Change without reform

After all the education reforms, what’s really changed in classrooms? Not a whole lot, writes Larry Cuban in his new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education.

Cuban looks at a 1:1 laptop program in a Bay Area high school in 1998-99 and 2008-10,   writes Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.  The project started with generous federal and state grants and funding from Silicon Valley donors, Cuban writes. Teachers were enthusiastic. But problems soon emerged.

The principal who’d spearheaded the idea left just as it was getting started; the school went through four principals from 1998 to 2010. Faculty turnover was high too and some teachers made little use of technology. Those who did rarely changed their teaching.

The school’s test scores fell, pressuring teachers to focus on test prep.

“Connections between student achievement and teacher and student use of laptops are, at best, indirect and, at worst, nonexistent,” Cuban concludes.

It’s not just a problem with digital learning, Cuban writes. Changes in governance, school size, curriculum, and organization “have had few effects on classroom practices and, consequently, students’ academic outcomes,” he concludes.

Encouraging teachers to collaborate and easing test-based accountability might change inside-the-box teaching for the better, Cuban suggests. But he makes no claim to have the answers, Bauerlein writes.

Core reading will be a lot harder

Teachers will assign more complex, challenging reading – if they follow Common Core standards, concludes a Fordham analysis of what students are reading now.

Currently, many teachers try to assign books that match their students’ reading skills, especially at the elementary level. Common Core calls for assigning grade-level reading and giving students extra help to understand it.

In trying to improve reading comprehension, schools made a tragic mistake: they took time away from knowledge-building courses such as science and history to clear the decks for more time on reading skills and strategies. And the impact, particularly on our most disadvantaged students whose content and vocabulary gap is so great, has been devastating.

Teachers are assigning “relevant” and “easily digested books” in hopes of getting students to read, according to Common Core in the Schools.

. . . classic literature has, in many classrooms, been replaced by popular teen novels (often made into movies) such as The Hunger Games and Twilight. Indeed, the former, according to Renaissance Learning . . . became the most widely read book in grades 9-12 following its theatrical release in 2012. Yet it is pegged at a fifth-grade reading level.

The most-assigned books are Because of Winn-DixieAnne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and To Kill a Mockingbird, the Fordham survey finds.  Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail also is assigned frequently.

“Across all grade levels…there was a tendency to err on the side of lower-level books,” says Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee.

In fourth and fifth grade, students should read texts with a lexile range of 740 to 1100, according to Common Core. Four of the top 10 books are below that level, including Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Middle-schoolers should be reading texts in the 950 to 1185 range, according to Common Core. Seven of the 10 most popular books for this age group aren’t challenging enough. (Is John Steinbeck’s The Pearl really an elementary book?)

Ninth- and tenth-graders should be reading texts with a lexile range of 1050 to 1335, the new standards say.  Five of the 10 most popular books don’t meet that level of difficulty. (I guess To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn often are read in earlier grades. I took a “look inside” The Book Thief, which allegedly has a lexile rank too low for fourth graders. It’s not Dick, Jane and Sally.)

Fifty-one percent of teachers surveyed — all in states that have adopted Common Core standards – said they’d made little or no change to their teaching as a result of the new standards.

Poor kids, good teachers

Teachers can make a difference for low-income students, writes Eric Jensen in Ed Week.

Jensen, the author of Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, just finished a study of 12 high-poverty schools. Half scored in the top quartile in their state; the other half were in the lowest quartile. The demographics were the same for the high and low performers. The values were similar.

When I offered statements such as, “I believe in my kids,” both school staffs said, “I strongly agree.” So, what was different?

It’s not poverty that makes the difference; it was the teachers. The difference was that the high-performing teachers actually “walked the walk.” First, the classroom and school climate was MUCH better at the high-performers. Secondly, the teachers at the high-performing schools didn’t complain about kids not “being smart” or being unmotivated. They made it a priority and built engagement, learning, thinking and memory skills every day. In short, they didn’t make excuses; they just rolled up their sleeves and built better student brains.

His list of “what we have learned (so far) to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools” includes:

High expectations are not enough. Help students set crazy high goals, and then actively point out to them how their daily actions connect to their long-term goals.

The most important cognitive skills to build are: 1) reasoning, 2) working memory, and 3) vocabulary usage.

Increase feedback on the learning and zero it in on the specifics of effort used, strategies applied or attitude engaged.

A positive attitude is “priceless,” if it leads to action, Jensen adds. If it doesn’t, it’s “useless.”

The new reading lesson

Common Core standards will change reading lessons, writes Timothy Shanahan in The American Educator.  To start with, the new standards specify the complexity of reading texts at each grade level, writes Shanahan, an emeritus professor who directs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

That’s a big change. For years, teachers have been told each student should read a “just right” book that’s not too hard (frustrating) or easy (boring). Common Core will require much harder texts, writes Shanahan.

Unfortunately, teacher preparation typically includes few tools for helping students to learn from challenging texts. No wonder teachers so often resort to reading the texts to students, using round-robin reading, or, in history or science, not using the textbook at all.

Common Core proponents also want to cut down on time spent preparing students to read, so more time can be spent on “close reading,” Shanahan writes.

Reading preparation includes discussions of relevant background information, explanations of context in which the text was produced, previews or overviews of the text itself, “picture walks,” predictions, and purpose-setting.

. . . If students are to read about tide pools, for example, teachers are counseled to start out by asking questions such as, “Have you ever visited a beach? What plants and animals did you see near the shore?” Or if students are to read Charlotte’s Web, they might first learn the biographical details of E. B. White’s life.

. . . I recently observed a primary-grade reading lesson that included such a thorough and painstaking picture walk (previewing and discussing each illustration prior to reading) that eventually there was no reason for reading the eight-sentence story; there was no additional information to be learned.

“Close reading” puts the stress back on reading, he writes. But there’s evidence that some preparation aids comprehension. That’s important “at a time when texts are supposed to get harder for kids.”

No child left untableted

Will technology transform teaching? asks Carlo Rotella in the New York Times Magazine.

Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

The $199 tablets come from Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It’s run by Joel Klein, the former chancellor New York City’s public schools. Guilford County is the company’s first paying customer.

The success of Amplify’s tablet depends on how teachers use it, Klein tells Rotello. “If it’s not transformative, it’s not worth it.”

Robin Britt, a Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) lead an all-day training session for North Carolina teachers. The Amplify tablet personalizes instruction, said Britt, a former middle school and Montessori teacher.

It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.”

“Individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen,” says Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Teachers “used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”

To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine traditional classroom skills with new ones, Britt told the Guilford County middle school teachers.

This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.

“It’s the teacher, not the technology,” Britt reminded the trainees.

Robo-reader replaces human teachers

A robo-reader now grades English placement essays at a California community college, displacing English instructors.

Can online courses make teaching more human?

Slow isn’t the same as stupid

Stupid is not the same thing as slow, writes Ben Orlin, a high school math teacher, in Slate. When a teacher describes a student as “slow” or “weak” or “struggling” or “behind” or “low,” each word “embodies different assumptions about the engines of success, the nature of failure, and how students’ minds operate.”

Orlin prefers to see students as “struggling,” swimming valiantly against the current.

Every night of ninth grade, (Monica) slaved over her homework, barely sleeping, fighting against the rapids, straining to tread water. I admired her tenacity, and did my best to throw her life preservers—test corrections, tutoring sessions, extra credit. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. She failed my geometry class, and the rest of her subjects, too. (She passed freshman year the second time around.)

. . . But some students just don’t care. Math strikes them as pointless, or impossible, and they’re perfectly content to surrender to the river without a fight. David, for example, didn’t struggle at all. He eyed trigonometry, decided it wasn’t for him, and promptly failed . . .

Students know when teachers think they’re too stupid to learn, Orlin writes. “Even if we limit our usage of words like dumb to the conspiratorial privacy of the faculty lounge, kids can tell. Such judgments seep into our interactions with them.”

ABC’s by Halloween for all kindergarteners

Should All Kindergartners Know Their Letters by Halloween? asks Peter DeWitt in Education Week. ”Even children from high-poverty and limited literacy homes” can do it, if properly taught, says Dick Allington, a University of Tennessee education professor.

What struggling readers need is more and better reading instruction not a different sort of reading lesson. In my view schools need to adopt a curriculum framework that everyone will use with all students. This includes remedial, special education and ELL teachers.

Learning disabilities are a myth, Allington believes.

I think what we have learned in the past two decades is that there are some kids teachers give up on and then largely ignore. These kids get labeled LD. So for a total of how many students have an actual disability, I’ll go with 3%. That pretty much covers all the severe disabilities (blindness, deafness, severe mental impairment, etc.).

Here’s Allington’s take on effective reading instruction.

‘Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?’

In Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?, Ilana Garon writes about teaching English at a Bronx public school.

In books and movies, the “hero teacher” charges into failing “inner-city schools like a firefighter into an inferno, bringing the student victims to safety through a combination of charisma and innate righteousness,” Garon writes. But that’s a myth. Her students have “big dreams and uncommon insight” — and lots of problems.

‘My favorite no’

In what she calls “my favorite no,” math teacher Leah Alcala shows students how to learn from mistakes.