Easy A’s in teacher prep

Education majors earn high grades, but aren’t prepared for the classroom, concludes Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them, a National Council on Teacher Quality report.

NCTQ looked at more than 500 colleges and universities producing nearly half of the nation’s new teachers: 44 percent of teacher candidates graduate with honors, compared to 30 percent of all undergraduates.

“Teaching is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs there is,” said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ. “Yet for reasons that are hard to fathom, it appears to be one of the easiest majors both to get into and then to complete.”

NCTQ compared course assignments for 1,161 courses, both education and non-education (including business, psychology, history, nursing, economics and biology) across 33 institutions.

Education students’ grades were based primarily on broad, subjective assignments. Students didn’t need to show mastery of particular knowledge or skills. They only had to express an opinion.

Esther Cepeda, a Washington Post columnist, trained to teach secondary school “with concentrations in special and exceptional education and English-language learners — students requiring specialized knowledge and skills — and a sub-focus in math.” Throughout her 10 graduate courses, there were tedious “mini-lessons” and “group work” that “usually required only talking about our feelings,” she writes.

Instead of endless chapters of required reading, lengthy research papers and nail-biter exams, there was a lot of coloring, cutting and pasting, watching syrupy videos about how to be culturally adept and reflecting about, yes, our feelings.

Trained on fluffy assignments, teachers have brought the feelings-first approach to the classroom, writes Cepeda.

Anyone who has checked out a child’s homework or projects in the past few years has seen a shift from research, content testing and skill acquisition to subjective, opinion or feeling-based interpretive “work.” For instance, if a student in a history class was learning about people who sheltered Jews in their homes during the Holocaust, the student might be asked to write five paragraphs about a time he or she had to keep a secret.

Raise admissions criteria for teacher education and demand more of would-be teachers, writes Cepeda.

What does this framework mean?

cfgraphicslider1NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña has announced a new system for evaluating schools. Instead of grades and rankings, there will be a “school quality snapshot” and a “school quality guide.” These “tools” will be based on a new “capacity framework” (see image to the left).

At first glance, the framework is unremarkable and unobjectionable. Who can deny the value of “trust,” “effective school leadership,” and, at the very center, “student achievement”? Certainly terms such as “rigorous instruction” and “collaborative teachers” need definition—but doesn’t everything?

Yet the more I gaze at this framework, the more I wonder what it means.

First, I see that the terms have already been interpreted (in counter-intuitive ways) in the NYC DOE’s description.

From the NYC Department of Education website:

At the center of the Framework is student achievement. The core goal of education is to help students get to the next level and succeed. Surrounding that core are the three elements of student support: instructional guidance, teacher empowerment, and student-centered learning. Beyond the classroom, the supports needed are effective school leadership and strong parent-community collaboration. The element that ties all of these supports together is trust. Building trust across the system and within a school—between administrators, educators, students, and families—is the foundation of the Capacity Framework.

I am puzzled by the second ring. What matches with what? Is “instructional guidance” in the description supposed to be the same as “rigorous instruction” in the chart? Is “teacher empowerment” supposed to be the same as “collaborative teaching”? Is “student-centered learning” the same as a “supportive environment”? If that is the intent, then these equations (and relations) must be explained and defended, and there must also be room to question them.

First, how is “rigorous instruction” in the graph related to “instructional guidance” in the description? What is instructional guidance, and who is being guided by whom? How does the guidance promote rigor? What is rigor, for that matter?

Second, is a “collaborative” teacher necessarily an “empowered” one? A truly “empowered” teacher may exercise the option of working alone at times (or even for long stretches of time). (Of course, good collaboration involves solitary work, but I see no acknowledgment of this here.)

Finally, one does not have to be “student-centered” (in the usual senses of the word) to be “supportive.” You can have a highly supportive environment combined with something more like “subject-centered instruction.” (I object to the term “student-centered” in general; it is often used to disparage certain kinds of teaching and curriculum offhand.)

Enough about the discrepancies. What about the graph itself?

Student achievement is at the core, as it should be, but achievement of what? The graph does not mention subject matter or curriculum. (Nor does the explanatory paragraph.)

Now, student achievement (of worthy things, we presume) clearly needs supports. Some of these supports include instruction, environment, and something pertaining to collaboration and solitude. I am not so sure that leadership should be located outside of that ring, but no matter. The chart is supposed to be visually appealing.

But how can “trust” be the outer ring? The description says that it is the “foundation”—but you can’t generate trust out of nowhere, or demand it as a precondition. It is hard earned; it comes out of the other things: achievement, instruction, leadership, environment, and so forth. Granted, the description says that “building trust,” not trust itself, is the foundation, but how can the foundation be something that you build as you go along?

Maybe it is silly to quibble with a chart. But I can already imagine the speeches: “We have to begin with trust. Trust is the foundation of our enterprise.” Of course, from the outset there has to be willingness to trust, but that is different from trust itself.

I do not disparage this framework. It contains good things. Alas, it needs clearer language and ideas.

How hard are Core math problems?

Math teachers in Maryland analyzed a Core-aligned fourth-grade math performance task from PARCC, reports Liana Heitin on Ed Week. Several were surprised at how much it required.

PARCC math item deer.JPG

Teachers listed what students need to know and be able to do to solve the problem:

The definitions of perimeter and area
How to find perimeter and area
The definition of a square mile
The properties of a rectangle
How to solve for an unknown in a perimeter
Multiplication (up to multi-digit)
Addition and subtraction (up to multi-digit)

Some might need division, depending on how they approached the problem.

And everyone will need reading and writing skills.

Students earn credit for finding the missing side length, for finding the area of the park, and for calculating the final number of deer. They also can get partial credit for each piece if they make minor calculation errors. That means the problem must be scored by a person, not a machine.

Here are some fifth-grade math questions released by New York. (Here are third- through eighth-grade questions for English and math.)

The next one involves the (gasp!) metric system.

Could I have solved these in fifth grade? I think so.

A 9-year-old faces the Core

Chrispin Alcindor was a star student in the early grades, but he fell way behind in third and fourth grade, reports the New York Times in Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes.

Is it the new curriculum’s shift from rote learning to understanding concepts? (The Times assumes that no teacher tried to teach understanding in the pre-Core era.) Or is it the Haitian-American boy’s subpar reading skills?

A pet store has 18 hamsters. The shop owner wants to put 3 hamsters in each cage. How many cages does the shop owner need for all the hamsters?

Math had always been Chrispin’s favorite subject. Wherever he went, he was counting: Jeeps, pennies and basketball scores. He liked the satisfaction of arriving at a neat, definitive answer and not having to worry about things like spelling and grammar.

But as he worked on practice questions one day, the hamster problem stumped him:

Draw a model using equal groups or an array to show the problem.

Write a division equation for the problem.

Write a multiplication equation for the problem.

How many cages does the shop owner need?

Chrispin scribbled aimlessly in the margins. He hated word problems, a hallmark of the Common Core. Ms. Matthew had once told him to act like a detective and look for “clue words.” If a question referred to a “border” or “outside,” for example, it was asking for its perimeter. “Math is very, very, very, very logical,” she had said.

But Chrispin did not see any clues before him. After a few minutes of intense reading, he settled on an answer: 6. But he still did not fully understand the question. He could not remember what an array even looked like.

At Chrispin’s school in Brooklyn, producing the right answer isn’t enough. Students “had to demonstrate exactly what three times five meant by shading in squares on a grid.”

The Times prints Chrispin’s letter to Carmen Fariña, New York City’s schools chancellor, about standardized testing. If he only he really wrote this well . . .

Do kids need a ‘gap year’ before high school?

Some parents are giving their children an extra year in eighth grade to prepare for the rigors of high school, writes Jessica Lahey, a middle-school teacher, in The Atlantic.

The recent push for increased academic rigor also means kids need more well-developed executive-functioning skills, or the ability organize, plan, schedule, and self-regulate. These skills originate in the prefrontal cortex, one of the last areas of the brain to develop, and are vital to student success, particularly as students shift from the relatively low organizational demands of elementary school to the more complicated an onerous demands of middle school.

Sam Strohbehn’s mother, Judy, thought he wasn’t ready for high school in Hanover, NH. He agreed to spend a fourth year in middle school.

Sam is our youngest boy, and the youngest child in his grade. We knew what was coming academically and socially, and that to navigate high school, he needed some time to become a mature learner, to appreciate all that high school was going to offer. Sam had not yet developed strong organizational techniques, study skills, and time management tools. When his teachers weighed in, they stressed that he simply needed more time. We were told to consider a gap year after high school, but decided not to wait and give him that time now.

When Sam had “matured academically and socially” by the time he started high school, his mother writes.

Still, the “gift of time” is expensive for taxpayers, who have to pay for that extra year of schooling. Lahey thinks it makes more sense to put more time and effort into teaching students to organize, plan, schedule and self-regulate.

These are very useful skills in life, not just in high school.

In students’ words: Challenge us

When students who transfer from low-performing to high-performing high schools, they realize what they’ve been missing, writes Brooke Haycock in The View From the Lighthouse. It’s not enough for teachers to care about their students. They have to care about students’ learning.

At Elmont Memorial High School, teachers “get to know you so they can help you — so they can teach you,” says Keisha. “They’re, like, first your teacher — but your friend too. My other school, it was more like, they’re your friends but they kinda missed the teacher part.”

At Granger High School in rural Yakima Valley, Wash., George, a junior, reflected on his relationship with a math teacher at his old school: “He was really nice but he never made us do anything. And, like, if we were late for another class, even if it was our fault, we could just go by his classroom and he’d write us a pass. At the time, I liked it. And he was my favorite teacher. But now, I’m kinda mad, because I realize we weren’t learning anything. I don’t think he meant to do that — I think he was just more worried about us liking him.

“When educators can connect rigorous learning to student goals and opportunities beyond school and make students feel worthy and capable of real rigor, students don’t complain about the work or question its relevance,” writes Brooke Haycock, who’s writing Education Trust’s Echoes from the Gap series. It takes getting used to, students say. “In many cases, this is the first time they’re being asked to do anything that is genuinely hard.”

Some high school classes are easy and unfulfilling, say low-income achievers who talked to Ed Trust researchers for the Falling Out of the Lead report.

Actor David Duchovny’s high school basketball coach “respected me by demanding that I respect myself and a game,” he writes. “I never knew if he liked me. That wasn’t so important. He saw potential in me, and I began to respect myself.”

AP for average students

A Pittsburgh high school is “spreading the AP gospel” to average students, not just the high achievers, reports the New York Times. Brashear High, a school with “middling” performance, is collaborating with the National Math and Science Initiative, to get more students to take AP classes — and pass AP exams.

Brashear has offered A.P. classes in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, calculus and statistics, but few among the school’s 1,400 students excelled. Last year, of the 159 enrolled in those classes, nearly two-thirds did not even take the tests, which normally cost $89 each. (Because of subsidies by NMSI and the school, the fee this year is as low as $9.)

Just 10 students accounted for the 13 passing scores of 3 or higher. No Brashear student has passed the chemistry exam since 2010, or scored higher than 1 in statistics in the two years that course has been taught.

NMSI uses teacher training, student study sessions and cash incentives to raise test-taking and pass rates.

In the first year of NMSI’s help, the number of passing scores on science and math A.P. exams jumps by an average of 85 percent, according to data from the College Board, which administers the A.P. tests. By the end of the three-year effort, the number has nearly tripled, on average.

Students get $100 for a passing score of 3 or better on the AP exam. The teacher also gets $100 — plus a $1,000 bonus for reaching a target number of passing scores.

Many Brashear students are struggling in rigorous AP classes this year, reports the Times. However, Principal Kimberly Safran has turned down most requests to drop AP. “Parents are beginning to understand that the rigor of the course and having the tenacity to complete the course are important for success after high school,” she said.

Advocates say students don’t have to pass the AP exam to benefit from the challenge.

“We think 20 out of 40 passing physics is better than 10 out of 10,” NMSI’s Gregg Fleisher said. “What typically happens is our pass rate usually stays the same, but the kids that were in class that were passing at 30 percent, now they’ll pass at 50 or 60 percent. And the kids who were never given an opportunity would pass at 20 or 30 percent.”

Kindergarten show canceled for college prep

Kindergarteners won’t sing or dance for their parents this year at Harley Avenue Primary School in Long Island. The annual kindergarten show was canceled to because it takes time from college and career prep reports the New York Post.

“We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers,” Principal Ellen Best-Laimit told parents in a letter. “What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.”

In the 21st century, the performing arts have no educational value.

The school was closed for a number of snow days over the winter. Apparently, the five- and six-year-olds have fallen behind.

PARCC test is ‘stupid, impossible’ and ‘weird’

As a big supporter of Common Core standards, literacy consultant Rebecca Steinitz asked her seventh-grade daughter to take a practice test released by the PARCC consortium. It’s a “stupid, impossible test” filled with “weird questions” that “make no sense,” reported Eva.

Eva aced Massachusetts’ old exams, her mother writes on the Huffington Post. (It’s an open letter to President Obama, whose private-schooled daughters won’t take core-aligned exams, but that’s just a gimmick.) Next year, Eva will take a PARCC-designed exam in school.

Here’s one of the “crazy” questions on the practice test:

You have learned about electricity by reading two articles, “Energy Story” and “Conducting Solutions,” and viewing a video clip titled “Hands-On Science with Squishy Circuits.” In an essay, compare the purpose of the three sources. Then analyze how each source uses explanations, demonstrations, or descriptions of experiments to help accomplish its purpose. Be sure to discuss important differences and similarities between the information gained from the video and the information provided in the articles. Support your response with evidence from each source.

Seventh graders “know how to compare and contrast, and they know how to provide evidence,” writes Steinitz. But “unpacking this prompt, let alone accomplishing it,” would feel “impossible” to most as it did for Eva.

Eva missed 10 of 45 multiple-choice questions scoring in the C range. That means most of her classmates would fail.

Steinitz, who earned a PhD in English, has trained and coached high school English teachers. She missed seven of 36 questions on the 11th-grade practice test.

She thinks ninth graders aren’t ready to read a passage from Bleak House and third graders would be stumped by the abstraction in this essay prompt:

Old Mother West Wind and the Sandwitch both try to teach important lessons to characters in the stories. Write an essay that explains how Old Mother West Wind’s and the Sandwitch’s words and actions are important to the plots of the stories. Use what you learned about the characters to support your essay.

Steinitz believes Common Core standards could help bring a rigorous, challenging, engaging curriculum to every classroom. “But the standards won’t succeed if the tests used to assess them are confusing, developmentally inappropriate, and so hard that even good students can’t do well on them.”

Teaching question: Can teachers prepare students to tackle questions like these?

Political question: If the parents of good students see them earning C’s on new tests, will support for Common Core collapse?

Today’s students, tomorrow’s jobs

(Academic) college isn’t for everyone, wrote Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in Slate. Some students who are failing in college might succeed if they pursued job training, he argued.

It sparked a huge response. Many argued that students need college prep and career prep.
Others accused Petrilli of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for low-income and minority students.

“Community college ready” should be the minimum goal for all cognitively able students, responded Sandy Kress, an aide to George W. Bush. That means high school graduates should be able to take academic or vocational classes at a community college without the need for remediation.

Kress “prays” that “CTE advocates make these courses as rigorous and valued as they promise they will, and not just a dodge for them to avoid teaching and learning in the so-called old fashioned courses.” In the past, dead-end vocational education has been a “trap” for low-income and minority kids, writes Kress.

Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, edited by Penn Professor Laura Perna, looks at the gap between school and the workforce.

Check out “Nancy Hoffman’s excellent chapter on career and technical education,” advises Liz McInerny on Education Gadfly. Education and training for a specific calling  would keep students in school and on track for decent jobs, Hoffman writes.