot name a right protected by the First Amendment, while most 12th-grade minority students cannot explain the meaning of a Supreme Court opinion. A mere 3% of 12th-graders nationally knew that the Supreme Court could use judicial review to preserve the rights of minorities.

Conversely, white students are performing better on each aspect of the civics exam, creating a civic engagement gap that is important for the nation to address. Democracy cannot be fully realized when citizens do not recognize how the government works and their own ability to make change. Research shows that civic learning corresponds to an increase in students’ civic participation and likelihood of voting. Building a civic identity in students will increase their sense of empowerment over their lives and the direction of their communities.

An unintended consequence of recent policies pushing for achievement and excellence in reading and math is that there is less time in the curriculum for other subjects. Science and social studies are often sidelined to increase time in English and math courses. Seventy-one percent of districts have cut back on time dedicated to subjects other than math and English— the largest cut coming from social studies. This has meant that civics education is not valued as much as courses that will prepare students for standardized testing. Civics education is vital for all students so that they are able to participate in democracy and engage the community in a meaningful way.

A great danger for the future of the United States is that we are educating a citizenry that does not understand how to have a voice in politics, how the government of the United States operates, or how to enact change and influence in their communities; particularly among poor and minority populations.

While it is important that students continue to have strong content knowledge in English and math, it must also make time in the curriculum for civics education. Civics courses will complement English and math courses as it requires students to read, think critically, write, and analyze charts, graphs and data. Further, students who feel empowered to change their communities and circumstances and receive instruction that is relevant to their lives become more engaged in school which could lead to higher performance in all subjects.

It is imperative that all students learn how to participate in a democracy and then create change in their communities in a civically responsible manner. A civics course that requires students to learn how the United States government works as well as how to be active, politically-engaged citizens must be included in public school curricula.  -Breanna Higgins

Filed under: 21st century education,CPE,First Amendment,NAEP — Tags: , — Breanna Higgins @ 7:00 am





March 4, 2016

Teacher evaluation systems: Major changes, similar results

Since TNTP’s  groundbreaking report, The Widget Effect, was released in 2009, nearly every state has made dramatic changes to the way teachers are evaluated. In that report the authors found less than 1 percent of teachers were rated below proficient, while nearly all other teachers were rated simply as proficient or satisfactory. Just a small proportion of teachers were recognized for being exceptional. Such results didn’t pass the sniff test. As anyone who has ever stepped foot in a classroom knows, there are a number of exceptional teachers as well as a number who just aren’t making the grade. Under previous teacher evaluation systems, few of these teachers were ever identified.

Despite the dramatic changes in evaluation, such as including measures of student achievement, not much has changed, according to a recent report aptly titled Revisiting the Widget Effect. Less than 3 percent of teachers are being rated below proficient. While this is more than 3 times as many teachers than found in the original Widget Effect, it is still an extremely small number.

Of course, it could be claimed that this is because there are so few ineffective teachers and not due to a failure of how teachers are evaluated. Which is a legitimate argument. In fact, this was a question the authors wanted to examine themselves by asking principals in a sample of schools how many of their teachers they felt were below proficient prior to conducting the new evaluation systems. What they found was a huge disconnect between how many teachers principals perceived to be less than proficient (27 percent) and how many teachers actually were rated below proficient (2.7 percent).

So why are so few teachers identified below proficient? Did states expend valuable time and resources simply to rate a few more teachers as ineffective? While the findings from this report are sobering, it provides important insights for policymakers in making changes to the current systems and understanding how the system is really being used at the ground level. What was fascinating is what principals said about why they didn’t rate some teachers as below proficient.  For example, some principals reported not assigning a below proficient rating to some teachers who were on the borderline because they felt their time was better spent focusing on providing extra supports to the lowest performing teachers. Other principals stated they avoided rating teachers below proficient who showed potential to be effective teachers in the future. While technically these teachers should have received poor ratings, these are actions good supervisors should take to build an effective staff.

Yet, these are examples of why it is imperative to include objective measures of effectiveness in any teacher evaluation system. States now have more flexibility in designing their own evaluation systems with the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They should include objective measures such as student test scores in their revised evaluations. Doing so still provides an opportunity for evaluators, such as the principals in this report, to focus their time and resources on the teachers that need them most. At the same time it lessens the chances evaluators will simply identify nearly all teachers as proficient because it is just easier to do so just as it was prior to 2009 in most states.

What states need to do now is find a proper balance between objective measures and trusting the professional judgment of evaluators, especially principals, who know what is best for the teachers and the students in that school. As the report shows, states have not yet found that right balance. Keep in mind, however, these new teacher evaluation systems are still quite new and will take some time to make the adjustments needed to have a significant positive impact on both teachers and students. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Teacher evaluation,teachers — Jim Hull @ 2:52 pm





February 24, 2016

Teaching may be harder for introverts

Last week a colleague sent me a fascinating article: “Why Introverted Teachers Are Burning Out.” It struck home with me.

I am very much an introvert and understand my own needs for quiet and alone time to re-charge. Yet, for some reason, I had never connected that with my job as a teacher. I didn’t realize that the utter exhaustion I felt at the end of the day may be more acute, or different, than what my extroverted teacher friends felt. Of course, teaching is a hard and tiring job for anyone, but this article completely resonated with me that much of my “burn-out” was due to my introversion. I am using burn-out in several ways here: sometimes you feel it on a Wednesday and can’t believe you have to come back to work the next two days, sometimes it hits in February and you honestly aren’t sure if you will make it until June, and sometimes it results in leaving the profession altogether. The novel idea that teaching is harder on an introvert never occurred to me until reading this article. For those of you who are interested, a simple Google search of “introvert teacher” brought up a plethora of blog posts and tips from introverted teachers on how to survive.

Let me take you through a run-down of a typical day in the life of a teacher:

  • Early morning you walk into the building. You may try to get there early to get some time alone to set up but if there are family obligations or a bad commute you may only have 15-20 minutes before your first class walks in. In that time you need to straighten the desks, write the objective, agenda, and homework on the board, make copies if needed, put your lunch away, get out your attendance and worksheets, and any other tasks that may pop up.
  • Students walk into first period and will often be talking a mile a minute and yelling and joking with their friends. It’s amazing how much energy they can have early in the morning. There will be a constant barrage of questions around last night’s homework, what we will learn in class today, what tonight’s homework will be (yes, this is all written on the board as I reminded them every day when they asked), and some begging to have no homework or no test.
  • The class period will be filled with activity. Sometimes the teacher will be talking and sometimes students will be working in pairs or groups. There is constant noise. You have to pay attention to every student and read body language to see what is happening around the room. You will need to walk around and check in with every group as they work and at the same time keep one ear and eye on all the other groups to make sure they stay on task.
  • When the period ends, you have roughly four minutes between classes to straighten out the room, prepare for the next bunch to come in and do it all over again. Keep in mind that it may take two minutes for the whole class to actually leave the room and many students from the next class will walk in two minutes early so there is no time alone or quiet in between.
  • At some point the teacher will have a period off. You may think this is a good time to re-charge with some quiet time. However, due to space constraints in schools, your classroom will almost always be scheduled for another class and you will get kicked out to the faculty lounge. The faculty lounge will be filled with all the other teachers that have been kicked out of their regular classrooms for the period. Sometimes it is quiet, but often teachers are talking to each other. Or, you have a meeting. There is an endless number of meetings: IEPs, grade level, subject level, evaluations, RTI, etc. Sometimes those meetings take place in the faculty lounge because there is no other space available. So, even if you aren’t in a meeting, there is a good chance you’re listening to a meeting happening a few feet away.
  • Lunch doesn’t bring any relief. It is usually 20-30 minutes and often we have made plans with students to eat their lunch with us so we can get some one-on-one time to go over an issue or re-teach a concept they are confused about. Eating always happens while doing something else.
  • In the afternoon there are more sections of students like were already described.
  • After school brings students that need help or have questions. Or, more meetings.

It’s no wonder I was exhausted at the end of the day and often drove home in complete silence- no radio. There were very few moments in the whole day where I wasn’t talking to someone. Friday nights I could absolutely not handle any plans. I was basically comatose by then and needed the whole night on the couch to get my head to stop spinning.

The article makes a great point that the world is moving towards increasing “social” or group learning. We want our students to work in groups and we expect our teachers to learn in groups. Professional development generally asks teachers to talk in groups about new practices. Grade and subject level meetings have teachers review student data and lesson plans in groups. This is exhausting to introverts who prefer to have time to reflect on their own rather than working out problems verbally.

The article cites lack of awareness, among teachers and administrators, as a problem. I was certainly unaware and I was an introvert myself! It was interesting to look at this issue from an administrative standpoint. If leadership considered the impact of teacher personalities and learning styles there may be ways of making the day more manageable. Lack of space may not be fixed but keeping the need for quiet space in mind may be helpful. Also, professional development could be delivered in many different ways. Introverts may prefer to be part of a book group or have reading assigned to reflect on with their supervisor rather than participating in a group activity. This may not be possible, but it was interesting to consider.

A Forbes article suggested that one-third to half of all people may be introverts. This doesn’t tell us what population of the teaching force are introverts but I would venture there are quite a few. Many people, including teachers-in-training, believe that teaching means they will have their own classroom to be in all day (whether students are there or not). They will be the rulers of this space and when the students aren’t there they have time to reflect on lessons and do their grading. The reality is very different.

It may be important to consider how introversion versus extroversion impacts teachers and students during the day. Teacher retention is a trending topic and is extremely important to maintain effective and veteran teachers. If burnout among introverts is making the profession lose great teachers it is worth looking into. Luckily, as I discovered, there is a wealth of information and resources available online that address this issue.

Filed under: teachers — Breanna Higgins @ 2:03 pm





February 23, 2016

Common Core’s happy days may be here again

Did a relationship ever sour so quickly as the Common Core and public opinion? Back in 2010 when the college- and career-ready standards were shiny and new, leaders from business and higher education as well as a certain U.S. Secretary of Education praised their rigor, coherence and attention to critical thinking. Within a year, 45 governors and D.C. had rushed to adopt them as their own – a move a majority of teachers and parents viewed favorably.

Then, implementation happened. Many teachers felt rushed to produce results. Parents couldn’t understand their child’s homework. Their anxiety fed chatter on talk radio and social media that did the incredible. It united anti-corporate progressives and anti-government tea partiers in opposition to the new standards and the assessments that go with them. States once on board with the program began to bail in face of angry constituents.

Recently, though, the mood appears to be shifting back into neutral. Presidential candidates deliver variations of the “repeal Common Core” line to applause, but the issue doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction in the race. The newly reauthorized ESEA deflates anti-Common Core messaging by explicitly forbidding the federal government from compelling or encouraging state adoption of any set of standards, including the Common Core.  After a flurry of state legislative proposals were introduced to undo the standards, only a handful were ever signed into law, and in some of those states, the replacements aren’t substantively different from the ones they tossed.

New studies related to the Common Core could prompt a wary public to give the standards a second look. In the first, a Harvard research team led by Thomas Kane surveyed a representative sample of teachers and principals in five Common Core states about implementation strategies. They were then able to match responses to student performance on the Core-aligned assessments, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

According to their report, Teaching Higher: Educators’ perspective on Common Core implementation, three out of four teachers have “embraced the new standards” either “quite a bit” or “fully.” When asked how much of their classroom instruction changed, a similar proportion said it had by one half or more. Four in five math teachers say they have increased “emphasis on conceptual understanding” and “application of skills,” while an even higher proportion of English teachers reported assigning more writing “with use of evidence.” All are attributes emphasized in the standards.

The research team then related the survey results to students’ scores on the new assessments after controlling for demographics and prior achievement. While they did not find strategies of particular impact on English language arts, they did identify math practices that were associated with higher student scores: more professional development days; more classroom observations “with explicit feedback tied to the Common Core”; and the “inclusion of Common Core-aligned student outcomes in teacher evaluations.”

Casting light on such strategies is only worthwhile, however, if there is also evidence that the Common Core are good standards. Enter the Fordham Institute. The education think tank assembled a team of 40 experts in assessment and teaching to evaluate the quality of PARCC and Smarter Balanced. For comparison, they examined college-ready aligned ACT Aspire and MCAS, the highly regarded Massachusetts state assessment. The grades 5 and 8 test forms were analyzed against criteria developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers for evaluating “high-quality assessments” that aim to assess college- and career-readiness.

The short version.  All four tests scored highly for “depth,” that is, items that are “cognitively demanding.” PARCC and Smarter Balanced, however, edged out both ACT Aspire and MCAS in “content.” The researchers conducted an additional analysis against other assessments and found the Common Core-aligned tests also “call for greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills than either NAEP or [the international] PISA, both of which are considered to be high-quality challenging assessments.”

Whether or not participating in national standards is a good idea is a decision that should rightfully be made by individual states. There are many legitimate political arguments for going either way, and each state will likely view it differently. But whether the Common Core standards – in full or in part – represent the expectations a state should have for all its students is an educational question that is worth considering on its own merits.

These early reports suggest that the new standards are higher and deeper than what states had before. Most teachers, although not all, have “embraced” them and are changing their instruction accordingly. We are learning anecdotally, too, that as parents see evidence of their child’s growth, they come around as supporters (see here and here).  What this means for the future is anyone’s guess. But for now it’s looking like the Common Core or something very much like them may be seeing happier days ahead. — Patte Barth

This entry first appeared on Huffington Post February 22, 2016.

 






February 19, 2016

When report cards collide

One surefire way for education policy groups to get press is to release a state report card. Any kind of ranking is clickbait for news outlets. Plus, with a state-of-education report card you get a bonus man-bites-dog story when the grade-giving institution is the one being graded. Consequently, organizations representing business interests from teachers’ unions to think tanks have gotten into the act at one time or another. But readers should beware. When it comes to ranking states on education, a rose is not a rose is not a rose.

Three state report cards released over the winter show how widely the grades vary, even though they are all ostensibly evaluating the same thing – public education. The American Legislative Exchange Council published its Report Card on American Education in November. Just last week, the Network for Public Education released a 50 State Report Card.  Both ALEC and NPE are advocacy organizations with clear, and contradictory, agendas. January saw the release of Education Week’s annual Quality Counts which, as the education publication of record, represents the Goldilocks in this bunch.

What, if anything, can we learn by looking at these three rankings collectively? On the one hand, there is little agreement among the organizations regarding which states are top performers: no state makes the top 10 in all three lists. Yet on the other hand, there is consensus that no state is perfect and that much more work needs to be done, since no state earned an ‘A.’

Obviously, these reports differ because they value different things. ALEC and NPE grade states on education policies that they like. ALEC, which advertises itself as supportive of “limited government, free markets and federalism,” awards states that promote choice and competition, such as allowing more charter schools, providing private school options with taxpayer support, and having few or no regulations on homeschooling. NPE emphasizes the “public” in public education and opposes privatization and so-called “corporate reforms” such as merit pay, alternative certification for teachers, and especially high-stakes testing. Policies that earned high grades by ALEC, therefore, got low grades from NPE and vice versa.

The two had one area of agreement, however, albeit by omission. The report cards say little (ALEC) or nothing (NPE) about actual performance. The result is that grades on both reports have no relationship to student learning.

To its credit, ALEC features a separate ranking on states’ NAEP scores for low-income students as their way to draw attention to student performance. However, by doing so, the authors also cast a light on how little ALEC’s preferred policies relate to achievement. For every Indiana, which earned ALEC’s top grade and produces high NAEP scores, there is a Hawaii whose low-income kids ranked 6th on NAEP, but earned an ALEC ‘D+.’  NPE isn’t any better. Despite the appearance of high-performing states like Massachusetts and Iowa in the NPE Top 10, they also awarded high-scoring Indiana an ‘F’ and Colorado a ‘D.’

In contrast to ALEC and NPE, Ed Week does not take positions on education policy. Its state report card focused on K-12 achievement, school finance, and something they call “chance for success” — demographic indicators related to student achievement including poverty, parent education and early education enrollments. With policy out of the equation, Ed Week’s grades in each domain track fairly consistently with the overall grade suggesting that the indicators identified by the authors tell us at least something about the quality of education.

So which state gets bragging rights? If you want to use one of these report cards as fodder for your own particular brand of advocacy, then by all means go with ALEC or NPE – whichever one fits your views best. But if you really want to know how well different education policies work, you’d be better off consulting the research. You can start here, here and here.

As for ranking states by their education systems? Stick with Goldilocks.






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