Group work in school isn’t ‘real world’

On “Ask a Manager,” Alison Green responds to someone who’s starting a business graduate program. Administrators say there will be lots of group work “just like the real business world!” He’s dreading it.

Group work in school is really, really different than working on a group project at work,” Green responds.

. . . at work you have totally different types of accountability. If someone is slacking off and not pulling their weight, you have recourse — you can talk to their boss and there’s the specter of consequences.

. . . In school, everyone working on a project is usually bringing similar skills and background to the project. At work, group projects are often made up of people with very different skill sets, because that’s the point of bringing them together to each handle different parts of the project.

And at work, there’s typically someone in the group who’s charge of the overall project and who has the power to make decisions and hold people accountable — whereas school group work often relies on consensus.

In school,  “group projects are often chaotic and imbalanced and frequently disliked,” writes Green. And not without reason.

How much autonomy do teachers want?

Nearly three out of four teachers say they have a “great deal” of control over how and what they teach, but that’s down from 82 percent in 2003-04, concludes a U.
S. Education Department survey,  Public School Teacher Autonomy in the Classroom.

Teachers were asked about their control over “selecting textbooks and other classroom materials; content, topics, and skills to be taught; teaching techniques; evaluating and grading students; disciplining students; and determining the amount of homework to be assigned.”

Teacher autonomy is a mixed blessing, writes Robert Pondiscio.

As a new fifth-grade teacher in a South Bronx elementary school, I spent countless hours planning lessons and writing curriculum—hours that would have been far better spent practicing and mastering my craft. Sure, I had plenty of “autonomy,” but I lacked the time to exercise it.

“Creating curriculum and lessons from scratch each week took prodigious amounts of valuable time,” he writes. Autonomy meant “frustration and dissatisfaction.”

“The question is where to strike the balance of accountability and autonomy so as to maximize teacher satisfaction and student outcomes even while fostering innovation,” he concludes.

At the very high-scoring Success Academy charters in New York City, “every teacher teaches the same content on the same day,” writes Morgan Polikoff, a USC education professor, after a visit to a Harlem school. Curriculum, which is created in house, is the same across all schools in the network.

Teachers “get tons of training” in curriculum and instruction and two periods of common planning time with grade-level colleagues each day, plus an afternoon to work together. The principal “interjected with pedagogical suggestions for the teacher in almost every class we visited.”

From information to knowledge to wisdom

Most Likely to Succeed, which celebrates San Diego’s High Tech High, argues for schools to focus on “the relational skills” needed in the workforce, writes David Brooks in the New York Times. That includes “being able to motivate, collaborate, persevere and navigate through a complex buffet of freelance gigs.”

But it means students will learn less about the world, he writes in Schools for Wisdom,

At High Tech High, one group “studied why civilizations rise and fall and then built a giant wooden model, with moving gears and gizmos, to illustrate the students’ theory,” Brooks writes.

Most Likely to Succeed doesn’t let us see what students think causes civilizational decline, but it devotes a lot of time to how skilled they are at working in teams, demonstrating grit and developing self-confidence.

. . . teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

The road to wisdom starts by learning facts, such as “what a neutron or a gene is, that the Civil War came before the Progressive Era,” argues Brooks. Then students must learn to “link facts together in meaningful ways.”

At some point while studying a field, the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing — how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.

At this point information has become knowledge. It is alive. It can be manipulated and rearranged. At this point a student has the mental content and architecture to innovate, to come up with new theses, challenge others’ theses and be challenged in turn.

Wisdom comes with experience, Brooks concludes. “The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed.”

Teach, test, reteach, succeed

In “a desert of school failure,” a Watts elementary school is soaring, writes Jill Stewart for the LA Weekly. At 96th Street Elementary, teachers assess students’ progress and their own teaching, they tell Stewart.

Kailee Brown, 5, visited 96th Street Elementary in Watts with her mom, Desiree, who hoped to enroll her there even though they don't live in the area. Photo by Ted Soqui

Kailee Brown, 5, visited 96th Street Elementary in Watts with her mom, Desiree, who hoped to enroll her there even though they don’t live in the area. Photo by Ted Soquis.

Principal Luis Heckmuller, now in his eighth year at the school, encourages teachers at each grade level to work as a team. If one first-grade teacher sees a problem, the first-grade team works together to find a solution.

“This is a school of many veteran teachers who are here because they love it, who believe in our group approach of assessing the students regularly and assessing the success of their own teaching,” says Tracy Mack, the “intervention coordinator.”

“At 96th, we do a lot of assessment and data analysis of how the kids are doing,” says David Owens, a sixth-grade teacher. Sometimes that shows the teacher is the problem.

“You can say, ‘OK, I am looking at all these student scores for reading comprehension and literary analysis, and there is a point where all of my kids took a dip. So there is the point where I, the teacher, need to do better.'”

“Many of our teachers enroll their own children right here, in the middle of Watts, says Sandra DeLucas, who teaches third grade.

More time may not mean more learning

Boston public schools will add 40 minutes to the teaching day at more than 50 elementary and middle schools.

More time doesn’t guarantee more learning, writes Emily Richmond in The Atlantic. Quality matters as much as quantity, according to a new report from the Center on Education Policy.

Researchers analyzed 17 low-performing schools in 11 districts that expanded the school day. Test scores and graduation rates improved. But the longer day wasn’t the only change.

Successful schools used “community partnerships to provide extra enrichment programs and services the school’s budget couldn’t cover,” writes Richmond.

Teachers who have more opportunities to collaborate with each other tend to be more effective at their jobs, particularly in their work with students. “An hour of professional development seems to be almost as helpful to teachers, and in some cases more helpful, than an hour in the classroom,” said Matthew Frizzell, a policy center research associate and one of the report’s co-authors.

Boston schools with longer days have seen mixed results, reports the Boston Globe.

For many schools, a longer day has failed to dramatically boost academic achievement or did so only temporarily. The uneven results prompted school district officials to scrap the extra minutes at some schools and the state to pull funding or pursue receiverships at others.

But other schools have successfully used an extended day to boost MCAS scores or expand offerings in the arts and other electives.

“I think there are lessons to be learned,” said John McDonough, interim superintendent. “We know time matters, but it only matters if it is used well.”

At the Eliot K-8 Innovation School, which added an hour to its school day, there’s more time for enrichment, reports the Globe.

On Monday morning, 25 third-graders built and programmed motorized cars out of Legos in a robotics class. Students said they did not mind the longer school day.

“Time goes by fast,” said John D’Amico, 8.

As the students buzzed the cars around the classroom, their regular classroom teacher, Holly McPartlin, mentored a new teacher downstairs, observing her teach and then providing feedback.

Eliot is considered a model of good implementation. But the Edwards Middle School, once “the poster child for the success of the extended-day movement in Massachusetts,” has seen performance slide after “a high turnover of principals,” reports the Globe.

School goes ‘rogue’ on Core teaching

Principal Billy Bean sits with third-graders Kendra, Ian and Edmund who are trying to decipher a Common Core reading passage. (Photo: Meredith Kolodner)

Principal Billy Bean sits with third-graders Kendra, Ian and Edmund who are trying to decipher a Common Core reading passage. (Photo: Meredith Kolodner)

Test scores fell at nearly all New York schools due to the shift to Common Core-aligned tests. The Hechinger Report’s Meredith Kolodner looks at a rural school that raised scores by “going rogue” on Common Core teaching.

Lockwood teachers divided up lesson planning to have time to design new lessons using technology. “What’s worked well for us is the whole teamwork thing, realizing that we can’t do it by ourselves,” said Tyler King, who teaches third grade. “We show no shame in letting each other know when we fail.”

. . . the school decided to group children by ability for 30 minutes daily in both math and English across the grade. That allowed some children to catch up, and a deeper dive for others even as they all learned the same basic material together. The change meant that for an hour each day, teachers left their classes and took a group of students that could number between 3 and 15, who were at a similar learning ability for that subject.

As a result, the lessons, and the assessment of the children, had to be in lock-step. The strongest and weakest teachers worked as a team, and often met at the end of the day to discuss which lessons worked and which didn’t. They also kept track of the progress of individual students using “exit tickets” or short assessments on tablets at the end of each class.

The state curriculum included a manual with “minute-by-minute directions for how teachers should teach,” writes Kolodner. Teachers were allowed to deviate when the script didn’t give students enough time to understand concepts. The next year, they dropped the manual — and the homework that came with it. It simply repeated the day’s lessons, said teachers.

“If they couldn’t do it in class, there’s no use having them get frustrated at home,” said (third-grade teacher Traci) Krist. For the students who did understand, teachers didn’t see the value in having them simply repeat the exercise. Lockwood teachers assigned their own homework.

Knowing parents were frustrated by the new curriculum, Lockwood staffers invited parents to meetings to ask questions and express their concerns.

Does Core teaching need more time?

Are American class periods too short for Common Core? asks the Hechinger Report. As districts across the country implement the new standards, some are moving to block scheduling — typically 90-minute periods two or three times a week — to facilitate Core teaching.

“Most of the high performing schools we have seen do not maintain the 40- or 45-minute block schedule,” said Jennifer Davis, cofounder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a non-profit dedicated to redesigning and expanding school time. “In those schools, when you walk into a classroom you see four or five groups of kids, some are getting support through high-quality computer programs, some are working in a small group with a teacher and some are working in small groups just among themselves. It is very difficult to do that kind of rotation in a typical 45-minute block.”

Some see block scheduling as a way to give teachers more time to share lesson plans and discuss what’s working in the classroom and what’s not.

On the flip side, it can be challenging to teach a 90-minute class without boring or exhausting students.

Redesigning and Expanding School Time to Support Common Core Implementation argues for longer class periods.

Here’s a summary of the research on block scheduling’s effectiveness.

Schools improve to compete with charters

Charter school competition is improving district-run schools in New York City, argues Eva Moskowitz in the Wall Street Journal.

Her Success Academy charter schools serve low-income, minority students, yet students “not only rank in the top 1% in math and top 3% in English among all state schools, but they take top honors in national debate and chess championships,” writes Moskowitz.

Critics charge her schools and other charters cherry-pick the best students and dump harder-to-educate students in district schools. If that’s so, “any academic gains by charters are offset by losses in district schools,” she writes.

The city is divided into 32 community school districts. Math and reading scores improved from 2006 to 2014 in community school districts with the most charters and fell in areas with few or no charters, Moskowitz writes.

Of the 16 charter-rich districts, 11 rose in the rankings. And of the eight among those 16 with the highest charter enrollment, all rose save one. The district that jumped furthest, rocketing up 11 spots between 2006 and 2014, was District 5 in Central Harlem, which has the city’s highest charter-school enrollment (43%).

And what about the 16 charter-light districts? Thirteen fell in the rankings, and not one rose. For example, District 12 in the Bronx, which in 2006 ranked higher than Central Harlem, now ranks 13 spots lower. District 29 in Queens, which in 2006 ranked 15 spots higher than Central Harlem and has fewer poor students, now ranks lower.

Average charter-school enrollment was 20% for those districts that rose in the rankings and 6% in those districts that fell.

If there holes in this, I don’t know New York City well enough to spot them.

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña should be looking for ways to emulate successful charters, rather than dissing them, writes Richard Whitmire. “New district/charter collaborations were announced in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Rhode Island and Florida, the Center on Reinventing Public Education reported last month. They will join the more established compacts well under way in places such as Denver, Houston and San Jose.”

Why teachers quit: Working conditions

Half a million teachers switch schools or leave the profession every year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The churn is worst at high-poverty schools.

Improving working conditions will keep new teachers in the classroom, writes Ellen Moir, CEO of the New Teacher Center.

The most frequently cited reasons new teachers give about why they leave center on dissatisfaction with working conditions like issues with classroom management, opportunities for professional development, input into decision making and school leadership. . . . (Teachers) are looking for a work environment where they are supported to improve by the administration, feel valued and are able to contribute in a collaborative culture.

Beginning teachers leave because they “don’t think the people they work for care about them or their efforts to improve,” reports the Carnegie Foundation.

High-quality mentoring and induction is effective, writes Moir.

The district and the charter can be friends

Traditional and charter schools are working together in Spring Branch, Texas, near Houston, reports PBS.

Choir class blends district and KIPP students at Spring Branch’s Landrum Middle School, reports KERA.

One recent school day, students sang “I want to be happy, but I won’t be happy ’til I make you happy too…” Choir director Jaime Trigo led students through the lyrics and dance steps for an upcoming concert. The mix is “awesome,” he says.