We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New Republic. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.

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.

Parents make the best teachers

Parents make the best teachers, writes Sara Mosle in Slate Magazine.

Some charter schools hire young teachers who are willing to work long, grueling hours for low pay, reports the New York Times. Most leave after two or three years to be replaced by a new crop of young idealists.

Inexperience in the classroom isn’t the only problem with this model, writes Mosle. Young teachers lack experience as parents.

A Teach for America teacher in the program’s first year, Mosle taught for three years in New York City schools. “I was single, childless, and clueless about even the most basic aspects of child-rearing,” she recalls. “My students’ parents seemed like creatures from another planet.”

Nearly 20 years later, now a mother, she returned to the classroom to teach writing at Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark.

. . . being a parent has made me a better teacher. While I still have a reformer’s high expectations for my students, I am more flexible about discipline, in part because I’d never want my daughter to be so docile she wouldn’t rock the boat. Now when parents approach me with worries or high hopes for the future, I have greater respect for their commingled love and fears. I also have a far stronger sense than I did at 25 that children’s lives . . . flow in waves of achievements and setbacks.

In 2002, Ryan Hill started TEAM Academy, the first KIPP charter school in Newark. He worked more than 100 hours a week “in a profession he regarded as less of a vocation than a crusade.”

At the time, he thought of his school like a Silicon Valley startup, which like all new ventures demanded insane hours. “We were a bunch of 25-year-olds,” he recalled in a conversation this spring. “We’d be there every day, including on Saturdays and Sundays. We’d have students at the school until 10 o’clock each night—kids who needed a place to do homework or whatever.” It was part of the school’s ethos and formula for success: longer days and a longer school year. Hill loved the job. “It was hard work, but it was also good work,” he said.

It was also unsustainable as teachers got older, married and started families just as “they were blossoming into full flower as educators.” Unwilling to lose his veteran teachers, Hill began to offer flexible hours to top teachers who’d become parents.

In Our School, I write about attending a staff meeting at a start-up charter school and realizing I was old enough to be the mother of every person in the room — and not the teen mother either. I was 49. I was the only parent in the room too, though the principal’s wife was pregnant.

From ‘Superman’ to ‘TEACH’

Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, TEACH, premieres tonight on CBS.

“In the new film, there are no charter schools, no teachers’ union politics, no major education debates,” reports Education Week. Guggenheim focuses on four young teachers: Matt Johnson, a 4th grade teacher at McGlone Elementary School in Denver; Shelby Harris, a 7th- and 8th grade mathematics teacher at Kuna Middle School in Kuna, Idaho; Lindsay Chinn, a 9th grade algebra teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver; and Joel Laguna, the Advanced Placement World History teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles.

How to praise a child

Instead of praising kids for good grades or athletic achievements, parents and teachers should praise children for acting ethically, says Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

Middle-class kids are ‘squeaky wheels’

Middle-class parents train their children to be “squeaky wheels” in class, asking teachers for help, a new study finds. That may annoy teachers at time, but it pays off in the long run, concludes sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco of Indiana University Bloomington.

“Middle-class parents were explicitly telling their children to go to the teacher and ask for help, to ‘not take no for an answer,’” Calarco said. Working-class students worried about “bothering” the teacher.

“Working-class kids were most comfortable asking for help when the teacher came to their desk and said, ‘You look like you are having trouble, do you need help?’ Sometimes the working-class students working in a pair would ask their partner to go for help rather than going themselves.

. . . By contrast, middle-class students were more likely to ask repeated questions, and further negotiate for help even if a teacher rejected initial requests.

Middle-class students were more likely to get in trouble with teachers for talking out of turn or disrespect, but they treated reprimands as “joking,” Calarco said. “Middle-class students see help-seeking [behaviors] as opportunities for reward; working-class students see them as opportunities for reprimand.”

Calarco suggested teachers discuss with students how to ask questions.

Obama plan worries community colleges

President Obama’s plan to link federal aid to colleges’ graduation rates and graduates’ earnings “falls somewhere between “irrelevant” and “catastrophic” for community colleges.

Private colleges that educate many teachers and social workers also are concerned.

Additional need-based student aid helped low-income Florida students stay in school and earn a degree, a new study finds.

Boys aren’t welcome in school

School has become a hostile environment for boys, argues Christina Hoff Sommers in TIME.

At some schools, tug of war has been replaced with “tug of peace.” Since the 1990s, elimination games like dodgeball, red rover and tag have been under a cloud — too damaging to self-esteem and too violent, say certain experts.

Tug of peace? Really?

Young boys love action narratives with heroes, bad guys, rescues and shoot-ups, she writes.

According to at least one study, such play rarely escalates into real aggression — only about 1% of the time. But when two researchers, Mary Ellin Logue and Hattie Harvey, surveyed classroom practices of 98 teachers of 4-year-olds, they found that this style of play was the least tolerated. Nearly half of teachers stopped or redirected boys’ dramatic play daily or several times a week — whereas less than a third reported stopping or redirecting girls’ dramatic play weekly.

. . . Logue and Harvey found that “bad guy” play improved children’s conversation and imaginative writing. Such play, say the authors, also builds moral imagination, social competence and imparts critical lessons about personal limits and self-restraint. Logue and Harvey worry that the growing intolerance for boys’ action-narrative-play choices may be undermining their early language development and weakening their attachment to school.

“Efforts to re-engineer the young-male imagination” send a message to boys, writes Sommers. “You are not welcome in school.”

In the last 20 years, high school girls have raised their college aspirations and their grades, while boys have not, new research shows. More girls are earning A’s, while boys’ grades have stayed about the same. “The larger relative share of boys obtaining C and C+ grades can be accounted for by a higher frequency of school misbehavior and a higher proportion of boys aiming for a two-year college degree,” researchers found.

Teachers won’t be fired for backing molester

When a Michigan math teacher faced sentencing for molesting an 8th-grade student in July, six teachers urged leniency in letters to the judge. A West Branch-Rose City school board member, married to a teacher, sat with molester Neal Erickson’s wife, also a teacher in court.

“Neal made a mistake,” writes (Sally) Campbell. “He allowed a mutual friendship to develop into much more. He realized his mistake and ended it years before someone anonymously sent something to the authorities which began this legal process.”

“I am asking that Neal be given the absolute minimum sentence, considering all the circumstances surrounding this case,” writes Amy Huber Eagan.

.  . .“Neal has plead (sic) guilty for his one criminal offense but he is not a predator,” writes (Harriet) Coe. “This was an isolated incident. He understands the severity of his action and is sincere in his desire to make amends.”

One letter said the boy hadn’t been affected much by the molestation, which occurred over three years. Another said Erickson had been punished by losing his job.

Judge Michael Baumgartner, who sentenced Erickson to 15 to 30 years in prison, said he was “appalled and ashamed that the community could rally around” a child molester. “What you did was a jab in the eye with a sharp stick to every parent who trusts a teacher,” Baumgartner added.

The boy’s parents, John and Lori Janczewski, demanded that the teachers who supported their son’s molester be fired; they’ve started a recall campaign against the board member.

The board rejected firing the teachers at this week’s meeting, saying it would bring on a free-speech lawsuit. The board president read a letter signed by the six teachers:

“Dear community, criminal sexual conduct is a serious crime we do not condone. The safety of our students is our foremost concern. Our letters were never intended to cause any harm. We know the young man’s family is suffering, and empathize with their pain. It is our sincerest hope that the community will move forward for the sake of the students.”

Several parents threatened to pull their children out of WB-RC schools and send them to a charter school.

The family has been threatened for speaking out against the teachers, the victim’s father said on the Glenn Beck radio show. Their garage was fire bombed in the middle of the night and the letters “YWP” and “ITY” were spray painted on their house.  John Janczewski thinks that may stand for “you will pay” and “I told you.”

I don’t think the board can fire teachers for supporting their former colleague — and his wife, who’s still teaching in the district. But teachers minimizing child molesting is shameful and appalling.

Parents: Set goals, measure, fix

Parents strongly support standards, assessment and evaluation writes Suzanne Tacheny Kuback in an e-mail discussion on Mike Petrilli’s “problem with proficiency” post. She describes parent focus groups conducted by PIE Network.

Standards, assessment, and evaluation don’t make sense to parents as separate concepts:  to the extent they think about these things at all, it’s just stuff that they assume you do to manage sensibly. (Set goals, measure them, talk about how well you did, and then fix stuff that didn’t work.) Not only would it not make sense to parents to suggest not doing these things, parents are incredulous when they think that any of it isn’t already common practice.

Most intriguing, “standards” don’t even make sense to parents as an idea unless you measure them. I wished we’d videoed those moments in the conversations: if you suggested having standards but no common tests, parents got mad. They literally pushed chairs back from the table or threw pens down to make their point: “You can’t say you have a standard if you don’t also measure it.”

Parents are concerned about excessive testing, but they want the information, Kubach wrotes.  It’s not that they don’t trust teachers.  ”They just want to know how their kids are doing and value the objective information they get from tests.”