Thursday, June 27, 2013

Inevitable: Mass customized learning: Learning in the age of empowerment

As a parent of two children who are very difficult to educate well, one because of significant needs related to his social/emotional/behavioral challenges being coupled with brightness and the other related to her giftedness, I have long advocated for a more responsive educational system. I have sat in meetings where the idea of an IEP for everyone has been proposed as an ideal but not something we are anywhere near ready for.

Twenty years ago, computer programs were being rolled out that allowed children to practice skills at their level until mastered and simulations that modeled ideas such as scientific population studies and the Oregon Trail experience. Those early learning programs have been dwarfed by the material now available to educators to personalize learning. They do not even begin to cover the online instructional opportunities now available for free.

When I went to school, the education library had an entire section of bound syllabi that we had to work through to understand the sequence of learning that was to be expected of children. Now curriculum mapping programs allow near instantaneous access to this material. Individual districts have produced their takes on state guidance. CCSS is all in the cloud.

We still do not have report cards that indicate particular skills/objectives that have been mastered. We maintain our rigid age-based grading system because of a misguided idea that kids are only capable of dealing with the social reality of their age-mates. The message to parents is "Do not send your child to kindergarten if they were born after September 1, June 1,... Wait a year they will do better,"  in spite of research to the contrary. Readiness is not about age, but about maturity, exposure to language and "school structures," and other individual variables.

These lock step aspects of our institutions are what make the IEP for every child inconceivable in spite of having the technology and desire to achieve it. I was at a school budget meeting when someone brought up the concept that technology is making everything cheaper and more efficient EXCEPT education. What was our district doing to change that reality? (Nothing) I have been told that we cannot push too hard because parents will be upset when their child is not advancing as fast as some. Parents will complain. Minorities will be held back. The list goes on.

C. Schwahn and B. McGarvey wrote Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning: Learning in the Age of Empowerment to show how individualization of learning can happen in a cost effective way. They showcase the ways that districts can strategically plan to move toward the ideal of an IEP for every learner. While they talk about getting the learners on board and the difficulty of some people with the transformational change of education, I suspect they underestimate the strength of the cultural demands for education to remain the same with only minor tweaks. We can do blended or flipped learning where the students all do the same activity at home- watch a video or listen to a podcast and then do work with paper and activities as a group, but nowhere are we comfortable identifying the idea that students of the same age do not need to do the same thing at the same time. It strikes some as elitist or racist.  After all children who do not learn as quickly will feel bad. If we are serious about an IEP for everyone, however, it is inevitable that some learners will progress at a rapid pace and others will plateau for extended periods of time. Culturally we need to wrap our minds around this idea and get comfortable with it. At some level it happens already. Some children achieve consistent A's without trying and others fail and are moved onward without the prerequisite skills, nearly destined to drop out. For some crazy idea, it is acceptable to fail kids and let them drop out in a way that accelerating others as possible is unacceptable.

Melding the objectives with reporting might help. If I know that Billy did not master R3.2.1 yet, rather than he received a U in reading, I might be more understanding of keeping him working on that material and allowing him to move on in other areas where he was successful. Benchmarking rather than time in grade becomes the way to move through the educational system.

Schwahn and McGarvey argue passionately for transforming education to become personalized to the learner. To utilize technology to maximize individualization, increase real teacher ratios and increase student motivation. By utilizing a system of benchmarks or learner outcomes, as the authors describe them, students and parents can understand where they are on the road of learning. By eliminating a ridiculous age-based grading system and teaching students where they are now, student learning can be maximized, while boredom and frustration can be minimized. They do not argue that this is an easy task. It requires not just change but transformation; a metamorphosis in the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Technology is available to make it happen. Teachers would, mostly, argue that individualized learning is the ideal. Parents want their children to be successful. Children want to feel capable and like learning focused on real goals that are sensible to them. This is possible. TODAY.

This book is the most business-like book on change in education that I have read. It reads like books on leadership and change, not like books on teaching. The voice reflects the authors' bias that change that has occurred in the business world needs to be reflected in society's cultural perpetrator, schools. We cannot continue to change little things and expect big result changes. It is time to redo schools from the bottom up and enact a metamorphosis.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

What research has to say about fluency instruction

The National Reading Panel (2000) identified five elements necessary for effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Fluency is an area of increasing interest to me because so many of my students are painfully slow readers and poor comprehenders.  Hasbrouck and Tindal's (2006) oral reading fluency research indicates that an eighth grade student reading at the 90th percentile can read 199 words per minute (wpm), one reading at the 50th percentile reads 151 wpm and one at the 10th percentile reads 97 wpm. Consequently a section of an 8th grade text book with 1350 words, is read in not quite 8, not quite 9, and not quite 14 minutes. That is if the child understands the material, is not distracted while reading and has some background information to assist with vocabulary. We all know how challenging those conditions are to obtain and maintain. Our struggling readers are unlikely to persevere for twice as long as the highly fluent readers. If we want our children to become confident capable readers, increasing their fluency will be necessary.

What Research Has to Say About Fluency Instruction edited by S.J. Samuels and A.E. Farstrup compiles research from a host of reading experts including Rasinski, Allington, and Samuels himself to discuss what fluency is, why it is important and how to develop it. One interesting aspect of the book is the lack of a firm definition of fluency. Rasinski discuss a dichotomy of two definitions- automaticity, best seen in the supporters of measures like DIBELS where it is all about time, and prosody, the need to read with expression. Interestingly, prosody has not been seen to be linked to comprehension. Topping discusses a Deep Processing Fluency in which stages of fluency occur. Other authors see it somewhere between these concepts. Below is my integration model of fluency. It is cyclical, but the speed of moving through the cycle probably increases with skill. Being a fluent reader at the third grade level does not make one fluent on fifth grade material. Being a fluent reader at the sixth grade level does not make one capable of comprehending complex plot mysteries of Grisham written at that level. Being a fluent reader of sports news does not make one capable of comprehending science news. It is situation specific because of the role of prior knowledge and vocabulary. Understanding this interplay is critical and one of the things that makes reading such a difficult skill to teach.

I found it interesting that the majority of the authors argued that isolating reading speed and reading comprehension as separate silos, like the DIBELS test does, is an inaccurate measure of fluency because reading quickly with comprehension is essential.

Because fluency is closely related to comprehension, it needs to be addressed. Yes, comprehension is essential- otherwise there is no point to reading. None of the authors, however, proposed addressing it purely from a logistic standpoint. Reading loads increase as students go through school. If students cannot read effectively, they will not be reading in middle and high school, they will not develop further reading skill which requires reading and will not be college and career ready when they graduate. Students who struggle to read do not read textbooks; they skim them. They do not read novels; they read the cliff notes. They rely on their heterogeneous group partners to read the complex reading requested of them in classrooms. They go through the motions with limited success, sometimes cheating, with little learning.

Of far greater value to reading success was early intervention to prevent deficits of fluency. Kindergarten students need to know their letters and sounds- probably at day one. If they do not, it is time for intervention. Deno and Marsten's research indicate that intensive intervention with at risk students was far more effective at producing successful readers than remediation attempts at 2nd or third grade. This is related to the impact of reading on fluency. Reading increases fluency. The slower a child reads the less exposure to print he has. As students advance through the grades this difference expands exponentially.

So how does one provide effective fluency intervention? One, they need a language and experientially rich environment to build vocabulary and prior knowledge. They need to be motivated to read. Exposure to people reading and enjoying it, being read to and seeing lots of print are critical. Students need to build both systematic phonics AND sight word vocabulary. This all sets the stage. Then the work begins. Students need exposure to high success readings. The problem with literature for fluency development is that it is not high success reading- too many unique multisyllabic words cause the reader to stumble. Literature has a role in language development and building a love of reading, but not necessarily in fluency development. The much maligned basal readers of the past were ideal for early fluency development because the controlled vocabulary and sequenced skills made for high success rates. Lobel and Seuss proved that controlled text material can be interesting to the mass market. These books provide the framework for increasing sight word vocabularies, a critical skill for fluency development. This is a challenge for people working with the CCSS if they feel that the only reading students should be exposed to is challenging, rigorous text. It is true that we need to expose children to rigor in reading, but that will not build fluency. A balance of at reading level and challenging texts needs to be part of the reading curriculum.  

Partner reading and rereading are the two major tools of fluency development. This is not rereading challenging texts, it is rereading material at an instructional level until fluency goals are reached. Short sections, for first grade perhaps as short as 20 words, are read until a WPM goal is reached. For students with average intelligence, four readings was about the optimal rereading number. It can be 1) follow along as teacher reads; 2) choral read together; 3) I read, you follow along, 4) you read I follow along. This provides multiple exposure to the words and success. Many versions of partner reading have all revealed success at developing fluency. Having a student read at the same time as an adult with the child setting the pace and the adult providing correction, inflection modeling, and support is useful. Because adults spend most of their time reading silently, the goal needs to be transitioning to independent silent reading. Mere independent reading on material of interest and high success is, in and of itself, a successful intervention for student who possess the skills of phonemic awareness and phonics.

Building fluency is an essential skill of the elementary classroom, but it also is important for the secondary student. Reading speed for the average reader peaks at about 150 words per minute. As readers get older, they need to be able to attack increasingly complex texts. This means a multi-pronged approach of vocabulary development, background knowledge building, strategy instruction and both at-reading level and challenging text reading. We can improve the skills of our students with a focused, cross curricular plan. If we do not work at this, we fail them as much as they fail.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Practice with purpose

Debbie Diller's Practice with Purpose: Literacy Work Stations for Grades 3-6 details how to use literacy centers to practice skills. Key components of her approach are that the stations are used for practice, not to teach; that modeling is essential for the approach working properly; and that grading every product is not necessary. Seven of the chapters describe a variety of literacy stations. Each of these chapters includes a rationale, what students should do, how to set it up, materials, how to introduce and model the station, mini lessons around the work station, advice on how to solve common problems that may occur, ways to keep the station going throughout the year, how the station helps student performance on state tests and a reflection and dialogue section. The text is a comprehensive approach to incorporating stations into the literacy classroom. For teachers who are concerned about classroom management, the section about solving common problems is well done and offers useful advice.

Often teachers at the upper elementary and lower middle school levels switch from the differentiated, small group approach that primary teachers favor to increasingly large amounts of whole group instruction. While whole group instruction is a useful way to provide instruction, mixing it with small group and partner activities and stations provide these students with movement and variety that their young minds and bodies need. Additionally, differentiation is easier to incorporate when small groups are an integral part of the instructional framework. The key is planning. Without carefully thought out environments and activities, stations will fail. Incorporating stations into content area instruction provides an opportunity to address literacy needs of students while meeting the content area curriculum. As CCSS becomes more integrated into our classrooms, this is an interesting and useful idea.

One of the very useful elements of the text is the listing of books to support the stations. Poetry, drama, and content area books are all identified to support learning. References to pedagogical books are also included to offer information for further research. As a bibliophile, I love being pointed to other references of interest. The only damage is to my wallet.

Although I have not run a large group class in years, I had the opportunity to help a young teacher set up stations in her classroom this year. This book reinforced some of what I did and makes me wish for such an opportunity again. Although targeting literacy teachers in grades 3-6, I can see how this approach could be easily adapted to content area classes through middle school, especially since CCSS has pushed literacy instruction into the content areas. A  good read that has earned its space on my reference shelf, I am intrigued with ideas of how I can incorporate the ideas into my instruction.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

SLO's and pretesting

As the year wraps up I am going to expound upon a personal pet peeve- doing half of the right thing. This year teachers across New York state, as well as other states, I presume, were on a SLO plan to incorporate student achievement data into their evaluation program. SLO stands for student learning objective. In non tested subjects, teachers had to pretest students at the beginning of the year and then compare that performance to an assessment at the end of the year. So far so good. Pretesting is an aspect of good teaching. Thereafter, however, the problem occurs.

For the most part, in the fall students were pretested, the information was put away and now as the end of the year approaches, they will be considered. My problem with this is twofold. First teachers told students not to worry about them. It actually behooves teachers to have students blow off the pretests. If students perform poorly on pretests, teachers can look better when then retest at the end of the year. Second, pretests were given that were not used instructionally. My children considered them a waste of time, and my son's personal goal for them was to make teachers laugh as they read (think Calvin and Hobbes). Only one of my daughter's teachers used the pretest in order to inform instruction. I fully believe in this. It is the goal of pretesting. If the pretest is used to only measure the teacher, I argue that it is not worth the students' time. You can use the pretest you were forced to give to measure professional performance AND identify weaknesses to focus on, areas of strength to allow compacting of the curriculum or extension with other activities. Furthermore, if a student did take the pretest seriously and demonstrated mastery of the course, something should be done to keep meeting the student's potential- grade advancement and independent study are just two of the possible options.

Now we are giving post tests. For students who aced the pretest, giving the post test provides exceedingly little information. We knew the kid had it in the beginning of the year. For students significantly below grade level, the post test may similarly provide little information. If a student performed four grade levels below where they should have at the beginning of the year, and moved to being only 2 1/2 grade levels behind at the end of the year, both the pretest and the post test are unlikely to be sensitive to those low levels even though significant progress was made. In better places, the tests will be analyzed, weaknesses in instruction will be identified, next years' teachers will be informed of the specific areas of concern and the individual teacher will work on beefing up skill and instruction in areas of concern. This kind of test analysis is difficult and needs to be taught and time needs to be found for completing it. Unfortunately many places will not spend the resources to do this. In many places the post tests will go directly to administration and not be closely examined by teachers. Imagine the irony: we ask students to do close reads but teachers do not do it.

Without meaningfully using pretests and post tests, we do our students a disservice. We take time away from instruction without generating any benefit to them individually or to the  system in general. It is not that I do not want pretesting and post testing. They are an important part of instruction. It is that I do not want them to be sprinkles that make it look good, but do not improve the quality of the taste of the cake.