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October 15, 2015

Schoolwork worth doing

“Ok, students, it’s time to get out your crayons!”

Hearing this never fails to delight kindergarteners in the classroom. But what about in seventh grade social studies, even if colored pencils are substituted for crayons?  Outside of art class, does drawing really represent the kind of work middle-schoolers should be doing to get ready for high school?

Analysts for the Education Trust recently examined the quality of classroom assignments in a half dozen middle schools in order to document the degree to which they were aligned to the Common Core’s English language arts standards. The preliminary results were published last month in the report Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards?.

The Ed Trust team was able to identify assignments that were clearly up to the task. But they also found that these were a fraction of what students are being asked to do on a daily basis. According to the analysis, a surprising few assignments were “aligned with a grade-appropriate standard” – 38 percent to be exact. The 7th grade drawing assignment cited above is an example. And the picture is even worse for students in high-poverty schools (31 percent “grade-appropriate”).

The research team examined both in- and out-of-school assignments given by 92 teachers to students grades six through eight over a two week period. Common Core-ELA standards cross subject areas so assignments were collected from teachers of English, humanities, history/social studies and science. The average number submitted per teachers was 17. Altogether the analysts scored nearly 1,600 assignments on such attributes as “alignment to Common Core,” “centrality of text,” “cognitive challenge” and “motivation and engagement.”

The report authors, Sonja Brookins Santelises and Joan Dabrowski, acknowledge that they did not expect to see 100 percent alignment to the higher-level demands expressed in the standards. Indeed, there is a place in the classroom for the occasional quick check of facts or basic skills practice that will help students use these tools more confidently when applied to more challenging tasks. But Santelises and Dabrowski did hope to see more rigor than they found, as follows:

  • 16 percent of assignments required students to “use a text for citing evidence”;
  • 4 percent required higher-level thinking; in contrast, 85 percent asked for either the recall of information or the application of basic skills;
  • 2 percent met their criteria for “relevance and choice”; and
  • not surprisingly given all this, only 5 percent were scored in the high range of the Ed Trust framework.

For me, reading this report was like déjà vu all over again. In the nineties and early aughts, I worked at the Ed Trust as part of a team that helped teachers in high-poverty schools align their lessons and assignments to state standards. During that time I can’t say how often we saw the “movie poster assignment” as the culminating task following a major unit of study. This assignment asks students to create, to draw, a movie poster on the topic as opposed to writing a paper or otherwise have students show their capacity to extend their thinking about the material. Could such an assignment be given occasionally as a break from a routine of academic heavy lifting? Absolutely. But in the schools we worked in, the movie poster wasn’t the exception. Too often, assignments like it were the routine.

Today, as it was then, low-level assignments are not a teacher-led plot to keep kids illiterate. Teachers in many schools struggle to keep their students engaged while keeping up with overstuffed curricular and testing requirements. The problems are exacerbated when students are performing well below their peers. Teachers in such situations often respond by providing lessons in easy bits with the idea that they will eventually build to higher understanding – what educators call “scaffolding.” (I show an example of a scaffolded math lesson on slides 7-13 in a common core presentation you can find here.)  While the practice is sound, Santelises and Dabrowski documented an over-reliance on scaffolding which rarely led to independent learning.

Nonetheless, the fact that 5 percent of the lessons were complex and high-level is cause for optimism. These teachers clearly know what rigor looks like. In addition, because of the short two-week window, the analysts may well have missed out on major end-of-unit assignments that push students’ thinking to higher levels.

The Ed Trust team is continuing its study, which should tell us more about how typical these findings are. In the meantime, school leaders who want to know how well instruction in their schools and district align to higher standards can check out this implementation guide.

April 16, 2015

Soft skills now, strong foundation later

Last Thursday, U.S. News and World Report published an article that I believe is long overdue and is music to my ears. In it, the article calls attention to the contrasts between early childhood education (i.e., preschool) and the education of children in early childhood (which the article defines as children birth to eight years of age). Moreover, the article calls out the education community for the visible distinction between preschool and elementary school programs, instead suggesting that perhaps an integration, rather than a separation would be beneficial to our nation’s youngest students.

The article continues by highlighting approaches that are increasingly considered and used in preschool classrooms but are not on the radars of many elementary school teachers and administrators. Namely, the higher-order cognitive processes involved in manipulating complex information, sustaining attention during learning and task completion, and inhibiting impulsive responses, collected grouped as executive functioning, deserve considerable focus. Within the developmental and educational psychology literature, strong executive functioning has repeatedly demonstrated close ties to both academic and social achievement, including math achievement and social adjustment. Moreover, as CPE highlights in an upcoming report to be published later this summer, executive functioning seems fundamental for some skills that teachers and administrators might be more familiar with given the current climate regarding college- and career-readiness. Specifically, critical thinking, which is a much desired skill that many children and students are hoped to be able to demonstrate by the time they graduate high school, appears heavily reliant on one’s ability to manipulate complex information and to follow through multi-step problem-solving procedures.

Although the U.S. News and World Report article offered several areas in which childhood educators should address (or rather continue to address beyond just preschool), one which I believe deserves specific recognition is that of social-emotional development. Research shows that children who demonstrate social and emotional competencies, showcased, for example, by being able to regulate one’s emotions and to exhibit prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and sharing rather than aggressive behaviors such as hitting and yelling are generally better adjusted in formal schooling settings (i.e., elementary school) and less likely to be held back in later grades.

Looking forward, I am eager to see more articles such as this that highlight just how important processes such as executive functioning and social and emotional skills are beyond the preschool classroom. –David Ferrier

February 12, 2015

Reading the kindergarten Common Core State Standards with purpose and understanding

The Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) English Language Arts (ELA) benchmarks for kindergarteners came under scrutiny in a recently released report. Issued by two early education advocacy organizations, Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood, the report argues that “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten” despite the CCSS requirement that prior to first grade, students are expected to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” If an impossible standard has been set, then expecting children to be able to do something beyond their capability appears to be a waste of time, money, and effort for all parties.

However, a deeper look into the CCSS English/Language Arts for elementary school children, provides an additional piece of information that should ease the concerns raised by the recent report. This introductory information notes that for kindergarten students, the goal is just for children to demonstrate an increased awareness and competencies in the ELA standards. Moreover, the CCSS does not advocate for removing play-based learning from the classroom, although a review of the report could easily allow a reader to believe that the CCSS explicitly denounces such practices. Surprisingly then, a complete read-through of the CCSS shows that the authors of the CCSS explicitly state that “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document” (p.6). Within the same document, the standard that the DEY/AFC report focuses on (Foundational Skills: Fluency) is on page 16. Thus, it becomes confusing how the DEY/AFC report can read the standards with such purpose, yet without understanding.

Last, and most importantly, the CCSS does not prescribe how teachers must reach these goals. As highlighted in our own 2013 publication on the Common Core, the CCSS is just a guiding document as to what the goals are, not the pathways in which to reach them. In fact, there is widespread support for play-based learning within the kindergarten curriculum. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the International Reading Association agree that pretend play is an important part of the learning process for young children. In an ideal world, using the CCSS in kindergarten should not interfere with incorporating play into the curriculum and in the practical world, whether or not play-based learning is included in kindergarten falls on the teacher, not the standards. Perhaps kindergarten is an excellent time to start raising awareness and competence in reading with purpose and understanding as this is a skill that is often needed by adults in order to comprehend and think critically about information.

June 19, 2013

NCTQ Teacher Prep Review: Brief Highlights

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently released a lengthy report called “Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs” (“The Review”). The much anticipated and highly contested report highlights the shortfalls of the vast majority of the nation’s colleges and universities’ teacher preparation programs. The report sounds the alarm on inadequate training for teachers, particularly focusing on what aspiring teachers need to know and be able to do as they enter the nation’s diverse classrooms.

Through much difficulty (read: uncooperative and litigious circumstances), the NCTQ attained data from the 1,130 institutions that train 99 percent of the nation’s traditionally trained teachers. The Review focuses vastly on public institutions and hopes to expand its analysis to include more private universities in subsequent editions. The standards chosen for the review were developed in accordance with educational experts, best practices of high performing educational institutions, surveyed responses from principals and superintendents, and alignment with the Common Core State Standards. The Review focuses on the skills new teachers must have in order to teach to a high standard, thus surpassing expectations set for previous generations of educators. The NCTQ standards are generally categorized as Selection (e.g., how teacher candidates are selected for training programs), Content Preparation (e.g., early reading), Professional Skills (e.g., lesson planning), and Outcomes (e.g., evidence of effectiveness).

The major takeaways from the report are as follows:

  1. From a zero-to-four star rating system, fewer than 10 percent of rated programs received the upper rankings of three to four stars.
    1. Teacher training programs were largely based on document review (e.g., syllabi, student teaching handbooks, etc.), graduate and employer surveys, and student teaching placement materials obtained primarily through open-records requests.
  2. Most teachers’ colleges are not nearly as restrictive as they could be with only a quarter of programs limiting admission to students in the top half of their class.
    1. According to The Review, high-performing nations limit entrance to their teacher preparation programs to the top third of applicants. This variance could have significant consequences on how the U.S. fares globally in educational success.
  3. Though the vast majority of states (46 states and Washington, DC) have agreed to devise curriculum aligning to the Common Core State Standards, The Review finds that a meager one-third of high school programs and less than one-ninth of elementary programs are prepping future teachers at content levels required by those very standards.
    1. This information aligns with the findings highlighted in a recent report co-authored by the Center for Public Education and Change the Equation: “Out of Sync: Many Common Core states have yet to define a Common Core-worthy diploma.”
  4. Seventy-five percent of elementary teacher reading programs do not prime teachers with high-quality methods of reading instruction.
    1. The Review highlights the disturbing fact that 866 different reading textbooks, “the majority of which are partly or wholly unscientific,” are used across the country to train teachers in reading instruction. Not all textbooks are created equal! Texts need to be thoroughly vetted for their usefulness in providing first-rate reading pedagogy.
  5. A dismal 7 percent of programs provide rigorous and impactful student teaching experiences by placing students with effective master teachers.
    1. The Review recommends a shift in policy wherein colleges and universities insist on cooperating teachers who have proven themselves as highly effective teachers and competent mentors. In other words, it is not sufficient to blindly accept any experienced educator who volunteers for this monumental role in the development of a budding teacher.

Mirroring the U.S. News & World Report national rankings of colleges and universities, The
Review aims to serve as a kind of “consumer report” for endeavoring teachers and school administrators. Because first-year teachers are charged with teaching 1.5 million of the nation’s students, that is more than enough reason to take seriously the quality of teacher preparation and its implications on classrooms all over the country.

Notes on methodology: The Review evaluates elementary and secondary programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels (for a total of four different programs) for the top 200 institutions that produce the greatest proportion of new teachers each year. The remaining ~900 institutions (1,130 total were reviewed) each had two of their programs randomly chosen and evaluated. Data from alternative initial certification programs, traditional advanced certification programs, and private institutions of higher education graduating less than 20 new teachers annually were not included in the analysis. NCTQ was able to include a limited sample of special education programs for evaluation with plans to expand their analysis in future editions of The Review.

Thoughts: To be sure, there are a plethora of positive changes being affected nationwide in public education. (For a great example, read about the nation’s consistently climbing graduation rates courtesy of the Diplomas Count Report from Education Week.) The Review, however, highlights some serious causes for concern that might explain why some students still lag so far behind their peers nationwide. Students in high-poverty, high-need schools are still the most likely cohort to be placed with a novice teacher. It is my hope that, at a minimum, this report be used by college faculty, staff, and administration as a tool for reflection, adjustment, and (re)evaluation of how to train the next generation of teachers to be the best this country has ever seen.-Christine Duchouquette

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

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