Cartoons on University Teaching and Life

For this month, I gathered a bunch of cartoons that poke at higher education teaching, advising of masters and doctoral students, and the life of university students. Enjoy!

 

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Corporate Responsibility for Children Addictions?

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Like most contentious issues in the U.S. where health and safety are concerned, historically two broad approaches have been used to deal with the effects of products that may be harmful to adults and children.

The dominant approach is to educate the public to the possible dangers (e.g., tainted food, harmful drugs, contaminated water, drunk drivers). In effect, put it on the individual consumer to read and hear about the dangers and then avoid illness and death. When there is a huge outcry over the damage done by, say, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and reckless driving, for example, schools have been dragged into teaching safe and sane use of potentially dangerous products. Recall that drug, sex ,and driver education  were (and are) staples in district curricula across the country in the 20th century. Educate individual adults and children at home and in school (also with public service ads) and they will be alert to what can hurt them.

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The second approach, and one that has been used far less than the more popular changing of
individual American’s behavior,  is to convince corporations and their investors who make
money from the product through public persuasion, legislation and fines to create safer products
(e.g., tobacco companies, car makers, major oil firms). Focusing on economic and political
structures–big business and big government–draws attention to altering organizational behavior
rather than individual actions thereby increasing the chances of making significant changes.
From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a novel about Chicago’s meat packing industry in the early 20th
century leading to the federal Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) to Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed
and carmakers’ adoption of seat belts and better engineering of highways, public outcries
produced political coalitions that led to changes in corporate behavior and governmental
legislation. While such campaigns take decades to gain more safety and less harmful products, that
has not been the case with guns.

The rash of in-school shootings in the past few years have yet to persuade the Congress to ban

purchase of assault weapons and other ways of restricting who buys guns. Gun-makers and the

National Rifle Association (NRA) have made massive political contributions to presidential and

congressional campaigns to block legislation banning certain weapons time and again. In the wake

of the Parkland High School (FLA) killings of students and teachers, Political groups have formed to

get the President and members of Congress to do something about Americans’ addiction to buy and

use handguns and assault weapons.

 

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These examples of mobilizing political coalitions to make changes in improving safety and health concentrate on private and public organizations that influence our daily lives rather than focusing on altering the behavior of each and every individual affected. Of course, both strategies come into play; it is neither one or the other but historical examples show repeatedly that the dominant approach in a society where individualism reigns and choice is sacrosanct is to persuade individual Americans to change their behavior. Not large corporations or state and federal laws.

When it comes to addictions to new technologies and social media, the dominant approach remains–change individual behavior with campaigns to have tech-free weekends, urging parents to restrict children’s use of devices to an hour a day, and similar solutions (see here and here).

But in the past few months, the strategy of getting corporations that produce these devices and software to take responsibility for their actions and change what they do rather than focusing on the individual has emerged. Consider the action of two major investors in technology who own over two billion dollars of shares in Apple (Jana Partners and California State Teachers Retirement System) calling upon the Apple Board of Directors to help parents and children avoid addictive behavior in overusing the iPhone, iPad, and laptops.

we have reviewed the evidence and we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner. By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers.

The investors go on in the letter to the Board of Directors to say the strategy of depending upon individual parents to do the heavy lifting of constraining use of devices is insufficient. Apple has responsibilities to both parents and children to reduce addictive behavior:

Some may argue that the research is not definitive, that other factors are also at work, and that in any case parents must take ultimate responsibility for their children.  These statements are undoubtedly true, but they also miss the point.  The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10 and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking). 78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling “addicted” to their phones. It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally.  It is also no secret that social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged.  According to the APA survey cited above, 94% of parents have taken some action to manage their child’s technology use, but it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.  Imagine the goodwill Apple can generate with parents by partnering with them in this effort and with the next generation of customers by offering their parents more options to protect their health and well-being.

The letter ends with what the two investors believe Apple can do:

This is a complex issue and we hope that this is the start of a constructive and well-informed dialogue, but we think there are clear initial steps that Apple can follow, including:

  • Expert Committee: Convening a committee of experts including child development specialists (we would recommend Dr. Rich and Professor Twenge be included) to help study this issue and monitor ongoing developments in technology, including how such developments are integrated into the lives of children and teenagers.
  • Research: Partnering with these and other experts and offering your vast information resources to assist additional research efforts.
  • New Tools and Options: Based on the best available research, enhancing mobile device software so that parents (if they wish) can implement changes so that their child or teenager is not being handed the same phone as a 40-year old, just as most products are made safer for younger users.  For example, the initial setup menu could be expanded so that, just as users choose a language and time zone, parents can enter the age of the user and be given age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.
  • Education: Explaining to parents why Apple is offering additional choices and the research that went into them, to help parents make more informed decisions.
  • Reporting: Hiring or assigning a high-level executive to monitor this issue and issuing annual progress reports, just as Apple does for environmental and supply chain issues.

For investors to write such a letter asking one of the wealthiest corporations in the world to take responsibility for its product in influencing children’s behavior is unusual (and in my opinion, about time). But as New York Times reporter Natasha Singer says:

Yes, it would be terrific if Apple introduced new control options for parents. But if shareholders want to fault companies for manipulating or addicting users, they should also be taking a hard look at Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, and many more.

Amen.

Turning the spotlight on organizational behavior and the behind-the-scenes structures within which all of us live is a welcome turnabout in a society where the dominant strategy is to get individuals to alter their behavior (see here, here, and here). Yet, as some argue the research driving the case for technology addiction in children and youth is closer to the colloquial use of the word than a medical diagnosis (see here). Thus, public persuasion as in pressuring corporations to do something about their products aligned to political action as in making cars safer (rather than the smoking tobacco campaign) may be more effective in achieving corporate accountability.

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Spilling the Beans on “Personalized Learning”

Years ago, I met Larry Berger at a conference. I had been impressed with the digital tools his company called Wireless Generation had developed to assess student learning and increase teacher efficiency. We talked briefly at the time. My hunch is that he neither remembers the conversation or my name.

Since that time, his career soared and he is now CEO of Amplify, a technology company once owned by Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation but since sold to Amplify executives who now run it. The company creates and develops curricular and assessment software for schools.

Rick Hess, educational policy maven at the American Enterprise Institute had invited Berger to a conference on the meaning of “personalized learning.” Berger could not attend and he asked a colleague who did attend to read a “confession” that he had to make about his abiding interest in “personalized learning.” Hess included Berger letter to the conferees and it appears below.

Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the “engineering” model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.

Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.

Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn’t learn it, you try something simpler.

If the map, the assessments, and the library were used by millions of kids, then the algorithms would get smarter and smarter, and make better, more personalized choices about which things to put in front of which kids.

I spent a decade believing in this model—the map, the measure, and the library, all powered by big data algorithms.

Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.

To be more precise: The map exists for early reading and the quantitative parts of K-8 mathematics, and much promising work on personalized learning has been done in these areas; but the map doesn’t exist for reading comprehension, or writing, or for the more complex areas of mathematical reasoning, or for any area of science or social studies. We aren’t sure whether you should learn about proteins then genes then traits—or traits, then genes, then proteins.

We also don’t have the assessments to place kids with any precision on the map. The existing measures are not high enough resolution to detect the thing that a kid should learn tomorrow. Our current precision would be like Google Maps trying to steer you home tonight using a GPS system that knows only that your location correlates highly with either Maryland or Virginia.

We also don’t have the library of learning objects for the kinds of difficulties that kids often encounter. Most of the available learning objects are in books that only work if you have read the previous page. And they aren’t indexed in ways that algorithms understand.

Finally, as if it were not enough of a problem that this is a system whose parts don’t exist, there’s a more fundamental breakdown: Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.

So we need to move beyond this engineering model. Once we do, we find that many more compelling and more realistic frontiers of personalized learning opening up.

Berger’s confession about believing in “engineering” solutions such as “personalized learning” to school and classroom problems, of course, has a long history of policy elites in the 20th and 21st centuries seeing technical solutions to school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction flop. After the post-Sputnik education reforms introduced curricular reforms in math and the natural and social sciences, cheerleaders for that reform confessed that what they had hoped would occur didn’t materialize (see here). After No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, for example, one-time advocates for the law confessed that there was too much testing and too little flexibility in the law for districts and schools (see here).

“Buyer’s remorse” is an abiding tradition.

I have a few observations about contrition and public confessions over errors in thinking about “personalized learning.”.

First, those confessing their errors about solving school problems seldom looked at previous generations of reformers seeking major changes in schools.They were ahistorical. They thought that they knew better than other very smart people who had earlier sought to solve  problems in schooling

Second, the confessions seldom go beyond blaming their own flawed thinking (or others who failed to carry out their instructions) and coming to realize the obvious:  schooling is far more complex a human institution than they had ever considered.

Finally, few of these confessions take a step back to not only consider the complexity of schooling and its many moving parts but also the political, social, and economic structures that keep it in place (see Audrey Watters here). As I and many others have said often, schools are political institutions deeply entangled in American society, culture, and democracy. Keeping the macro and micro-perspectives in sight is a must for those seeking major changes in how teachers teach or how schools educate. Were that to occur the incidence of “morning after” regret might decrease.

 

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Should I Tell on My Cheating Classmates? (Kwame Anthony Appiah)

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. He is the author of  “Cosmopolitanism” and “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.” He writes for the New York Times as “The Ethicist.” Many of the letters that come to Appiah deal with moral dilemmas where choices have to be made that cannot fully satisfy one or both of the values in conflict. The following entry came from a student’s question and the dilemma the student faced. Appiah’s answer appeared February 6, 2018.

In middle school, I witnessed three friends cheating on a test when a teacher was not in the room. I reminded them that we were not supposed to collaborate or use a computer to look up answers. They told me to “lay off.”

I was tempted to report them because I value being honest and because we were graded on a curve. But I was also hesitant because they were all admitted into prestigious high schools, and I was afraid that my middle school would have to report the cheating to those high schools. I was also afraid that they would know I was the one who reported them and that there might be consequences for our friendship.

There is no official honor code at my school, so I did not promise to report cheaters. Should I have reported them? Name Withheld

 

According to various experts, cheating has gotten worse in recent decades — in part because of increased pressure for good grades and scores among college-bound students — and less stigmatized than it used to be. What you’ve described fits that pattern.

If you’re out of step with your friends, it’s because you’re clear that cheating is wrong. Stick with that thought. Being honest is a good thing in itself. Your friends may think you’re a sucker. They’re wrong. And there are pragmatic considerations in favor of honesty too: Dishonesty is hard to conceal in the long run, and in nearly every sphere of life, having a reputation for dishonesty is a curse. In most circumstances, as a pragmatic matter, honesty really is the best policy. But an honest person won’t be honest for this reason. I’m sure that’s true of you. It’s an ideal you value, not simply a calculation you make.

As you also understand, people who cheat exploit the good faith of those who don’t, because cheating lets them represent themselves as better than they are, relative to noncheaters. (You mention that you’re being graded on a curve.) It’s a breach of their relationship with the teachers who trust them not to do these things, with the friends they disadvantage and with the parents they betray. And it’s bad for the offenders, because regular cheaters don’t do the work to understand the material being tested, depriving themselves of real learning and the opportunity for pedagogic correction.

People who cheat like this in middle school and who scoff at criticism of it are presumably going to go on cheating. And they may well get away with it. While certain forms of plagiarism are easier to detect than before (there are various online programs for this purpose), it appears that the rate of cheating is much higher than the rate of its detection. If your friends were exposed and learned that cheating is a serious matter, they might benefit in the long run. Certainly their peers, by learning from their example, could benefit.

Should you have blown the whistle, then? Maybe not. As you suggest, losing a place at a prestigious high school can be a big deal in our society, where educational opportunity is unfairly distributed. Adding to the current unfairness by cheating isn’t exactly helpful, of course, but that wouldn’t have occurred to your friends as they nursed their outrage at your tattling. And given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay. Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.

The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you. Whistle-blowers often suffer, sometimes more than those whose offenses they report. And the burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you. (I’m glad, as a result, that your school doesn’t expect you to report cheating. So-called honor codes mostly end up being ignored — thus increasing the general level of dishonesty rather than lowering it — while occasionally harming the honorable.) So I would not have recommended reporting these friends. Even if they did something wrong, your friendship, along with the probable costs to you, weighed against reporting them.

Some people, I realize, think that self-directed considerations don’t belong in the moral calculus. You can assess the consequence of your actions on others and on the world, in their view, but you’re not supposed to take your own concerns into account. They identify morality with the triumph over self-interest. This austerely demanding view is tempting but misguided. Morality should not be turned into something like the good china, which you take down from the high shelf only for special occasions. Ethics, in its classical sense, was about being a good person — and living a good life. (The first thing being part of the second.) It was meant for everyday use. The point is that you’re a participant in the situation you describe; your own prospects have to be considered, too.

And suppose that by turning in these cheaters, you became a pariah; would you have helped or hurt the social norm of honesty? Still, there may be things you can do. You might write to the head of your school board and say that cheating is happening and not being detected. (Consult your parents first, of course.) In an ideal world, students could be trusted to refrain from cheating because, like you, they value honesty. But we’re probably headed toward a world that’s simply less dependent on trust: no unsupervised tests, regular use of plagiarism checkers and statistical methods for detecting cheaters; stiff penalties for those who are caught. Given this reality, you might suggest some simple measures that could be taken. For starters, it’s not too much to ask that teachers stay in the room when an exam is being given.

 

 

 

 

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Thoughts about Technology Then and Now

Nearly two decades ago–1998-1999–my research on schools in Silicon Valley was published as Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms.  Next month, The Flight of a Butterfly or Path of a Bullet, another book about 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers who integrated technology into their daily lessons will become available.

What similarities and differences do I see between the two periods of intense activity in getting hardware and software into schools and classrooms?

The similarities are easy to list.

*At both times, policy elites including donors and computer companies urged districts and schools to get desktops into classroom teachers’ and students’ hands.

The hype then and now promised that students would learn more, faster, and better; that classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized–the word today is “personalized”; and that graduates would enter the high-tech workplace fully prepared from day one.

*Teacher and student access to the new technologies expanded.

For example, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Silicon Valley companies and philanthropists gave desktops to schools and districts purchased loads of personal computers. The influx of machines was often distributed within schools to computer labs and media centers (formerly libraries) with most teachers having at least one in their classroom and a couple for students in academic classes. Some software, mostly adaptations of business applications, were given to schools and also purchased. Students had far more access to desktops in labs and classrooms a few times a week, depending upon availability and the lesson content, than ever before.

Nearly twenty years later, that expansion of access student access to digital devices and software is now nearly ubiquitous. Most labs have been retired’ carts holding 25-30 devices are available in classrooms. Many districts now have a device available for each student. As access has increased, so has teacher and student use in lessons.

What about differences?

* Goals for using digital tools have changed.

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve, reformers thought. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to accelerate the improvement of U.S. schools and to thereby strengthen the economy.

The preschools and high schools that I visited and observed in action in 1998-1999 (including schools across the country) pursued these goals. The evidence I found, however, that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, achieved those goals was missing. Student academic achievement had not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) had not materialized. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school did not necessarily step into better-paying jobs.

But in the past decade, those initial goals in the 1990s generating the expansion of access to digital tools have since shifted. Seeking higher academic achievement through using digital tools is no longer a goal. Instead, new devices and software now have the potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to higher academic achievement) through “personalized learning.” Moreover, the technology is essential since  students with take state tests online. And the continuing dream of graduating students marching into high-tech jobs, well, that goal has persisted.

*Combined similarities and differences across time.

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The Path of a Butterfly describes and analyzes the observations I made and interviews I conducted in 2016 of 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. I found both similarities and differences with the earlier study I did and prior historical research on how teachers taught in the 20th century.

These Silicon Valley teachers that I observed in 2016 were hard working and in using digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were now in the background, not foreground–as the previous generation of teachers using devices in computer labs and media centers.

The lessons these 41 teachers taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in how they managed administrative details quietly and effortlessly in taking attendance and communicating with students, colleagues, and parents. They saved time and were more efficient using these digital tools than the earlier generation of teachers. For their lessons, they used these tools to create playlists for students, pursue problem-based units, and assess student learning during the actual lesson and afterwards as well. All of this work was seamlessly integrated into the flow of the lesson. I could see that the students were intimately familiar with the devices and how the teacher wove the content of the lesson effortlessly into the different activities. They surely differed from their comrades who I had observed two decades earlier.

But I also noted no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of their lessons such as setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, and assessing student understanding. The format of lessons appeared similar to the earlier generation I observed 20 years ago and experienced peers a half- and full century ago whose classrooms I had studied through archival research. These contemporary lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Sure, the content of lessons had changed–students working with DNA in a biology lesson differed from biology classes I had observed earlier. But the sequence of activities and what students did over the course of a lesson resembled what I had seen many times earlier. Again, stability and change in teaching emerged clearly for me as did the pervasive use of digital tools.

 

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Have Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in U.S. Public Schools Changed?

The answer is yes.

I begin with a history of how policy elites politically defined “success” in school reform between the late 19th century and mid-20th century. In those years, classrooms, schools, and districts that practiced “efficiency” in expanding access of students to public schooling, following scientifically designed procedures in creating appropriate curriculum for each level in age-graded schools, and using public funds parsimoniously and wisely were “successes” (see here and here)

Using scientific findings, ”educational engineers” (historians call them “administrative Progressives) in the early 20th century sought the best ways for students to learn, teachers to teach, administrators to manage, and school boards to govern. Policymakers asked: how much does it cost to teach Latin? Can teachers get fifth grade students to learn more by lesson worksheets done in class or homework? How can money be saved in heating the building during the winter? How can school boards divest party politics from making educational decisions? Researchers of the day answered such questions (see here and here)

These policymakers also wanted “social efficiency,” that is, graduates of age-graded schools were to be prepared to enter the workplace and act as responsible adults—public schools were to serve both the economy and society.

Challenges to this political consensus occurred at the time from those academics and practitioners who saw the goals of schooling in “learning through doing” and developing the “whole child.” Reformers of this stripe (historians called them “pedagogical Progressives) sought to create classrooms and schools that gave students more choices, positioned teachers as guides rather than directors, created curricula that crossed disciplinary boundaries, and integrated family, community, and the larger world into classroom experiences. To these reformers, “success” and “failure” went far beyond “efficient” classrooms and schools. The definition of “successful” schooling that they constructed sought student well-being and intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth. But their challenges to the dominant view lost in these years although their definitions, beliefs and practices have persisted in subsequent decades.

By the late-1960s, however, the half-century prevailing consensus over “efficiency” as the dominant way to determine “success” and “failure” had fallen apart.

In that decade, expanded federal legislation to improve public schooling for poor children and youth led to direct infusion of funds into states and districts to improve schools serving poor children and youth. Another generation of policy elites pursued made a 180-degree switch in defining “success” from one of “efficiency” to one of “effectiveness.” These reformers wanted student outcomes (e.g., raising student test scores, increasing high school graduation rates and lowering number of dropouts) to define “success.” From inputs to outputs, as economists would say, sum up the flip-flop history of defining “success” and “failure” in the 20th century.

Increased emphasis on students’ academic outcomes and public rankings of schools and districts spread through the 1970s until today when new technologies permit policymakers to use large caches of information to reach swift judgments of “success” and “failure.” Now parents with laptops and smart phones can directly access their children’s academic performance on a weekly basis and school’s performance on state tests.

The tsunami of public data on student outcomes and habitual policy debates over “failing” U.S. schools introduces the bell-shaped curve of distribution of “winners” and “losers” in the American lexicon of reforming schools. The bell-shaped curve illustrates how most students and teachers in age-graded schools and districts are in the middle not at either tail—“success” or “failure”– of a distribution.

In the U.S., a highly competitive, individualistic culture wins and losses are counted religiously with check-marks placed either in the “win” or “loss” columns. For example, in business transactions (e.g., rise and fall in stock prices, creating unicorn companies worth billions and start-ups that disappear, restaurants opening their doors and later shutting down) define “success” and “failure.” Similarly, in college and professional sports (e.g., which pitcher has best earned run average, and National Football League team standings)

But reality of everyday life is a tad more complex; not everything is a win or loss–there is an in-between: the middle range, the typical, the average.

The concept of being in the middle—“average”–has in the U.S. segued into “mediocrity,” a linguistic euphemism for inferior quality applied to student, teacher, and school performance. “Average” and “mediocre” have become common adjectives added to current political vocabulary in describing classrooms, schools, and districts neither “successful” nor “failed.”

Yes, changes have occurred in defining what “success’ and “failure” mean in past and present reformers’ vocabulary. Moreover, the concept of “mediocre” also has been added recently where none existed in the 20th century to describe “average.” Those changes mean that such concepts bend with time and are context-bound; they are not absolute.

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Managing Teacher Dilemmas: Algebra 2, the Gateway Course (Education Realist)

This post comes from the blog Education Realist. While I usually avoid postings from anonymous authors, this full time teacher who writes under the pseudonym of Education Realist is someone I have come to know and respect as a teacher and person. I have observed this teacher in math and social studies lessons; we have also met for lunches discussing many issues in public schools.

Rare it is that a teacher describes intra-department politics on a crucial policy question about how much advanced math should students previously identified as low-achieving and potential failures have access to. Education Realist describes such a high school department wrestling with this departmental policy dilemma and what position this teacher takes.

This post appeared January 28, 2018.

I’ve been teaching a ton of algebra 2 the past three years.  I squawk periodically, and the admins give me variety for a semester or so, but then the classes come back. Back in 2016, I taught 5 classes, all of them full, over the two semester block courses, or about 160 kids. Last year, I had just one course of 30 kids. This year, I’ve already taught three and one coming up.  I also get a steady flow of trigonometry classes–not as many, but three or four every year.  I’ve requested more pre-calculus every year;  they’ll give me one every so often, like a bone to a cranky dog.

In my early years here, I taught far more pre-calculus. From spring 2013 to spring 2014, I taught five pre-calc courses. From fall 2015 to now, I’ve had three.

Why? Because Chuck got his way. Chuck came to our school determined to upgrade the math department. He wanted to make it possible to get a committed kid from algebra 1 freshman year to AP or regular calculus senior year. As I pointed out at the time, this goal is incompatible with helping more kids attain advanced math. You can increase standards or increase inclusion, but not both.

Chuck knows this, and so every semester, particularly the midterm when we finish a “year” and do the turnover to new courses, he starts noodging us for the lists. Kids are often scheduled in two consecutive math courses, so Chuck wants to make sure that the kids who get Ds or Fs in the first course are removed and rescheduled into a repeat. Every year he sends out an email to the algebra 2 teachers, nagging them to give him a list of kids who are failing so he can get them rescheduled. Every year, I ignore him, because I find this activity unseemly and cruel.

I take this task on far more personally and by age. Seniors are given a C if they work hard but can’t pass the tests. Juniors get a choice: retake the course if I think they have the ability to learn more, or take our stats course  (which is designed for very weak kids, lots of project courses). All sophomores get this conversation: you don’t quite grok this material, and you should take it again. Ideally, with me, but either way, take it again. I’ll give a passing grade so you’ll get the credits. But you’re going to  fail if you move forward, and retaking trig is a waste of time, while you will learn more if you retake algebra 2.

But this year, Chuck turned into a wily bastard and instead of asking me for the list, got it from the counselors. He then emailed a list to me and  Benny , the other two teachers covering non-honors Algebra 2:

Hi, can you tell me which of these students won’t pass, so I can email the counselors?  Here’s all the algebra 2 non-honors students who either have a D or F right now, or who got an NOF [Notification Of Failure] at the last notification:

Benny (teaching one class of 30):
list of 12 students

Chuck (teaching one class of 30):
13 students

Ed (teaching three classes of 35, or 105 students):
15 students

(I don’t know why Chuck put his own students on the list, maybe to remind me that he was living by his own rules)

So a student in Benny or Chuck’s class had a 1 in 3 chance of failing algebra 2 with a D or F. In mine, their odds were 1 in 7. I was teaching three times as many kids but kept back half as many as they did combined.

Benny, Chuck, Steve, and Wing, the upper math teachers, complain constantly about the seniors they get stuck with, kids forced into a math class by the administrators, even though they hate math and don’t need the credits. The students sit in class every day and refuse to work. Their parents either support this choice or shrug in defeat. The kids have an F by the first quarter. They get bored and disruptive.  The kids waste an entire semester (our year) in their classes, sitting there doing nothing.

I find this akin to malpractice, and say so–well, I don’t say “That’s malpractice.” But I point out how odd it is that I never have this problem, despite being assigned many seniors with similar objections. Most end up like Wesley, learning more math than he ever dreamed.

I was reminded of this recently when going through my desk, cleaning out stuff for the new semester, and coming across Estefania’s note. I give an assessment test on the first day,  and discovered Estefania ignoring the test, writing on a slip of paper. I took the paper away from her, told her to give that test her best effort. I  was going to toss the note but then noticed it was a form of some sort, and opened it:

https://educationrealist.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/estefanialet.png?w=1216&h=286

Estefania came up after class. “I tried on the test, but I didn’t know a lot of it. Can I have my note back?”

I handed it to her. “I don’t think you should turn it in. I think you should take the class.”

“I’ll fail.”

“No. You won’t. I promise.”

“Math teachers always tell me that, like I’ll finally get math and be good at it. But I’m not any good and I’ve already failed twice.”

“You don’t understand. Come to class. Try. I will give you a passing grade. I don’t care if you fail every single test. I guarantee you will get a passing grade. And odds are really good you’ll also learn some math.” I held out my hand for the note. She hesitated, and then handed it back. And stayed. She did pretty well, too, well enough that she smiled whenever I reminded her about that note.

When I found the note in my drawer, I looked up some of her work on the finals.

Exponential functions:

https://educationrealist.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/estefaniaexp2.jpg?w=916&h=687

 

Estefaniaexp1

 

I forgot to take a picture, but she did quite well on the log questions, understanding that log base 2 of 16 is 4.

Here she is on quadratics, her best subject (she got an A, flat out, on her parabola graphing quiz.):

Estefaniaproj

She received a 60 on the first part of the final, putting her in the bottom third (most of my fails were between 42 and 60). I haven’t graded the second part,  although she clearly knew the quadratics. Girl learned some math, y’know?

Chuck and my four colleagues sometimes suspect that I dumb down my course. In fact, thanks to the epic teacher federalism agreement, my course is considerably harder and more cognitively complex than it was three years ago.

A month ago, Chuck trumpeted the results of his project. Six students entered at Algebra 1 or lower in their freshman year, and succeed in taking  AP Calculus their senior year. (One of them was Manuel.) Eight students entered at the same level took regular calculus. So fourteen students were not identified as honors students, took no honors classes, yet had made it to calculus by their senior year.

Of those fourteen students, I’d taught ten of them twice in their progression through algebra two, trigonometry, and pre-calcululus. Two others I taught once. Of the fourteen, only two had never been in my classroom.

The  road to Chuck’s dream runs directly through Ed.

Now you know why I get all those algebra 2 students. Because our administrators want to sign up for Chuck’s dream, but they don’t want a bloodbath. No one says so directly. They don’t have to. My schedule says it all.

In prior years, I was teaching more precalculus for a similar reason, as far too many students who’d made it that far were wasting their last year of high school math. But when Chuck unrolled his initiative, my principal realized that algebra 2 was going to be the new choke point. Well, not so much realized it as heard it straight from Chuck’s mouth, as in “More kids will fail algebra 2 because it’s going to be a much harder course if we’re going to  achieve this goal.” Rather than tell Chuck no–because it is indeed a worthy goal–our principal threads the needle between achievement and equity by adopting Chuck’s goals but assigning me the lion’s share of students in a critical gateway–or gatekeeping–course.

If I want to teach more pre-calculus, I need more colleagues with my methods and priorities teaching upper-level math. I spent three years mentoring Bart to share the teaching load, an objective I made clear to both Bart and the principal. Bart liked that idea. The principal did, too. But Bart wanted to teach physics, too, and we have a new science initiative, and now Bart teaches freshman physics. I am still pissed about that, but hell, we drink beer together so I can’t kill him.

In the meantime, our department chair is retiring. So I need to request input into the hiring decision for his replacement.

Yet I pause just for a moment to celebrate the Estefanias in my world, and remind everyone again that as teachers, we owe our first loyalty to the students, not the subjects.

As Joe said in All That Jazz when Victoria wanted to quit:

Victoria: I’m terrible. I know I’m terrible. I look at the mirror and I’m ashamed. Maybe I should quit. I just can’t seem to do anything right.

Joe Gideon: Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer. I’d like very much to do that. Stay?

Or take this question, which I first asked four years ago::

If you teach at-risk, low-skilled kids and don’t struggle with this question, you aren’t really teaching them.

*******************************************************************************

My standard disclaimer: all my colleagues are good teachers who want the best for the kids. I disagree with their philosophy. They disagree with mine. No criticism intended, other than, you know, they still kill the bulls to worship Mithras while I’m Zoroastrian. (Also, all names are pseudonyms.)

The great Ben Orlin recently mused on this, giving birth to my take. Robert Pondiscio argues that education reform’s “underperformance” lies in their assumption that policy, not practice, is the key to drive “enduring improvement”. I don’t know that reformers will get anywhere until they realize that the facts on the ground say we’re teaching kids at capacity and that “enduring improvement” is likely a chimera. (

Previously, I’ve described my outrage at college policies that abandon remediation, conferring college-readiness on people who can’t manage middle school math. Anyone want to know how I [thread] that needle with what I’m writing here? It’s an interesting question. I’ll get to it later.

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