Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Improving Student Learning One Teacher at a Time

I just read Jane E. Pollock's Improving Student Learning One Teacher at a Time. Jane is a coauthor with Marzano in Classroom Instruction that Works. This book follows that vein. In many ways it is an emphasis and restatement of the Classroom text.

She describes four corners of teaching- assessment, instruction, feedback and curriculum- calling them the Big Four. True, these elements are pivotal to quality instruction and everyone could improve in at least one of them. Her mandate is more of a do them than a how to do them. While each chapter has a section highlighting how a teacher implemented changes in the area under discussion, hard examples of how to enact a plan of action are sparse and singular. She often repeats that you may need to develop what works for you on your own, but starting points are usually limited to one. In this era where some schools are again increasing scripting for instruction and have implemented rigid online grading programs, some of the ideas would be very difficult to use.

I did like her idea for a plan book that had a set of abbreviations for each segment of a lesson to ensure that each component is covered. Her exclusionary focus on the Hunter style lesson shows the wisdom Hunter brought to the field- her methodology is still touted as an instructional ideal.

Overall, if you have read Classroom Instruction, this book is probably not worth your time. It would make a good preview to that book. If you were struggling with how to improve some aspect of instruction the Classroom book offers more suggestions. If you need a less information dense book this book would fit the bill.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Practical Fluency

Fluency is an area of interest to me because I have worked with several students who are able to puzzle their way through the reading, but do so at an extremely slow pace. Often this diminishes comprehension, but practically this means students do not bother to read the assignment. Without the practice their vocabulary and reading abilities do not improve and they fall farther behind their peers.

Max and Gayle Brand's book, Practical Fluency: Classroom Perspectives, Grades K-6, addresses the issue of how to build fluency instruction into the general classroom experience. Although I work with struggling learners, I have found that good classroom instruction is good classroom instruction. My students frequently have their dyslexia compounded by mediocre to poor classroom instruction. Strategies that were not used or were not used effectively may prove very useful in intensive settings.

The book is broken down into 4 sections:
  • Read Aloud, talk and text demonstrations
  • Rereading
  • Short Bursts for Building Stamina
  • Ongoing Assessment
Several strategies are discussed in each section including beautifully woven actual descriptions of classroom experiences with them. This book does not purport to be a source for research information. If you want to know about the research on the effectiveness for each strategy you need to look elsewhere. That said, many teachers do not want to wade through the statistics and experimental design methodology that appears in such materials. For teachers who want to "see" it in action, this fits the bill.

One concept woven into the short bursts section is word work. An idea I intend to incorporate into my lessons is to give students a word and have them write as many words as neatly as they can in a two minute burst that utilize parts of the word. For example, if the word were look, students could write book, nook, took, cook, look-out, cook-out, bookmark, looking, loot, loom, loose, loofa, loo ... Connecting the writing to the reading to build fluency in both is a critical skill. To support my learner, I may start with a page divided into two with the key word  at the top; the right side could be same beginning, the left side the same ending. As progress is made we can add a section for suffixes and prefixes, and one for vowel sound. I think I even have a letter die game that I can use to try and mix it up. This kind of activity will only take a couple of minutes and everyone can engage. More capable readers can be pushed to include longer words.

We need to continue to explore ways to incorporate fluency instruction and practice into daily reading. This book offers several ways to model and practice fluent reading behaviors. After all, we want many methods to use, not just one or two.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lowering the bar: CCSS and math

The Pioneer Institute released a white paper this week that has drawn interest from educational professionals. This paper, Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM, authored by R. James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky criticizes the CCSS math standards for not being rigorous enough. At this point some educators and parents may be laughing at such a concept. The Common Core has been put out as deeper and more challenging- how then can it be a lowering of the bar? I think it comes down to a central question- What is the purpose of the CCSS and the assessments that go with them?

For a long time the standards and assessments have suffered from a spilt personality. They are to raise standards, which implies that fewer people will be able to successfully achieve them. They are to create a minimum bar across which every student must be able to leap. They are to increase employability of our graduates. They are to increase the number of students attending college. They are to measure the success of our schools. Recently we added they are to measure the success of our teachers. While these issues are all related, they are different and no single instrument could possibly accurately do them all well.

Milgram and Stotsky both were members of the CCSS Validation Committee and both refused to sign off on the official report of the Committee. Their letters describing their reasons for not signing off on the document may be accessed through the report linked to above.

The first concern is what is college readiness. Apparently it means not top tier schools and not STEM fields. I think that it can easily be argued that preparing all students to enter STEM fields or top tier schools is at best improbable and at worst an indefensible use of education. Only a small percentage of students will attend universities meeting either of these descriptions. Although we might wish it otherwise, this is the case. The number of STEM jobs are increasing, but so too is the competition for those jobs on the international marketplace. It is not just enough to be an engineer, you have to be in the top 50 percentile of engineers. If not your job prospects are very limited. Yes, we need more STEM trained individuals, but not any individual will be successful in a STEM career. Top tier schools will always be selective because they can be- it is part of what makes them top tier. They are not going to accept more students because of CCSS.

The average adult is far more likely to need to understand statistics than algebra 2 in going about their life. Read the newspaper and statistics like mean and median and graph reading abound. We do not ask readers to compute anything or understand the underlying math and science behind surveying land, determining the effectiveness of medications or explaining the speed of the internet. Most college degrees do not require more than a rudimentary level of math training. Let us teach math to have practical value- budgeting anyone? and to help us with daily life- I need to halve this recipe that includes fractions.

Students definitely need access to higher level math classes even if they are not required by the CCSS. They need to be encouraged to take complex classes because they teach the mind to think deeply. They should not be penalized for not being able to solve matrix algebra or trigonometric proofs by not being able to graduate. Further, pushing more students into algebra at younger ages has been demonstrated to reduce the number of students electing to take higher level math classes. (See research here.)  If we want to have more students succeed in math, we need to offer more options- slower classes for some who need more processing time, faster classes for some who intuitively "get" math, and classes that demonstrate real world uses of the basic math that we can use on a daily basis for students who are disengaged from math. Schools should not be saying the CCSS does not require it, so we will not teach these upper level math classes. I don't think they will drop the offerings that they have. With the advent of blended and online classes, more options are available at the upper end than ever before. We need to push students to push themselves into these options.

While the CCSS do not present an adequate background for some post high school options, they do present a background for most. We cannot ignore the weakness of the CCSS, but that does not mean the entire body of work needs to be thrown out. Students cannot be told in either words or in implication that CCSS are enough for all, but that they present a foundation for further learning that should never stop. Yes, the bar is not high enough for some and is more rigid than is probably good for many, but it is the bar we currently need to deal with.