Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need?

I have one of those minds that is a treasure trove of useless information. My friends tell me I should go on Jeopardy!. I had a long unbeaten run in Trivial Pursuit broken (by my wife) just a few years ago. I can tell you that Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Robin Roberts of the Phillies, won 28 games and lost only 7 in 1952. I know that the tenth President of the United States, John Tyler, had 15 children. I can name all the states and their capitols and recite The Gettysburg Address. But unless you are playing parlor games (remember them?) or taking standardized tests, this knowledge is not particularly useful for anything.

But speaking of those standardized tests, I have recently been tutoring college juniors on the Praxis II tests that they must pass to be licensed as a teacher in New Jersey. While some of the questions on the tests do try to tap into knowledge that is necessary for teaching, many of the questions are of the random fact variety, a Jeopardy! quiz that puts your teaching license at risk. Fortunately, most of the teaching candidates at Rider pass these tests fairly easily, but some, often students with a history of being poor test takers, struggle mightily. 

One of the challenges prospective elementary teachers face is that they must pass tests in 4 subject areas: English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. Only the English Language Arts test is actually focused on pedagogy. The others are content knowledge tests for the most part. As a former history major and current reading specialist, I tutor English/Language Arts and Social Studies. Here is a question from the practice test that the testing company (ETS) provides as an example of what students need to know to pass the Praxis in Social Studies:



     Which of the following organizations was most responsible for the increased tensions over the shortage of a natural resource during the 1970s?
  • content knowledge (Knowing your stuff)
  • general pedagogical knowledge (Knowing how to help students learn stuff)
  • curriculum knowledge (Knowing the "tools of the trade")
  • pedagogical content knowledge (Knowing how best to deliver and assess content so that students can learn)
  • knowledge of learners and their characteristics (Knowing how my students best learn)
  • knowledge of educational contexts (Knowing the norms of the community where you work)
  • knowledge of ends, purposes, and values (Knowing why are we engaged in this enterprise of schooling)

This is quite a list, of course, and just reading it can make the task of teaching seem daunting indeed, but the concept that most interests me for the current discussion is this idea of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). According to Shulman, pedagogical content knowledge is



the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction.

Donovan, Bransford, and Pelligrino (2000) explain further that

Pedagogical content knowledge is different from knowledge of general teaching methods. Expert teachers know the structure of their disciplines, and this knowledge provides them with cognitive roadmaps that guide the assignments they give students, the assessments they use to gauge students’ progress, and the questions they ask in the give and take of classroom life.

Obviously this is a level of knowledge that cannot be Googled. How does a teacher get this knowledge?

Shulman suggests four ways: 1) study in the content area, 2) study of the materials to be used for instruction and assessment, 3) formal educational scholarship, and 4) the wisdom that comes only from practice itself.

So yes, it is very important that students develop expertise in the content they will teach (1), but it is just as important that they get the opportunity to interact with actual materials they will use for teaching (2). It is also important that students study all the important research that has gone into how students learn (3), but just as important that prospective teachers get lots of time in the classroom to practice the craft under the watchful eyes and wise guidance of experienced practitioners (4). 

The concept of PCK should be driving the formulation of a course of study for all prospective teachers. Often there is little match between the content students are learning in their history, English, science and math classes and the content they will be teaching in an elementary or high school class. Often their is too little time spent in the study of the likely materials that new teachers will be using in the classroom and their never seems to be enough time for students to spend in the classroom gaining the wisdom of practice itself.

A continued focus on PCK is also the professional responsibility of the practicing teacher. What Shulman calls "the wisdom of practice itself" can only come from a teacher continuing to read the research, keeping abreast of new developments in the discipline, continually reviewing curriculum and assessment materials and practices, and reflecting on what works and what doesn't.

One thing is certain, a licensure program based on standardized tests is never going to be an effective way to identify students who are well-qualified to be teachers or inform a practicing teacher's evaluation. At best, these tests measure a very narrow band of the PCK all teachers need. At worst they provide a false picture of student achievement and teacher performance.

What does a teacher need to know? As the list above indicates, pretty much everything, but most especially a teacher needs pedagogical content knowledge. All of us would do well to inventory our own level of PCK to make sure we are up to the challenge and to ensure that our students are getting the best we have to offer.

I am pleased to say the students that struggled with the Charles Dickens question above, left with a list of books they needed to read over the summer. That is a place to start, but only a start.














Saturday, April 22, 2017

School Choice: The Faustian Bargain

Yesterday, Secretary of Education and school choice champion, Betsy DeVos and school choice opponent and President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten toured a public school in Ohio. The New York Times reported that the two were there seeking some common ground in the school choice debate. While the school that DeVos and Weingarten visited is in a heavily Republican district in Ohio, the voters there are no fans of school choice. As one voter put it, vouchers are "like theft." "It's saying we passed a levy to go to our school district, and it's going somewhere else." Exactly. School choice is theft of our tax dollars and theft of our democracy.

Choice sounds so democratic, so quintessentially American that voucher and charter school champions keep using the term to hoodwink people into thinking that choice in schooling is a good thing. I suggest that those of us who oppose vouchers and charter schools call school choice what it is in the eyes of that Ohio voter, tax theft. The government collects our taxes in order to provide essential services to all of us. There is no choice involved, we all must pay taxes (unless, apparently, we are hugely wealthy). Those essential services include providing for a military, promoting research on health and welfare, providing for police and fire protection, and funding public schools. When money is diverted from the support of the public schools, it amounts to, as the Ohio voter said, theft. Or maybe another way to say it is "taxation without representation", since voters have no voice and no oversight of how tax money is spent in schools that receive money through vouchers or charters.

It should be readily apparent that corporate education reformers are anti-democracy. In city after city around the country democratically elected school boards have been replaced by boards appointed by the mayor or governor. In Philadelphia, an appointed board has been in place for nearly two decades and the deterioration of the schools has continued unabated. In Detroit, in Betsy DeVos' home state, the state took over the schools and has systematically led them into chaos. And let us remember that DeVos has spent millions to get legislation passed in Michigan that limits any kind of oversight for voucher and charter schools. So quite literally these schools are stealing public funds with no accountability as to how they spend it.

Every truly public school is held strictly accountable for how it spends its money thorough yearly audits. Every public school is also held accountable by periodic elections for members of the school board. If stakeholders don't like the direction of their schools, they can vote in new board members who are more to their liking. Yes, it can be messy. Democracy can be messy, which is why corporate reformers try to do away with it.

When parents send their children to charter schools or voucher schools, they are looking for a better opportunity for their children. We can all understand the appeal of that. What parents may not realize is that they have entered into a Faustian bargain. In order to get this shiny new toy of a voucher, they must give up their voice in their child's education. No elected school board, no independent audit, no budget vote, no say in school policies.

In this drama, Betsy DeVos plays a willing Mephistopheles, offering choice, but getting you to sign away your voice. Without a voice, there is no democracy.




Sunday, April 16, 2017

Comprehending Non-Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

In a discussion about students and reading content text yesterday, I heard a familiar refrain from a group of elementary teachers. While some readers were highly successful in reading non-fiction, many others struggled to comprehend content text even when that text for all appearances was "at their reading level." My question for the teachers was, "What are you doing to set the children up for success?"

In content literacy what the teacher does before, during and after reading is crucial to the successful comprehension of content text. By consistently using what Vacca, Vacca, amd Mraz (2017) call the B-D-A Instructional Framework, teachers can set all of their readers up for greater success in reading challenging text.

What does this instruction look like?

Before Reading - Before students read the teacher must assist the students in activating and building background knowledge relevant to the text, spur student curiosity and interest in the text, and help students establish a purpose for the reading. Activating background knowledge is a matter of asking the students to list anything they might already know about the topic and discussing how this knowledge will help them understand what they are about to read. Sometimes when helping students activate background knowledge it becomes clear that students lack the background to successfully read the text. When this happens the teacher can show a brief relevant video, read aloud from a picture book or article that fills in some background knowledge for the students, or simply give a brief lecture that helps fill in some gaps in student knowledge.

Before reading, teachers will also want to introduce key vocabulary and concepts that the students will encounter in the reading. What key words will the students need to understand to successfully comprehend the reading?

It is also crucial to consider student motivation for reading the text. Here it is important that the teacher model her own enthusiasm for the material and provide the students with several exmples that assist the students in seeing the personal relevance of the text. Perhaps most important the teacher can use the process of activating and building background knowledge by asking questions that arouse student curiosity.

Finally, before reading it is also important that students understand the task they are being asked to complete. What is the purpose for this reading? What will the student need to do with this information? What questions will the student need to be able to answer as a result of this reading? Being clear with the students on what the reading task demands will help them focus on key information.

Excellent strategies for pre-reading include anticipation guides, PReP and ReQuest. Click on the links for information on how to use these strategies.

During Reading - The purpose of a during reading activity is to guide students in an active search for meaning. As teachers we easily recognize the important parts of a text assignment, many students do not. The lessons we have learned from years of study, and years of reading dense college textbooks and professional materials, are not lessons our students have yet learned, so we need to help them navigate a text while they are reading.

One of the best ways to guide student reading of a text for improved comprehension, but also for improved understanding of how to handle dense content text, is the selective reading guide. In creating a selective reading guide, the teacher reads the text, determines the key concepts that the students must learn form the text, then develops a "guide" to the reading that assists the students in accomplishing the task. The selective reading guide literally tells the student where to be looking and what to be looking for in the reading and generally then asks them to do something with that reading. Here is an example of a selective reading guide. You can learn more about reading guides here.

Other kinds of during reading guides include structured note-taking and three-level guides, also designed to help students focus on important information as they read.

After Reading - The purpose of after reading activities is to assist the students in consolidating and clarifying their understanding. Research indicates that students retain more of their reading if they process that reading by talking or writing about what they have read. A simple turn-and-talk strategy, is one form of after reading activity. Teachers can also have the students do a quick write to jot down thoughts immediately after reading.

One of my favorite after reading activities is the RAFT, which stands for Role, Audience, Format, Topic. In RAFT students are given a writing task that allows them to demonstrate their understanding of the reading in an engaging and integrative way. Here are some examples from various disciplines.

Social Studies - After reading about Lincoln's plans for reconstruction following the Civil War students might be asked to take on the role of Lincoln, writing to the audience of Congress, in the format of a letter, on the topic of Plans for Reconstruction.

Science - After reading about the water cycle, students might be asked to take on the role of a water drop, writing to the audience of other water drops, in the format of a travel brochure, on the topic of A Journey through the Water Cycle.

Mathematics - After studying square root, students might be asked to take on the role of a square root, writing to the audience of other whole numbers, in the format of a love letter, on the topic of Explaining Our Relationship.

You can learn more about the RAFT strategy here.

There are, of course, integrated strategies that provide guidance to students throughout the reading process. For the most part these are all based on the KWL, which asks students what they know, what they hope to learn and what they learned at various stages of the reading process. Most teachers are very familiar with the KWL and it is a well researched, effective strategy that can form the basis of our understanding of the B-D-A Instructional Framework. Read more about the KWL here.

Whatever strategy we choose to use, we must remember that if we want our students to be successful comprehenders of informational text, we have the responsibility to set them up for that success.







Sunday, April 9, 2017

Teacher Evaluation: It's About Relationships Not Numbers

In an article this week in Education Week, Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, an education reform think tank, declared that Colorado's model for teacher evaluation was a failure. This was a model that seemed to possess all the "right stuff" of teacher evaluation that corporate education reformers hold dear (VAMs, growth models, standardized tests, removing teachers who were not performing based on these scores). This is the same model that was supposed to make Colorado "ground zero" for education reform. This is the same model that was lauded by Arne Duncan and the Obama administration as a blueprint for the nation. Schoales says the model, rolled out with much fanfare and hoopla, has failed. He blames implementation (you know all those messy things like trying to implement all this when only about a third of teachers actually teach tested subjects and that teachers were never actually included in the planning).

Yes, Schoales says this was a great idea, implemented badly. While I praise Schoales for admitting the scheme doesn't work, he has learned the wrong lesson. The very idea upon which this evaluation scheme was built was so flawed that there was never any hope of it being successful. Others have recounted in great detail how value added measures (VAMs) are hopelessly flawed. Both the American Education Research Association and the American Statistical Association have declared VAMs misleading and of limited use. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley has written a great book about it.

But the real flaw in all these reformy teacher evaluation plans is in a failure to see what teacher evaluation really is built on. Teacher evaluation is not built on value added scores, or rubrics, or student scores on standardized tests or even primarily on classroom observations.  The great flaw in these reformy schemes, including those MET Studies promulgated by Bill Gates, is that for all their "data" they fail to recognize the most basic of drivers behind evaluation - trust. Teacher evaluation is built on relationships. It is built on the trusting relationship between teachers and supervisors.

Reformers can't see this very simple and most basic fact of teacher evaluation because they are focused on a fool's errand of seeking objectivity through numbers and a plan designed to weed out low performers, rather than a plan designed to improve performance of all teachers. These folks could have easily found out the flaws in the plan. All they needed to do was spend some time in schools talking to teachers and supervisors. To the extent that current teacher evaluation schemes interfere with teachers and supervisors developing trusting relationships, they are pre-ordained to fail.

I spent 15 years as a public school administrator charged with evaluating teachers. I knew going into the job that my main goal would be to provide teachers with useful feedback for improvement and that if the teachers were going to be willing to implement that feedback, they were going to have to trust me and trust that the feedback I gave was well-informed. I also knew that, while part of my job was to identify poor performers and place them on an action plan for improvement or remove them from the classroom, that the vast majority of the teachers I would be working with, say 95%, were competent professionals who would not be targets for removal. It only makes sense that an evaluation program spend most of its time on professional development rather than on trying to identify low performers.

And so, like most supervisors in public schools across the country in the pre-NCLB/RtTT days, I set about building relationships, listening to teachers, providing information and demonstration lessons, leading book clubs, observing instruction, and sitting down with teachers to provide constructive feedback. To the extent that I could show teachers I knew what I was talking about, the teachers would buy in. Sometimes in these discussions, I would just listen and learn. These evaluations were two-way streets and sometimes the teachers had better understandings than I did. More than a few times I changed an observation report after a conversation with a teacher showed me the thought behind instructional choices that I did not recognize.

When I had to act on a poorly performing teacher, my work on relationships paid off again. As a supervisor who worked to gain the trust of individual teachers, I also worked to gain the trust of the teachers union. Reformers want to paint the unions as the enemy, but coming out of the teacher union movement myself, I knew that it was not in the interest of the union to protect poor performers. Of course, the union's job was to be sure that members got due process and some administrators would see this as obstruction, but I did not find it so. On the several occasions when I needed to recommend the removal of a teacher, the union representative and I worked together to make it happen in as respectful a way as possible for the individual, but with the clear goal of improving educational outcomes for the students.

As I visit schools these days, I worry that the trusting relationship between supervisors and teachers is being undermined by policies that encourage a "gotcha" mentality, rather than a growth mentality. Data can help inform teachers, of course, but when the data is built on arcane statistical formulas that are far removed from the reality of the classroom and built into assessments that are far removed from the instruction in the classroom, that data and the people who deliver it will be seen by teachers as untrustworthy. Here is how I put in my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century (Garn Press).


Successful evaluation systems must be built on trust. Teachers do not trust the results of value-added measures for good reason; they have been shown to be unreliable, unfair and invalid. Trust is built through informed supervisors and reflective teachers holding professional conversations with each other around classroom practice and student performance. Once trust is established, the hard work of instructional improvement can begin (p 129).  

I am not one to pine for the "good old days" and I do believe in bringing new ideas into the schools and in the importance of having a good teacher in every classroom, but to the extent that corporate education reform policies and practices are destroying the trust between teacher and administrator, I have to say we are moving backward rather than forward. Do we need sound teacher evaluation policies? Undoubtedly. Will we get there with VAMs, rubrics,and standardized tests? Never. Can building trust between all stakeholders help? You bet.


If you do not have a subscription to Education Week and cannot access the Schoales article, Diane Ravitch has a good summary here.

My take on what teacher evaluation should look like from a two part series I wrote four years ago can be found here and here.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Defending Public Education from Trump's Tyranny

Last week on his show, Real Time, Bill Maher introduced the Yale professor and author, Timothy Snyder, whose new book is entitled, On Tyranny. The book outlines 20 lessons we can learn from the rise of fascism and communism in the 20th century to make sure the same does not happen to us in the 21st century. Lesson #2 caught my ear immediately: Defend Institutions. Snyder says

It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about - a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union - and take its side.

OK, Professor Snyder, I choose public education as my institution to defend.

One way we can be sure that Trump and his minions are coming after our institutions is to see who the Tweeter-in-chief has chosen to head up various government departments. Almost to a person (Pruitt, Perry, Price), people who are opposed to the very institutions they are leading have been put in charge. If public education is to survive, we are going to have to fight for it. We cannot sit back and wait for this current nightmare to pass because by the time we wake up, it may be too late. It should be clear to all of us that the institution of public education is under a very real threat from the authoritarian Trump administration and its anti-public schools Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

The appointment of DeVos was the clearest indication from the new Trump administration that public education would be under siege. Next came the Trump budget proposal that, as Jeff Bryant reports here, strips money from after-school programs for poor children, reduces the overall budget of the department by 13%, but still finds billions of dollars for various school choice schemes.

As I have discussed in other posts, DeVos is a choice champion to beat all choice champions. Her recent pronunciations have doubled down on her favorite themes of education focusing on the "individual child", by which she appears to mean treating children like consumers in a market driven free-for-all. This will ultimately further enrich DeVos' already rich cronies and prop-up struggling ideologically driven religious schools. At a talk at the Brookings institution, DeVos likened her vision of education to the ride-sharing service Uber. So, that is her vision. Education as a phone app, where kids plug in their info and get a teacher named Ricky, who may or may not know anything about teaching. Apparently DeVos would like to spread her market driven vision of schooling uber alles.

Make no mistake about it, school choice will destroy public education. Americans always respond well to the idea of choice, but this is a choice that Americans cannot live with. School choice means less money for the schools that 80% of children attend. School choice means public funds going to religious schools that teach creationism and a literal interpretation of the Bible. School choice means schools employing uncertified, unqualified teachers. School choice means children attending schools that are not held accountable for the quality of their curriculum, teaching, or programs. School choice means that parents and community members lose their voice in the education of their children. 

And so as Professor Snyder warns us, we must act now to defend this greatest of all American institutions. By defending public education, we do not need to ignore the problems in public schools, but we do need to make sure the public knows that choice is not the answer to those problems. Public schools are a common good and a common responsibility. The choice we must be championing is the choice that most Americans still want - a well-resourced, professionally-staffed, local, neighborhood public school. The school choice schemes of DeVos and Trump make this clear choice less likely.

What can we do to defend our great institution? I would suggest the following:
  • Be informed - DeVos' concept of choice simply does not work and study after study has found this. Here is a place to start reading. And charter schools have failed to deliver on their promise as well. Here is Bruce Baker in a recent study on charters. The education reform industry is well-financed and has propagated the narrative of failing public schools. We all need to push back at this narrative with information. A good clearing house for this information is found through Diane Ravitch's blog, which provides the best information on what is going on in reform from the anti-reform movement perspective.
  • Speak up - All voices are needed. Some speak up through blogs, some speak up through emails and letters to their congressional representatives, some speak up by marching in the streets. We can all speak up through our membership in groups that are defending public education and who have a voice in Washington and on the internet. One such group is the Network for Public Education, which has become an effective voice against the corporate reform privatizers. Another effective group is the Badass Teacher's Association, which has proven over the last few years to truly live up to its name. And while you may not always agree with the positions of the national teacher unions, Snyder has warned us that tyrants seek to discredit and destroy unions as one way to seize power. DeVos is notably anti-union and so are many of Trump's cabinet cronies. It is time to set petty differences aside and make sure teacher unions stay strong.
  • Get involved - One of the central strengths of the institution of public education is local control. Elected local school board members set policy, pass budgets, review curriculum, and build and repair infrastructure based on their best understanding of the wants and needs of the taxpayers, parents and students of the local municipality. It is no coincidence that when privatizers seek to establish themselves in local communities, the first thing they do is try to subvert democratic process. This is what has happened in the major cities where privatization has taken hold, like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. It is the same model that led to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Lately, citizens have been waking up to what is happening and are responding by running for local council and school board positions to make sure that local control remains a central part of our public schools. Not all of us can run for public office, but most of us can find the time to attend school board meetings and council meetings and make sure politicians are representing the best interests of the community and when they are not, making sure they hear about it in their meetings and at the ballot box. 
Our institutions are under assault. One of the most vulnerable of these institutions is public education. If we do not fight for it, we will lose it. If we do fight for it, perhaps we can turn the conversation about schools around and focus on what is really causing our educational problems - income inequity, prejudice, and segregation.