I can’t understand my child’s teacher

At back-to-school night for her fifth-grader, Dahlia Lithwick felt like a dummy, she writes in Slate. She couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying.

The evening passed in a blur of acronyms, test names, and emendations to last year’s system. Which I also didn’t understand. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I understood significantly less at this open house than I did at my sons’ open house during a sabbatical last year, when it took place overseas and in a foreign language.

Public education has been overwhelmed by jargon, she writes. There are more acronyms – MAP and SOL and EAPE—than words.

Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of “project-based learning across the curriculum,” I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.

Her child’s school is now “un-levelling,” parents were told. And soon it will be “fitnessgram testing.”

I checked with friends this morning to find out if I was alone in my sense that I had fallen asleep in the late 1990s and woken to a world in which I have no idea what schools even do anymore. My friend Stephanie advised me that her back to school night involved a discussion with a teacher about “interfacing with a child’s developmental space,” as well as a reference to “scaffolding text to text connections” in Ramona the Pest. My friend Laurel was told by her child’s teachers that “the children will be required to work in groups in this class, as collaboration is a 21st-century skill.”

Lithwick plans to use an education jargon generator to prep for her first teacher conference, she writes.

I tried the jargon generator. “We will generate child-centered interfaces within the core curriculum,” it suggested. “We will expedite meaning-centered paradigms across the curricular areas.” It sounds perfectly plausible. “We will aggregate interdisciplinary enrichment through cognitive disequilibrium.” Indeed.

Good teachers, low value-added scores

At a very high-achieving Brooklyn elementary school, the fifth-grade teachers posted low value-added scores, writes Michael Winerip in the New York Times. They’re a talented, hard-working group, says the principal. So what happened?

Though 89 percent of P.S. 146 fifth graders were rated proficient in math in 2009, the year before, as fourth graders, 97 percent were rated as proficient. This resulted in the worst thing that can happen to a teacher in America today: negative value was added.

The difference between 89 percent and 97 percent proficiency at P.S. 146 is the result of three children scoring a 2 out of 4 instead of a 3 out of 4.

. . . In New York City, fourth-grade test results can determine where a child will go to middle school. Fifth-grade scores have never mattered much, so teachers have been free to focus on project-based learning.

If Winerip’s theory is correct, all of New York City’s fifth-grade teachers should have low value-added scores. Or perhaps there’d be an effect only in schools with students who care about getting into a good middle school.

Update: Winerip provides an example of creative teaching:

Using the new curriculum, children work in groups to solve real-life problems. On Friday, each group spent an hour developing a system to calculate who ate more — eight students sharing seven submarine sandwiches; five students sharing four; or four sharing three. Each child developed his own solution, and the group decided which way was best.

. . . This week, students will advance from dividing sandwiches to comparing fractions with different denominators, to calculating least common denominators.

In another fifth-grade class, students have spent weeks writing research papers on the Mayans. Students might score higher, Winerip suggests, if they drilled on writing essays for tests: Write a topic sentence, three sentences that support the thesis with examples from literature, current events and personal experience and a concluding sentence.

I spent my entire high school career writing topic sentences supported by subtopic sentences supported by three “concrete and specific” details. And I wrote a report on the Mayans in sixth grade. Writing research papers and learning to support a thesis with examples are not incompatible.

If Winerip is correct about the numbers — if it’s possible for 89 percent of students to score proficient and the teachers to look like losers — then the value-added system is not reliable.

Teaching skills without content

“Emma Bryant” (a pseudonym) teaches at a New Tech public high school — one of 62 in 14 states — devoted to “21st-century skills.” Knowledge? Not so much, she writes on the Common Core blog.

We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire “21st century skills.”

Innovation, collaboration and critical thinking are stressed, leaving little time for literature, history, poetry, music or theater.  The theory is that “most content, after all, can be Googled.”

Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release.

Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.

In a 21st century classroom, “content is a shopping list of rubric indicators to be applied to the product.”

For example, students might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan. Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history. They might write a press release in the style of a founding American document or create a user’s manual for a product using a particular rhetorical device mentioned in our state’s English Language Arts standards.

Teachers don’t teach content directly. Students are supposed to learn in teams or on their own with little or no direction from the teacher.

Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.

Also see Critical Thinking: More Than Words? in Ed Week’s Leader Talk.

School of the Future flounders

Philadelphia’s high-tech School of the Future (SOF), designed with help from Microsoft, was supposed to revolutionize education, writes Meris Stansbury on eSchool News. So far, we’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work very well. (I had doubts when the school opened in 2006.)

It would teach at-risk students critical 21st-century skills needed for college and the work force by emphasizing project-based learning, technology, and community involvement.

. . . From alternative school hours to laptops for every student, from a customizable school portal to campus-wide wireless access, and from a panel to design 21st-century curriculum to a new teacher hiring model, the SOF was thought to be a sure winner.

The school went through four principals in three years. Union contracts made it hard to hire teachers who were a good fit for the school.

Teachers received little training on how to use the technology to foster learning. Students had trouble using the laptops and worried they’d be stolen if they brought them home.

Although the technology itself was not supposed to trump basic classroom practices, Microsoft and the school’s planners had decided not to allow the use of textbooks or printed materials; instead, all resources were located online through a portal designed by Microsoft.

Yet educators frequently encountered problems accessing the internet, because the school’s wireless connection often would not work.

Just like Windows Vista, writes Lorri Giovinco-Harte at NY Education Examiner.

In a panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Drew University Professor Patrick McGuinn found problems at every level.

“There is no clear definition of what project-based learning exactly is and how that can be step-by-step implemented in the classroom. Student remediation also didn’t fit with the project-based collaboration model.”

He added: “These teachers and administrators had to fly a plane while they were building it.”

Over time, the School of the Future adopted the district’s curriculum and assessments; it began to look a lot like schools of the present. However, school leaders are trying to learn from the early mistakes — they hired a tech support person! — and clarify the mission. We’ll have to see what the future holds for the School of the Future.

Update: Thirty-five years ago, Philadelphia’s school of the future was William Penn High, a “showpiece packed with amenities, including a television studio, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a dance studio,” reports the Inquirer.  Now a wreck operating at less than 20 percent of capacity, the low-scoring school will be closed for two years for rebuilding. And, one hopes, rethinking.