Technology Enthusiasts, Pragmatists, and Skeptics among Practitioners and Policymakers: Where Are You?

I wrote this post five years ago this month. In it, I mentioned two recently published books that divided advocates of and opponents to technologies in schools into two camps: enthusiasts and skeptics. For the past few months I have been thinking anew about those policymakers, pundits, and practitioners (including blogging students and parents) who write about technology. I want to broaden the familiar continuum of positions on technology in schools beyond those at either pole. I want to include a rich array of those who inhabit the middle. So here is a revised and expanded post.

In reading Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (2009) by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, they, like many other writers on technology, create a continuum of advocates and critics of technology in schools. At one end of their continuum are the “Technology Enthusiasts” and at the other end are the “Technology Skeptics.

Collins and Halverson do not bash either the cheerleaders or doubters at either end of the continuum although many of those gleeful about school technologies do dump on those who express doubt with the position they take. The authors cite points for each side but clearly believe that the world has become digital and schools as they are currently operated will be undercut and overwhelmed by home schooling, cyberschools, charters, private learning centers, workplace learning, and distance education. “These new alternatives,” they say, “will make us rethink the dominant role of K-12 public schools in education as children and adults spend more time learning in new venues” (p.4). Thus, the “digital revolution” will alter the nature of schooling completely by making learning life-long and, in their words, mere “schooling” will finally become “educational.” Maybe.

The problem I have with such scenarios—and, God knows, there have been such claims for decades from Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert and many others (see here and here)—is that these peeks into the future carry the assumption of inevitability—it’s gonna happen and no one can stop it—and no middle ground for folks who may say: “wait a minute, let’s look at this again.”

Seldom do these futurists acknowledge in either their celebratory or dismal predictions that while many parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers inhabit either the Enthusiast or Skeptic pole, many others cluster in the middle of the continuum. Many of those–more often than not, teachers and principals rather than policymakers–who hug the middle know that present and past school uses of technologies show great promise for student learning but contain serious flaws; sometimes they even wince at especially foolish claims made by one or the other side. Overall, however, most writers and actual players in the school technology game, especially policymakers, believe technologies in or out of school will ultimately benefit students and teachers.

Those middle-of-the-roaders, however—let’s call them Pragmatists— may tilt toward the Enthusiasts in their heart-of-hearts, but in practice, shy away from the unrealistically rosy future digital millennials imagine. Pragmatists see merit in the arguments and evidence laid out by the Skeptics and have doubts about the too bright and too dark futures that advocates at both end of this continuum forecast. These Pragmatists see the institutional limits of schooling, the varied purposes that schools serve in a democratic society, and the inevitable glitches that arise. They do not worship at the shrine of technology.  If push comes to shove, those in the middle might tilt toward the Enthusiasts’ side but would not pooh-pooh Skeptics or call them names.

These Pragmatists are neither unvarnished fans of the newest software application—some Enthusiasts have yet to meet one they didn’t like–nor doom-saying Skeptics who claim that any new device shoves teachers further down that road of dumbing down the art and science of teaching, isolating individuals from one another and confusing students by equating information with knowledge.

I believe that most teachers are Pragmatists and most policymakers are Enthusiasts. As schools have been the pushed into  trying out the most recent technological innovations, teachers have learned over time that some devices and software can be very helpful in reaching their objectives and some applications cannot (or will not) be helpful. More and more teachers have incorporated new technologies into their daily lessons  since the early 1980s. Using mixes of traditional teaching with new technologies (e.g., smart boards, tablets, laptops) have led to increasing instances of “blended learning.” Such teachers using mixes of old and new classroom approaches illustrate Pragmatists in action.

Where do you fit on the continuum?

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The Striking Similarities between Teachers and Start-up CEOs (Aaron Schildkrout)

Aaron Schildkrout is a former Codman Academy charter school teacher in Boston and technology entrepreneur in creating a dating website, HowAboutMe. He is currently Entrepreneur in Residence at RRE Ventures in New York City. This post appeared February 9, 2015.

In this post he compares being a teacher to being the CEO of a start-up company, two positions that he has held. Explicitly, Schildkrout says that both roles, one public and the other private, are “strikingly” similar. Implicitly, however, in bridging both the private and the public sectors, he asks readers to take away a deeper lesson.  The dissimilar purposes of running a for-profit business and the purposes of teaching youth in a tax-supported public school are, he says, of little consequence. What really matters, according to him, is not toward what ends but how the job gets done.

When, six years ago, I made the switch from high school teacher to start-up founder I thought I was in for a rather dramatic change.

On the surface, the two vocations could not be more divergent: non-profit v. for-profit; public institution v. free market; chalkboard & textbook v. google analytics & expansion playbook; curriculum building v. consumer product design; and so on.

And yet, I’ve come to see that teaching is a lot more like being a start-up CEO than our teacher-degrading, CEO-fetishizing society wishes to know.

Here are some of the striking similarities between running a classroom and running an early stage company…

 Create an Unforgettable Experience

Guide them into the experience. Clarify their purpose. Hint at the great value that lies ahead if they stick with the process. Assure them that they have everything they need to succeed. Don’t clog the experience with superfluities and distractions; focus on the essential thing. Make the process itself delightful. Engage curiosity. Build them up through small victories and motivate them through moments of profound, perceived value. Release them from any scaffolding you’ve constructed so they experience their own self-sufficient competency. Understand and evaluate their success in order to further refine the experience. Individualize things. Promote collaboration. Reward them for contributing value to the ecosystem and express gratitude for their participation. Inspire them to share unabashedly with anyone who will listen. Find the very best among them and let them go wild. Make it real. Make it matter!

These are instructions in product design — a core competency of the start-up CEO.

These are also instructions in curriculum design—the essential skill of the modern teacher.

 Get Out of the Way

Getting a group of tremendously smart, motivated, skillful, sleep-deprived adults to rapidly deploy, iterate on, and market multiple product lines amidst fierce competition and an unpredictable and fickle market is approximately as hard as getting a group of disgruntled, previously poorly-educated, sleep-deprived, profoundly curious young people with hearts of gold to learn something of genuine import.

Surprisingly, key to both is getting out of the way.

I once mentored a gifted student teacher who decided to apply for a full-time teaching role at our school. As part of her interview she taught a “sample class” in a structure called Literature Circles in which students talk in small groups about a book they’re reading. The kids came in. She said, “Ok, Literature Circles, get to it.” And for the next hour she walked around the classroom with a clipboard silently watching the students as they talked about Native Son. She was essentially unnoticeable.

What was noticeable was the students. By the end of the class each student had been assessed by their group on about ten individual metrics (e.g. using examples in discussion, reading for details, etc.). They had engaged in a thematic, in-depth dialogue of a difficult novel. They had practiced specific skills (e.g. noticing metaphors) They had collaborated in teams. And there was palpable excitement about the protagonist Bigger and his disturbed journey. It was a killer class, so to speak.

To the untrained eye, the teacher did almost nothing. But every teacher knows that behind each minute of classroom fluidity lies hundreds of hours of preparation: building processes, setting expectations, clarifying vision.

It’s no different as a start-up CEO. They say the three jobs of the CEO are to make sure there is cash in the bank, to hire great people, and to define the vision. I’d add to that: to build a culture of intense productivity and efficiency. If you achieve these four things, you will have nothing to do. (Obviously this isn’t true, but you get the idea…) Hire amazing human beings, give them the resources they need, make the goal clear and inspiring, get everyone on the same page about how all the parts work together to ensure maximum productivity—and then get out of the way.

Measure it, or it Won’t Happen

Data-driven companies are all the rage. Precisely the same principles apply to the classroom.

I became a data-driven teacher long before I was a data-driven start-up founder. By my last year of teaching, I was often giving students dozens of quantitative grades during every class. I would put a spreadsheet transparency on an overhead (yes, back then) and would add micro-grades to it throughout the class. I would then add the grades to our school’s online grading system; the students got addicted to checking — and improving — their grades. I had essentially created a transparent, real-time metrics dashboard for my students — and for me. (Honestly, I might have gone a bit overboard.)

It’s the same for the CEO. You want every person in your company to qualitatively understand their goals and their progress towards these goals. When you measure things and make the goals quantitatively clear and attainable, people rally around them and make things happen. When you don’t, everything floats in a dangerous land of vagueness. If the goal is to improve conversion rates they will stay flat; if the goal is to move conversion rates to 15.4%, they will get there.

The teacher and the CEO both need to set clear, smart goals and ensure that data is transparently and accurately available about the degree to which these goals are being realized. Then magic happens — and everyone knows damn well it isn’t magic.

 Cherish Innovation (and Failure)

The teacher and start-up CEO are each solely responsible for the success of the processes they are overseeing. This means that failure holds a special place in both of their hearts — its dark side and its importance.

As a teacher, a mistake means classroom hell. And classroom hell is a special kind of hell that you want to avoid at all costs. There’s a reason they say you should never smile till Christmas — and it isn’t because you’re holding out for presents. If you err in October, you’re going to have a very very long year. As a CEO, a mistake means company hell — also to be aggressively avoided. Both the teacher and the CEO understand well the adage: never f&#$ the same thing up twice.

The other side of this dangerous coin is that failure is the necessary fuel of success. This is particularly true for teaching and early stage company-building because in both settings it’s so unclear what’s going to work. You have to fail in order to get anywhere. Failure is the bedrock of learning.

This is obvious for the start-up CEO. A huge percentage of new companies fail; that is, you must risk failure in order to succeed. Indeed, a striking number of successful companies find success after various earlier struggles. Innovation, by its very nature, is a flirtation with failure. You have to break the rules of prior success in order to make something truly new.

This is less obvious for teaching, which people think of as a by-the-book vocation—as though a single winning curricular formulation might solve the multitude of micro challenges that pave the path to substantive learning in each unique child. Consider this: how many really good teachers did you have in the first 18 years of your life? Certainly fewer than five. Maybe just one. Maybe zero. Sounds a good bit like the ratio of successful companies to failed ones. The book on great teaching is not written. State standards are, at best, a series of guiding cairns. As a teacher, you are inventing it as you go. A hundred times a week. And so, like an inventor, you learn via failure.

For the CEO and teacher, every failure is both wrenching and precious.

 Start Inside

Finally, both the CEO and teacher create value by helping people understand and realize their unique potential. That is, the process of value creation starts inside.

As a teacher, over time I came to see that my fundamental task wasn’t to teach American History— but to teach young people about who they were, how their minds worked, how they could realize and unlock their huge potential. American History was the excuse, the context — and it was critical; without a rigorous learning experience, the deeper learning would end up groundless. But without the deeper learning, the American History learning would be superficial and ultimately deadening.

This will become increasingly the case as curriculum design becomes commoditized by the Internet; the teacher will become, more and more, the teacher of the child as human rather than as repository of information and skills.

Likewise, part of your job as CEO — an important part , particularly in the early stages— is to build a work culture that inspires your team to be great. Obviously, right? Your employees are spending the majority of this part of their life working in your company, and we each only have so long on this planet. So, everyone’s experience of work — including your own! — should be more than just productive. It should be personally transformational. Said otherwise, as a CEO your company culture should be as magical and value-creating as the products you make for consumers.

It’s no mistake that Jack Ma, the CEO of the company with the most successful IPO ever, was first a teacher.

At root, the early-stage CEO and teacher share an unquenchable drive to create deep value for humans. They have a unique, inspired vision that they need to share—be it with children or consumers.

Collectively, we are doing a tremendous job honoring and supporting our early-stage CEOs. Indeed, as an increasingly start-up and entrepreneur-obsessed culture, we’re coming to recognize CEOs as conductor’s of our culture’s creative progress.

But we still have a disturbingly long way to go until our teachers feel that society is rooting for them. Teachers—the people who are taking care of our most important asset, the people who come to work each day with a task equal in so many ways to our CEOs—do not feel that we are behind them.

While we pay lip service to the importance of education and the nobility of teachers, we don’t come close to offering them the concrete manifestations of honor that we afford our CEOs.

Luckily, being a teacher — like being a start-up CEO—is profoundly fulfilling independent of compensation and status. Luckily, because the job is lonely and humbling. It puts a mirror in front of you that you can’t avoid. It requires that you understand your unique vision and that you fight tooth and nail to pass this vision on to the world, day in and day out.

Even so, every bit of support from the outside helps. Every cheer matters. Every dollar—the most concrete manifestation of our collective respect— makes it more likely that each of our teachers becomes better and better, that our great teachers stay teachers, and that our great students at least consider becoming great teachers.

 

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Evidence for Textbooks? Evidence for Classroom Computers?

In the three part series on evidence for use of computer devices in classrooms I posted recently, one reader highly supportive of classroom technology questioned my focus on evidence by pointing out on his blog that  no studies had been done when textbooks were introduced so why should the introduction and use of electronic devices and their software be held to that standard. Here is, in part, what the reader said:

For instance, we spend a lot of money on textbooks. Is there evidence, research based, that paper textbooks are an effective teaching tool with today’s students? How about pencils? Pens? Air conditioned classrooms? The point is, there are lots of things we spend great deal of money on in education without asking if there is evidence to show that the program works. I have NEVER, in all my years in education, ever heard any school board or state legislator ask if textbooks are worth the money that is spent on them. And I would venture to say, that along with technology, textbooks are perhaps the most expensive purchase that school districts make. Do they make a difference, especially in the connected wireless world where the exact same information is available for free on the internet?

This is a familiar rebuttal from advocates of using new high-tech devices for classroom lessons. They  believe that it is unfair to expect researchers, including both academics and teachers, to investigate the worth of district investments in classroom software and hardware when the value of so many low-tech devices (e.g., the slate blackboard, pencil, paper, textbooks)  used for centuries have not been either researched or evaluated.  Why pick on use of software and hardware, they ask?

Here are two answers to the question.

First, when different groups inside and outside schools compete for limited resources at a time of high-intensity accountability, demands for data-driven decisions and asking for evidence of worth are as obvious and necessary as rain during a drought. But what is obvious and necessary give way to political choices since high-tech software and hardware compete for those scarce dollars with other highly-valued alternatives such as smaller class size,  teacher professional development, and school security. Faddish as they may be such phrases as “evidence-based practice” or “best practices” at least contain a non-political response that raises the standard for school decisions higher than pointing to strong political support for new technologies from parent surveys, top policymakers, vendors, and others who have unvarnished faith in the students being exposed to the next new thing.

Second, there is a historical answer. Two hundred years ago, the most basic tools for teaching reading, math, writing geography, and history in mostly one-room public schoolhouses with students ranging in age from four to twenty-one were in very short supply. Before children had individual textbooks filled with the knowledge and skills they were expected to learn, the teacher had a book–the Bible, Webster’s Speller, or similar texts–and told students everything that was on the page that they had to learn. Initially before the Civil War, parents had to buy books for their children to attend school before some city schools (e.g., Boston, New York City) began to buy textbooks for all children attending school. From the 19th century until the mid-20th century,  textbooks were the computers of the day giving students access to basic knowledge.

So questions of whether or not to have textbooks are moot. It is (and was) taken-for-granted that every student has to have access to community-sanctioned knowledge and textbooks are (and were) the answer. Even today when some districts buy licenses to load current textbooks on tablet computers or laptops, it is the text that remains central to most, but surely not all, teachers’ lessons.

As blackboards have given way to whiteboards and now smart boards, as pencil and paper–still in much evidence in schools–slowly give way to the keyboard, low-tech devices and high-tech devices will continue to compete for dollars in a district’s budget. Policymakers will continue to decide what gets funded based on tradition, available data, and community values. Tax-supported public schools have been political institutions from their very birth in the early-19th century. Decisions made to buy iPads or air-conditioning are, in effect, political decisions subject to social beliefs, whims, and available data. Recognizing the political nature of schools does not mean, however, ignoring or dispensing with evidence when decision-makers decide among competing choices.

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Questioning Mainstream Wisdom about Schools and the Economy

The fairy tale about the Emperor with no clothes is (and has been) a metaphor for the damages incurred from groupthink. Fear of appearing silly or losing status among peers in raising questions when a consensus–the wisdom of the group–occurs daily in all organizations. When that consensus extends to the nation and involves ideas that have consequences for the entire citizenry, then yelling out that the Emperor is naked is everyone’s duty in a democracy.

For the past thirty years the groupthink idea of public schools solving a national economic crisis and rising inequalities  has been the idee fixe of civic, business, educational, and academic leaders. This “educationalizing” of an economic problem has steered school reform for three decades. Here is what President Barack Obama said in 2009:

The source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people. This has never been more true than it is today. In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there’s an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know — education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it’s a prerequisite for success.

Not only President Obama, however. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W.Bush,  Bill Clinton, George W. Bush,  governors, state legislators, and business leaders have made similar statements. This idee fixe has led to new laws, new curriculum standards, and scads of new tests. The belief that the nation’s slipping economic competitiveness and increasing inequalities between the wealthy and everyone else is largely the result of future workers being educated poorly has been reduced to a bumper sticker slogan: Strong schools=strong economy.

From time to time, an occasional voice of reason challenges that groupthink. When it is an economist who does–since most economists have contributed to and embrace this mainstream wisdom–the nakedness of the emperor gets unusually displayed. Enter Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman.

In a recent op-ed piece, he summarizes the current “wisdom.”

We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated. So what we need is more and better education.

My guess is that this sounds familiar…. It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t.

….[T]here’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Readers know, as does Krugman, the quality of schooling is important to each graduate’s well being, career advancement, and lifetime earnings. Public schooling, for all of its faults, still remains the best hope for the recent immigrant, the poor, and the middle class of this nation. To the degree that graduates find jobs that match their skills and motivation, they do contribute to the economy.

But other facts overwhelm what indirect contributions schools make to the economy. Schools do not generate manufacturing jobs; they do not make corporate decisions to install new technologies in factories that reduce numbers of workers; they do not decide to build plants in other countries; they do not downsize companies that send ex-employees into unemployment offices.

So saying that improving the quality of schooling will pump up a sagging economy and reduce inequalities, the prevailing wisdom of the moment, is misleading, even mischievous in redirecting attention away from corporate and governmental decisions that affect the economy directly. Again, Krugman:

Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.

But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

What we have had since the mid-1980s is a groupthink acceptance of “mainstream wisdom.” Much arm-waving and  bellicose words about transforming schools into leaner, smarter, and efficient organizations–as corporate firms have supposedly done. Once called “restructuring,” and the rage among educators and business leaders pressing for school change, that hot rhetoric has cooled considerably in the last decade.

Now we hear far more about reauthorizing No Child Left Behind and Common Core and, of course, standardized tests accompanying the new standards that determine whether a failing school needs to be “restructured” and whether teachers are effective.

Why? Because the current “wisdom” says that the nation’s economic crisis is an educational problem that must be solved.

What is far more important, however, is the groupthink idea that drives school reform. The assumption that improving public schools will revive a weak economy and ease inequalities remains largely unexamined and, is, ultimately flawed by illogic, facts, and data. Yet it continues to fuel one fad after another to improve schools.

How many shout-outs that the emperor is naked will it take before we dump the  assumption that public schools are bootcamps for the economy?

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After 20 years, a Teacher Reinvents Her Classroom Using Technology (Nichole Dobo)

Nichole Dobo, a reporter, writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a journalist has focused on education. This post appeared on October 15, 2014. The Hechinger Institute is a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education

Teacher Valyncia O. Hawkins knew she needed extra time with students who arrived in her classroom behind grade level, but slowing down the whole class risked boring the more advanced students. But even after 20 years as a teacher, Hawkins still didn’t have a good method to keep everyone moving forward. The 21 children in her classroom at Anne Beers Elementary School shared the label of fifth grader, but they arrived with different needs. It was clear she was losing some of them. It was disheartening.

“When I would stand and talk they would be bouncing off the walls,” Hawkins recalled.

Convinced there had to be a better way, this D.C. Public Schools Teacher took a fellowship with the CityBridge Foundation in 2013 to research and develop a new teaching method. She traveled to see other schools in states such as California and New Jersey, and she noticed technology offered a solution. It inspired her to create a new method of instruction. And in the process she found her zeal for teaching returned.

Today, she is no longer standing in front of the room for a whole class period, trying to keep everyone on the same page. She developed a new style of teaching that gives students a mix of technology and small-group instruction. Online tools, most of them free, helped her customize lessons for students. She periodically checks progress through the year to adjust.

“I am meeting them where they are,” she said.

That’s not to say she found a method that is easier. It requires a lot of advance planning. She must craft several lesson plans for one class period.

On a recent day, when students arrived the first task was correcting the punctuation on two sentences projected on a smart board. Everyone gathered at the front of the room, composition books in hand, and they got to work fixing run-ons. They had four minutes to do it. Hawkins knew some students would move quicker, and her new teaching method meant she was prepared for it.

After answering correctly, students grabbed laptop computers and got to work on more challenging problems provided by online lessons that allowed them to work at their own pace.

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This allowed Hawkins to work with students who took longer to arrive at the right answer.

“After we add a period is the ‘I’ lowercase?” Hawkins asked the smaller group who remained.

“No,” a student responded, a few moments later.

“Right, it is capitalized because you are always important,” Hawkins said.

A blended learning classroom gives children a mix of online and in-person instruction, and some say it offers more personalized learning. There are many ways teachers can do it, but Hawkins created something that is her own model. There is a lot of movement in her classroom, with many students breaking off to work on lessons at their own pace after the starting the class together. Groups of desks offer places for children to gather to work on laptops. A small couch near the front allows for comfy seating for small group-instruction at a smart board. Singular desks in corners welcome children who seek solitude while they work.

The children are often allowed a measure of independence. For instance, they can choose from several vocabulary lessons. They can wear headphones. Or not.

Student JaNaia Jackson, 10, said her favorite lessons in English are finding the theme and main idea, she said. She notices that some of her peers like to take the computers off and work quietly on their own. Others like to stay near each other. There are other perks, such as getting to write with a tool that is preferred over a pencil and paper.

“I love to type,” she said. “I just love to work on typing.”

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Right now, Hawkins is the only educator using this model of teaching in her school. In other D.C. schools, the district is coordinating blended-learning experiments.

Hawkins has noticed students are more engaged and there are fewer behavioral issues, something other D.C. educators said they have noticed with this model of instruction. The novelty of the technology isn’t the only factor, Hawkins said. Personalized instruction that allows students some freedom to explore keeps them from getting bored or frustrated.

“It just helped me feel like I was contributing to the learning of the students,” Hawkins said. “It helped address those students who don’t necessarily follow the norms.”

That’s not to say the transition was easy or the results perfect. Hawkins considers her classroom a work in progress. She continues to remodel it to fit the needs of the school day and her students.

This year, for example, she had to re-organize her blended classroom because she now teaches English language arts to all fifth graders in the school. Before, she taught multiple subjects to the same 20 students all day. The new schedule means she has more students, so she is customizing plans for about 63 children who transition in and out of her room for English class. The new schedule has also shortened the class-time window. (That’s not to say there is less time for English and language arts at the school — writing instruction is now included across other subjects, such as science class.)

Another challenge: Managing the multiple online platforms, such as quizzes, learning games and online grade reporting for parents. Data on the websites she uses aren’t connected so Hawkins has to juggle them to monitor how her students are progressing.

But those obstacles haven’t sent Hawkins back to the familiar way of teaching. She continues to find a way to navigate, and it often means finding low-cost, or free, help.

Volunteer students from Georgetown University spend time in her classroom as aides to help with things like transitions between the groups and the inevitable technical issue, such as a misplaced log in for a computer. And plastic milk crates Hawkins snagged in the cafeteria are the perfect size for storing student folders that organize personalized learning materials. To organize online resources, she puts links on a free website that she’s used for the classroom for a long time. Students are in one of five groups based on their ability level. Each group has a “playlist” of lessons. They access it in the classroom, and it’s available at home for the students who have Internet access.

On Tuesday, most students worked independently on computers in the classroom to answer a question about the class word of the day, “persistence.” Meanwhile, Hawkins stood in front of about 10 students with the word projected on a smart board. The students were asked to define the word. They wrote in composition books, pencils in hand and dictionaries by their side.

Hawkins challenged students to explain how the word “persistence” was subtly different than the examples they were giving, which would better fit the word “repetition.” She called the entire classes’ attention, including the faster-moving students who had been working independently. They had a joint class discussion, and together everyone arrived at the answer.

“Even though you know there is trouble ahead you have persistence,” Hawkins said.

 

 

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Cartoons on Evidenced-based Practice and Data-Driven Decisions

A few weeks ago, I completed a three part series on the role of evidence in determining school and classroom practices (see here, here, and here). I then began looking at cartoonists’ work on the role of evidence in making decisions. Of course, I found some. Perhaps you will chuckle and laugh as I did. Enjoy!

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Here Comes The Classroom Observation and My Slim Chances of Being Rated a Top Teacher (Becca Leech)

Tennessee teacher Becca Leech has been, in her words,a special educator since 1991, with experience teaching infants to young adults in rural, suburban and urban communities, and in both private and non-profit school settings. I currently coordinate an alternative graduation program for students with mild disabilities who are most at-risk for dropping out of high school.

Her blog entry for September 27, 2014 shouts out the unfairness of using student test scores to evaluate a teacher’s performance for either being retained or receiving additional pay. Often called Value-Added Models, the inherent inequity in the scheme in Tennessee and across the nation, apart from all of its methodological problems (see here and here), came up in interviews I had with teachers in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. again and again last year.

This week, a fellow special educator will serve as my administrative observer for the classroom observation portion of my Teacher Effectiveness Measure. This represents a first in my career, so I should be rejoicing. After all, my previous observers have included former coaches and PE-teachers-turned-administrators, a former Science teacher, and a Dual Enrollment History teacher. These observers had no idea of the overall mission of my classroom or any understanding of the strategies and groupings I use to teach multiple subjects to groups of students with different abilities in the same room. I could tell that they simply rated me to produce a slightly-higher-than-average score that might not cause controversy. So I should be holding high hopes that, if I plan very hard and manifest all the teaching skill I have carefully honed over the years, an observer with experience in special education will grant me top scores.

Still, a reading of the Brookings Institute’s May 2014 report entitled “Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations – Lessons Learned in Four Districts” confirms my suspicions that, as a special education teacher who teaches the lowest achieving students in a nontraditional classroom, I have little chance of rating top scores no matter how I try. And I know that my observer will be under pressure to rate me within the same range as previous observations so that inter-rater reliability will be preserved.

I empathize with my students who, knowing that they have no chance of scoring proficient on state exams, simply bubble pretty patterns on their answer sheets during the test. So, I’m off to doodle a pretty little pre-conference record form and make sure I employ the strategy for saving face that I’ve learned from my students: I’ll ensure my mediocre score appears to be due to lack of effort rather than try my best only to expose my fragile ego to the judgement that my teaching is simply mediocre.

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Whitehurst, G., Chingos, M., & Lindquist, K. (2014, May). Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations – Lessons Learned in Four Districts. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2014/05/13 teacher evaluation/evaluating teachers with classroom observations.pdf

“We believe this represents a very serious problem for any teacher evaluation system that places a heavy emphasis on classroom observations, as nearly all current systems are forced to do because of the lack of measures of student learning in most grades and subjects. We should not tolerate a system that makes it hard to be rated as a top teacher unless you are assigned top students. “

 

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