How to succeed at community college

Community colleges are finding ways to engage students and raise their odds of success, a new study finds. One college warns students they must show up for class or be kicked out.

In Tennessee, volunteer “success coaches” help first-generation students fill out college forms, apply for financial aid and navigate the system.

Teacher training programs need a reboot

Teacher training programs should be designed on the medical model, writes Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld in the Washington Post.

I went to a highly ranked liberal arts college and graduated with a special major in sociology, anthropology and education as well as an elementary teaching certificate. I immediately found a job teaching breathtakingly underprivileged students in a persistently failing elementary school in Prince George’s County. I wasn’t prepared to teach my students how to tie their shoes, much less to make up for years of institutional neglect, hunger, poverty, family transience, isolation and other ills. My first year was a nightmarish blur; my second was only slightly less awful. My third had its highlights but was still a daily struggle.

She enrolled in a one-year master’s program at Teachers College, Columbia to learn how to teach special-needs students. She learned a lot about Lev Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development, but nothing of practical use.

We can’t decide whether teaching is a “craft or a profession,” Arthur Levine said in the Post‘s story on National Council on Teacher Quality‘s report criticizing teacher education. “Do you need a lot of education as you would in a profession, or do you need a little bit and then learn on the job, like a craft?” asked Levine.

It’s a false dichotomy, writes Dimyan-Ehrenfeld. Medical students combine highly specialized education with clinical rotations, “learning the craft of patient care through observation and guided practice.” They also take “rigorous licensing exams that test their theoretical and practical knowledge.” Then comes on-the-job learning under master practitioners and more tests.

Why not adopt this model for education? Educators could be required to complete a period of schooling in which they learn the theories and ideas that will be most valuable to them as teachers and hone their skills at thinking and talking about education from an intellectual standpoint. Then, perhaps, one to two years of guided practice under the supervision of master teachers could be required, with lots of coaching and meaningful feedback. We could even throw in some rigorous exams.

If it took years of education, training and testing to become a full-fledged teacher, would we have enough teachers?

Dimyan-Ehrenfeld taught for eight years in Maryland and Boston public schools. She now practices education and civil rights law in Washington.

Violent sports teach manhood in Chicago

“Athletics help young men channel their aggression in acceptable ways,” develop “grit” and move toward success, writes guestblogger Collin Hitt on Jay Greene’s blog.

. . . some of  Chicago’s toughest high schools that are embracing a new sports program that often includes violent sports. It is called Becoming a Man – Sports Edition, which is teaching adolescent boys boxing, wrestling, martial arts, archery and other Olympic sports like handball.

Young athletes in the privately run program receiving coaching and counseling and meet to discuss family issues.

Students were randomly assigned to the sports program or a control group. Arrests for violent crimes were 44 percent lower for participants and grades were significantly higher, a University of Chicago study found. Researcher Sara Heller predicted higher grades would lead to higher graduation rates.

Lemov: How teachers get better

Doug Lemov’s new book, Practice Perfect,gives teachers (and others) “42 rules for getting better at getting better.” In an Amazon interview, Lemov and co-authors Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi, call for practicing strengths, instead of focusing on weaknesses. It’s a myth that practice should stop when you achieve competence, they say.

What marks champions is their excellence at something—they may have weaknesses, but their strengths are honed and polished to the level of brilliance. The value of practice begins at mastery!

Practice has a reputation for being dull, but its “fun, exciting, and ideal for adults,” they believe.

“Educrats have long warned of the perils of rote and repetition,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee in an Education Gadfly review. ”But they’re wrong.”

Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, “based on thousands of hours spent observing outstanding teachers in action” argued that “great teaching requires the mastery of seemingly mundane but crucially important knowledge and skills,” Porter-Magee writes.

Practice Perfect‘s 42 rules “are simple, practical, and grounded in common sense, as well as respect for the practice and repetition that we need to help teachers (and students) achieve mastery.”

They also present a damning critique of the multi-billion dollar teacher professional-development industry. By shying away from skill repetition, most PD programs offer the equivalent of art-appreciation courses and then ask teachers to paint masterpieces.

Teachers need to hone their skills with one another — with coaching and feedback—before they try new skills in the classroom.

Coaching top performers

Top athletes and musicians work with coaches to perfect their skills. Surgeon Atul Gawande explores coaching for surgeons and teachers in The New Yorker.

Jim Knight, director of the Kansas Coaching Project, at the University of Kansas, thinks coaching can help excellent teachers become even better, as well as helping novices.

Training workshops have little effect on how teachers teach, researchers have observed.  Only 10 to 20 percent use what they learned in workshops in the classroom. Coaching — another teacher watched them try the new skills and offered advice — raised the adoption rates to more than 90 percent in California studies.

Gawande and Knight sat in on a coaching session at a Virginia middle school that requires coaching for new teachers and offers it to veterans such as Jennie Critzer, an eighth-grade algebra teacher with 10 years experience.

She set a clear goal, announcing that by the end of class the students would know how to write numbers like ?32 in a simplified form without using a decimal or a fraction. Then she broke the task into steps. She had the students punch ?32 into their calculators and see what number they got (5.66). She had them try explaining to their partner how whole numbers differed from decimals. (“Thirty seconds, everyone.”) She had them write down other numbers whose square root was a whole number. She made them visualize, verbalize, and write the idea. Soon, they’d figured out how to find the factors of the number under the radical sign, and then how to move factors from under the radical sign to outside the radical sign.

Gawande thought the lesson was great. But Critzer told the coaches she was worried about students’ engagement.

At least four of her 20 students “seemed at sea,” the coaches said. When students were paired off, most struggled with having a “math conversation,” especially girl-boy pairs.

Critzer said she had been trying to increase the time that students spend on independent practice during classes, and she thought she was doing a good job. She was also trying to “break the plane” more—get out from in front of the whiteboard and walk among the students—and that was working nicely. But she knew the next question, and posed it herself: “So what didn’t go well?” She noticed one girl who “clearly wasn’t getting it.” But at the time she hadn’t been sure what to do.

“How could you help her?” Hobson asked.

She thought for a moment. “I would need to break the concept down for her more,” she said. “I’ll bring her in during the fifth block.”

Critzer knew students were having trouble talking about math. A coach suggested putting key math words on the board for them to use, such as factoring, perfect square and radical.  She decided to try it.

I asked Critzer if she liked the coaching. “I do,” she said. “It works with my personality. I’m very self-critical. So I grabbed a coach from the beginning.” She had been concerned for a while about how to do a better job engaging her kids. “So many things have to come together. I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”

Coaching makes her feel less isolated and lowered her stress level, she told Gawande. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.

Sex and the professor

A psychology professor fired for performing in a burlesque show has filed suit in federal court on grounds of sex discrimination, charging a male professor performed partially nude in a one-man show without incurring discipline. Click the link for video of “Professor Shimmy” performing social commentary at the Hubba Hubba Revue.

Also on Community College Spotlight: A weekly “nudge” from a coach –via phone, e-mail or text — improves retention and graduation rates, according to a new study.