Core compatible? ‘High low’ books

When a teenager has a Green Eggs and Ham reading level, what’s a teacher to do? “High-interest, low readability” books used to deal with adult themes in very simple vocabulary and short sentences, writes Christina A. Samuels on Education Week. The second-grade level was the starting point.

Now Saddleback Educational Publishing’s Teen Emergent Reader Library offers books that start at a pre-kindergarten reading level.

What is a pre-k reading level? Well, every page has “full-color, riveting photographs.”

The publisher claims “this series offers middle and high school teachers the solution for differentiating instruction while still teaching grade-level content and meeting Common Core standards.”

For example, they can read a book on homelessness — or look at the full-color photos — and discuss the issue. But how does that meet Common Core standards, which call for students to read — and read closely — “complex literary and informational texts?”

“Picking books that appeal to an older audience and use lower-level vocabulary is a really sound concept for teen readers,” said Barbara Stripling, the president of the American Library Association. “They don’t want to be reading about dogs and cats, they want to be reading about Beyoncé.”

Sophisticated knowledge does not always have to come with long words and complex sentence structure, teachers say.

. . . For example, Soldier’s Heart, a book by Gary Paulsen about the devastating effects of the Civil War on a young Union soldier, is appropriate for middle school students but uses language at a 2nd grade level of mastery, (Professor Teri) Lesesne said. Night, Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of the horrors of a Nazi death camp, is written at a 5th grade level, she said.

If students have reached their teens without being able to read . . . Isn’t this make-believe?

Of 183 University of North Carolina basketball and football players a tutor researched since 2005, 8 to 10 percent read below the third-grade level, writes New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. Sixty percent read between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, says Mary Willingham, a reading specialist turned whistle-blower.

Many were eligible for college sports because their high school grades were good enough to outweigh very low SAT scores.

If you could design a school …

“If you could design a school what would it look like?” In Milpitas, a middle-class district near San Jose, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka asked teachers and principals how they’d redesign their schools, reports EdSurge News. Propsals had to “integrate technology, use data to inform instruction, be student-centered and flexibly use space, time, and student grouping.”

As a result of the design challenge, two-thirds of the district’s elementary school classrooms are now using “blended learning.” Students spend part of the day using software that adapts to their individual learning needs and produces data for teachers.

Some plans were patterned after Rocketship, a charter network with five schools 10 miles south in San Jose with deep experience in experiment with technology–including teaching 90 student in one space at a time. Other schools, such as Marshall Pomeroy Elementary School run by Principal Sheila Murphy Brewer, instead focused on addressing the diverse needs of a school where fully half of the  506 students are English language learners. “Blended learning came out of the necessity of reaching all abilities,” she says.

Some classes use a one-to-one model, each student equipped with a Chromebook. Others rely on in-class rotations with some students on computers, some doing independent or group work, and others getting direct instruction from a teacher.

All blended classrooms use iReady, an adaptive reading and math program. Other popular tools include Khan Academy, Edmodo, Newsela and No Red Ink.

Burnett Elementary School’s learning lab relies on a huge garage-style door that slides up to divide the space into two rooms–and to harkening back to the days when Silicon Valley startups began in garages. The space is meant to be used for mixed purposes, offering soundproof areas for students to work on projects, while others can quietly work on the computer or receive direct instruction in small groups.

In classrooms, students are also doing classroom rotations. In the fourth grade math class, students rotate every twenty minutes between Khan Academy, group work on Common Core performance tasks, creating their own videos on Educreations, and peer coaching. Students put their name on a ‘peer coaching’ board, to volunteer to help other struggling students. Their teacher, Allison Elizondo, stands by to help struggling students and ensure that all goes smoothly.

“When you give kids freedom, they just go for it,” says Elizondo. “I don’t see myself as a traditional teacher, I see myself as a coach.”

The Hechinger Report looks at blended learning in an Aspire charter elementary school in Los Angeles.

On a recent Monday morning inside Freddy Esparza’s second-grade classroom, . . . a small group has gathered on the rug to hear Esparza read “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse.”

The remaining students log into their computers. One student reads a non-fiction book about beluga whales. Another takes a quiz on synonyms and antonyms, posting a perfect score. “Yessss!” he whispers, pumping up his little fist.

I’m attending (and tweeting!) a conference on blended learning today at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. I’m also finishing a freelance story for Education Next on a blended learning experiment in Oakland elementary and middle schools. Oakland Unified teachers typically have 32 students of widely varying achievement, aptitude and English proficiency levels – and no aide. Without adaptive software, differentiation is “fairy dust,” as one principal put it.

Stop ignoring the smart kids

Americans think high achievers don’t need any help to reach their full potential, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. He’s the author of Closing America’s High-Achievement Gap, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Educated, well-resourced parents can provide special help to their gifted children, writes Smarick. The “talented, low-income child” depends on support at school. And teachers pay much more attention to struggling students than to achievers.

When a high-potential child isn’t challenged, she misses “the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.”

. . .  the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

. . . new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools).

. . . We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

“We should care about all boys and girls,” Smarick concludes.

Busy with the move to Common Core standards, teachers have even less time for gifted students, reports Education Week. “In order to differentiate, you have to understand the standards and know what they entail. That’s ground zero,” said Jared B. Dupree, a Los Angeles Unified administrator. “Quality differentiation” for gifted students may be  “three or four years down the road.”

It’s time to debate ‘mainstreaming’

It’s time to debate whether debate whether mainstreaming special-education students is fair to all students, argues attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, author of Fixing Special Education, in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

When teachers focus on students who need more attention, other children get less attention, writes Freedman. Yet parents of regular-education students rarely challenge policies that place high-need children in mainstream classrooms.

The special-education system in the U.S. is highly regulated by law, expensive, and sometimes marked by litigiousness. Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it—including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials.

Fourteen percent of students are in special education today: 70 to 80 percent have mild or moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, social and emotional disabilities, ADHD, etc. While federal regulations govern special ed, 80 percent of funding comes from states.

Students with disabilities have the right to be in the “least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent “appropriate,” with added resources such as computers, large-print or recorded books, and personal aides, if needed.

Look into the research on inclusion and you will find that this policy is generally based on notions of civil rights and social justice, not on “best education practices” for all students. The effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities varies—some groups and individual students benefit; others don’t. This is one reason why inclusion remains controversial in some segments of the disability community.

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students—whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching. Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct.

Educators and parents should join a “robust, inclusive and frank national discussion” on how to fix a broken special education system, Freedman concludes.

I’d be very interested in what teachers really think about inclusion. How many are getting the supports they need to do it well?

America’s math problem

In America’s search for education equality, we’ve watered down math instruction, argues Jacob Vigdor in Education Next. That’s hurt high achievers without helping low achievers.

In the early 20th century, American high-school students were starkly divided, with rigorous math courses restricted to a college-bound elite. At midcentury, the “new math” movement sought, unsuccessfully, to bring rigor to the masses, and subsequent egalitarian impulses led to new reforms that promised to improve the skills of lower-performing students. While reformers assumed that higher-performing students would not be harmed in the process, evidence suggests that the dramatic watering down of curricular standards since that time has made our top performers worse-off.

. . . America’s lagging mathematics performance reflects a basic failure to understand the benefits of adapting the curriculum to meet the varying instructional needs of students.

When Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools placed below-average-performing eighth graders into algebra, they proved more likely to pass algebra by 10th grade, but less likely to pass geometry or advanced algebra ever, Vigdor notes. By contrast, Chicago improved success rates for below-average students by giving them a “double dose” of  algebra tailored to their needs.

Khan: Tech-powered teachers can do more

Khan Academy videos — and interactive exercises — will empower teachers, not replace them, writes Salman Khan in Education Week.

Khan Academy’s free videos now cover every subject from algebra to art history for grades K-12, he writes. In additions, students can practice math skills, move forward at their own pace and receive feedback while teachers monitor their students’ progress.

Teachers are struggling to meet students’ different “abilities, motivation levels, and incoming knowledge,” Khan writes.

Some are ready for grade-level content, while others have not fully mastered the prerequisites. Still others have already learned the grade-level material and are ready to move on to more advanced concepts. Ideally, teachers would like to meet all those needs simultaneously, but it is only humanly possible for them to teach one lesson at a time.

. . . when used appropriately, technology can enable teachers to lead differentiated and interactive classrooms. When teachers have real-time data and a clear understanding of every child’s needs, they can use their precious classroom time more effectively and flexibly. When students are learning at a pace and level appropriate to their individual needs, they are less likely to disengage or act up.

. . . Technology will give teachers valuable real-time data to diagnose students’ weak points and design appropriate interventions. It will enable teachers to more quickly gauge students’ comprehension of new topics so they can adjust their lesson plans on the spot.

Khan Academy’s latest platform teaches computer science as a “creative art,” he writes. He hopes to use the platform to “create interactive virtual labs with simulations of projectiles, pendulums, and the solar system.” In addition, a new feature lets users ask and answer each other’s questions, increasing the sense of online community.

What works for teachers? Let’s find out

“Teacher moves” — the many decisions a teacher makes every day — have been ignored by education researchers, writes Michael Goldstein, who founded the high-scoring MATCH charter school in Boston, in Education Next.

Should I ask for raised hands, or cold-call? Should I give a warning or a detention? Do I require this student to attend my afterschool help session, or make it optional? Should I spend 10 minutes grading each five-paragraph essay, 20 minutes, or just not pay attention to time and work on each until it “feels” done?

Researchers care about raising test scores, while teachers “care more about solving today’s problems,” Goldstein writes.

Teachers need to use time efficiently. Researchers don’t consider opportunity cost: They want teachers to spend more time on X without saying where they should spend less time.

Education researchers often put forward strategies that make teachers’ lives harder, not easier. Have you ever tried to “differentiate instruction”? When policy experts give a lecture or speak publicly, do they create five different iterations for their varied audience? Probably not.

 Experienced teachers have seen fads, allegedly supported by research, come and go. Newbies pick up the veterans’ skepticism. To develop useful research, “it makes sense to focus on topics that teachers care about,” writes Goldstein.

1. How to be more efficient. Many teachers want to work less without being neglectful. Or they’d like to free up time to invest in new priorities.

2. How to manage the classroom so kids behave better, thus lowering the “misbehavior tax” on learning. If a middle school teacher can “reset” the class only 3 times per period, instead of 5, that’s probably 1,440 fewer times per year that he has to deal with misbehavior. (By “reset,” I mean when a teacher says something like, “Guys, come on. I need your eyes on me. I need you to settle down. Joey, that means you. I’m going to wait until I have everyone’s eyes.”)

3. How to motivate and generate student effort, especially, how to “flip” kids who arrive having not worked hard in previous classes or years. This includes both getting kids to exert effort during class and getting them to work hard at home.

4. How to get kids to remember material that they seemingly once knew. Cognitive science has moved the ball forward here; now we need applied experiments with teachers.

5. How to best explain particular ideas and concepts. Each year, tens of thousands of math teachers try to get kids to understand the notion that division by zero does not exist.

Goldstein proposes the Teaching Move Genome Project to identify teacher moves and rate their effectiveness. He wants randomized trials, not just perceived best practices.

In his best-selling book Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov describes 49 teaching moves he has observed in the nation’s top charter schools. At the University of Michigan, Deborah Ball and her colleagues are close to unveiling a list of 88 math teacher moves. Lee Canter’s Assertive Discipline and Jon Saphier’s Skillful Teacher discuss scores of moves, like the “10-2” rule (have kids summarize for 2 minutes in small groups after 10 minutes of teacher-led instruction), much of it supported by nonrandomized research.

Goldstein envisions a randomized trial of Lemov’s  “Right Is Right” move.

The idea is that when a kid gives an answer that is mostly right, the teacher should hold out until it’s 100 percent correct. Lemov describes various tactics the teacher can use to elicit the 100 percent right answer from the student (or first from another student, before having the original student repeat or extend the correct answer).

The obvious cost of implementing this move is time. These back-and-forths add up to lost minutes each period when other topics are not being discussed. A less skillful teacher might be drawn into a protracted discussion, when her next best alternative (simply announce the 100 percent right answer, and move on) might work better. We just don’t know.

Is it feasible to test the effectiveness of “teacher moves” for different teachers and different sets of students?  Is it a good use of time?

Room for improvement at the top?

Are top students getting short shrift?  Room for Debate looks at Fordham’s study on high flyers.

Differentiation works for all learners, if it’s done well, argues Carol Tomlinson, a Univeristy of Virginia education professor.  In the comments, teachers and parents say it’s nearly impossible to differentiate well when the class includes a wide range of performance levels plus disruptive and special-needs students.

Differentiation gone ditsy

Differentiation — tailoring instruction to each student’s needs — is the education professoriate’s new buzzword, writes Malcolm Unwell on The American Thinker.

Perhaps there is a student who is just learning English in your class. And perhaps that student sits next to another who wants to have an in-depth discussion about Shakespeare. Should these two students prove difficult to teach at once, a normal person might consider what the root problem is — that they shouldn’t be in the same class. But the wise education bureaucrat knows that any problem here must be the teacher’s — he must not have differentiated his instruction enough.

Unwell blames the left for imposing groupthink on educators: Any discussing of tracking students by abilities is impossible, he writes.

Whoever you want to blame, I think he’s right about the folly of placing impossible demands on teachers.

Can differentiation work?

With the demise of tracking, teachers are supposed to “differentiate instruction,” tailoring instruction to advanced, average and struggling students in the same class.  It’s not easy, writes Mike Petrilli in Ed Next.

The idea, according to Carol Tomlinson of the University of Virginia (UVA), is to “shake up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.” Ideally, instruction is customized at the individual student level.

Holly Hertberg-Davis, also at UVA worked with Tomlinson on a large study of differentiated instruction which included teacher training and ongoing coaching. 

 Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. “We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.”

Petrilli visits Piney Branch Elementary in Takoma Park, Maryland, a  high-achieving school with a very diverse student body.  How does differentiation work?

First, every homeroom has a mixed group of students: the kids are assigned to make sure that every class represents the diversity of the school in terms of achievement level, race, class, etc. Then, during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level. (Redbirds and bluebirds are back!)  . . .

For math, on the other hand, students are split up into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third. This means shuffling the kids from one room to another (a process that can be quite time-consuming for elementary school kids). But it allows the highest-performing kids to sprint ahead; one of the school’s 3rd-grade math classes, for example, is tackling the district’s 5th-grade math curriculum. . . .

The rest of the time—when kids are learning science or social studies or taking “specials” like art and music—they are back in their heterogeneous classrooms. Even then, however, teachers work to “differentiate instruction,” which often means separating the kids back into homogeneous groups again, and offering more challenging, extended assignments to the higher-achieving students.

. . . All kids spend most of the day getting challenged at their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that’s entirely segregated by race or class.

The school also offers the “highly gifted” curriculum for very bright students in the same class with students who are working at grade level. Completely integrating the gifted class didn’t work. The performance spread was too wide.

What Piney Branch calls “differentiated instruction” looks a lot to me like fluid ability grouping for academic subjects.  Teachers, how does differentiation work in your school?  

Differentiated instruction is a fad with no basis in research, argued Mike Schmoker in Education Week.  

When it’s done properly, differentiation helps students learn, responds Tomlinson, in  a letter.

But, again, can it be done properly by the average teacher with a class that includes a wide range of abilities and disabilities?