Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reach for the stars

I think that I may be missing out on some interesting editorials by not having a subscription to The Oregonian. Today I read yet another article provided by my mother, this one entitled "Time for Oregon schools to stretch" by John Tapogna, published August 2, 2009. This article tackled the issue of the Obama Administration's school reform plans. Recently the focus has been on health care, and the idea of education reform has quietly tiptoed toward the back of the stage, perhaps hoping that it can avoid becoming a hotly debated issue.

I must admit, I have not had a chance to look over reform proposals in detail. In fact, I am having a bit of trouble finding concrete evidence and examples of these proposals, but I do know that reform is in the educational air -- and it is about time. What was once effective and beneficial to the majority of students is now not good enough -- especially since we see evidence of American school children falling farther and farther behind their counterparts in other industrialized nations. John Tapogna is a "consultant" on educational issues, and since I don't know what that means nor what his background is, I am just going to take his word for now on some of the things that he says in his article (with the plan of researching things a bit more). It appears that the Obama Administration has a few core beliefs regarding education, at least according to Tapogna:
  • School districts do not engage in enough evaluations
  • School districts change course too frequently
  • Because of the first two points, it's hard to determine what is actually proven to impact achievement. We do know that "high-quality preschools," reading tutors, and small class sizes (at least in younger grades) have some impact.
Honestly, that is not much -- three bullet-points? But the more I engage in educational research, the more I find that our information about what is truly effective in producing results over the long-term is sadly lacking. There are thousands of books and articles and guides for education, but looking for genuine research and replicable results is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. It has been done to some extent by Marzano & the people at McRel, who publish meta-analyses that are extremely useful. But other than that, what research-based evidence do we have on what it takes to close the achievement gap? (And why, might I ask, do districts continue to ignore the few traits that we know for sure make a difference -- like smaller class sizes?)

One of the directions that the Obama Administration wants to take is toward evidence of teacher quality. The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, thinks that mining test data might be a good way to begin the discussion around improving teacher quality. (I, for one, think that if he wants this battle he is going to have to fight uphill the whole way, but that opinion is perhaps best left to another blog.) As I was reading the article it brought to mind several other pieces of information I've gleaned over the years: there are many teachers who fail basic tests over and over and over again and have still been in the classroom instructing students, and the difference between having a good teacher and having a poor teacher can be measured in student achievement results. (One lecture I attended pointed out that most children improve their achievement at least slightly from year to year, just by growing older and being more exposed to life, so if the student's achievement declines in a given year, what should we learn from that information?)

Teacher quality is definitely an area where we should focus, but sadly I see so many areas in need of improvement that it is hard to determine where to go from here. There are reports of the Department of Education offering grants to programs who seek to revolutionize education and find radical new ways to instruct students (of course I did a bit of searching and still haven't found how one applies for said grants). This is, perhaps, a decent way to get people together, brainstorming how to reform our current out-dated and ineffective system. A few questions I have had:
  • Why are we still on an agrarian model for a school year? Most students are not out harvesting wheat and other crops in the summer.
  • How much time is necessary in school each day or week?
  • Have studies been done on schools that are year-round, meet more (or less) frequently, or use credit-by-proficiency models instead of seat-time based models of instruction? If so, where are these studies, and if not, why not?
I think that looking at the education system can be so overwhelming at times. It works well for a good portion of kids. But what about those that fall through the cracks? How can we help them? And how can we close the achievement gap among our own students and the achievement gap between the United States and other countries? I obviously don't have the answers right now, but I am looking.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The truth about textbooks...sort of.

Today I finally had a chance to read an article that my mother brought to me weeks ago. On July 19, The Oregonian published an article by Bill Bigelow, a local teacher, called "Schools foster climate illiteracy." Quite a scary title -- especially for such a green, environmentally-conscious state! The Oregonian must have wanted to catch the eye of its readers and scare them a bit, because this was the feature story of the opinion section of the paper that day. In this article, Bigelow takes textbooks to task for downplaying the threat posed by global warming. He also says that school district leaders who are in districts where these textbooks are used are complicit in the miseducation of our children, at least when it comes to the issue of global climate change, as if there was a national or corporate plot to make sure that the future generations are ignorant of their impending doom. A bit harsh, I must say. Or is it? And who is to say when a newspaper article is educational and when it is just inflammatory?

First of all, like I teach my students, it's important to understand the author when looking at a text. All authors have biases -- that's part of being human -- so it's important to recognize the bias and how it influences what is written. In this case I know that the author has been teaching social studies for as long as I have been alive, that he is passionate about his curriculum, and that his published curriculum is very liberal in its stance on issues (workers' rights, human rights, etc.). I appreciate his passion -- and I own several of his curriculum guides and have used pieces of them as inspiration for my own lesson plans. But I have noticed that there is a "slant" to his works, and sometimes I feel a bit judged, as if what I do to provide multiple perspectives and teach kids not to condemn one side of a situation outright (without being fully educated) would be looked at with derision. Perhaps my feelings about the author have colored my interpretation of the article (of course they have!), but I still take issue with a few points mentioned in the article and would like to call for clarification here.

There seems to be an assumption in this article that classes labeled "Global Studies" and taught in the social science department should focus on the issue of global climate change. When Portland announced that it was changing the name of Global Studies to "Modern World History," in keeping with the textbook chosen and the Oregon State Standards, the author's cry was "Then who will teach about global warming?" My question is a bit different: should just one subject area be responsible for incorporating lessons and awareness about climate change into the school year, or should our approach be more comprehensive? In recent years we have shifted to looking at reading and literacy as important enough to be addressed in all subject areas and classes. Is global climate literacy important enough for us to take this approach?

Oregon State Standards use this language to encompass a climate change standard at the high school level: "Evaluate the impact of human activities on environmental quality and the sustainability of Earth systems. Describe how environmental factors influence resource management." This is a science standard. It also says "Analyze and evaluate the impact of economic, cultural, or environmental factors that result in changes to population of cities, countries, or regions." This is a social science standard. There are several more standards in the social science section that also address the issue of the human impact on our physical environment. Obviously, if we as educators are doing our jobs well, we address all of the standards in our area. How we address them varies, just as how the students learn or interpret the data presented may vary. Yet it is precisely that variety, that range of opinion and interpretation, that makes life a rich and interesting tapestry -- and our ability to listen to differing opinions and learn from them makes life beautiful.

The issue of multiple perspectives brings us to textbooks. Bigelow harshly criticized some of the widely used textbooks (such as those published by McDougal Littell) because of their lack of information -- or sometimes misleading information -- about global warming and climate change. Yet the larger question should be whether we should rely solely on textbooks as our source of information. Textbooks were written by men and women, who by their very human nature must be fallible. A more balanced perspective (on any subject) should be provided, and that can occur through the use of additional material. The claim is that Portland Public Schools encourages teachers to stick with the textbook alone, as if the authors of the textbook have some sort of divine omniscience. If that is the case, then it shows that the district is a bit short-sighted. While it is extremely important to have "everyone on the same page," especially in a large district where students might transfer from school to school during the school year, that does not mean that teachers should have to rely on the textbook alone as their guiding light. Not only does bringing in additional resources into lesson plans provide students with much-needed multiple perspectives, it teaches our students a more subtle lesson -- always question authority, and don't rely on one place for The Truth. Look to many places for information and then make an informed decision about The Truth of the matter.

Obviously, the article caused me to start thinking -- and perhaps that was its sole purpose. If that is the case, then it succeeded. If it had more lofty aspirations, then this editorial, like the textbooks it criticized, is guilty of missing the mark.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

When I listen to NPR, I miss my classroom.

Today I realized just how steeped in history I must be when I heard on the news "Today is the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland" and I immediately thought "Oh, it must be September 1 today." My second thought was that I missed being in the classroom. It is the conversations, specifically, that I enjoy -- discussing the why of issues. Thanks to the new Quentin Tarantino movie, "Inglorious Bastards," and the seventieth anniversary of the start of WWII, this fall is a great time to discuss some of these issues on a deeper level. I was listening to an interview with a woman who wrote an editorial on the real Jewish commandos of WWII -- not the fairytale created by Tarantino, but actual people who fought heroically for their cause. In this interview, Kim Masters talks about her father as one of the commados. The reality of his story is so powerful, there is no need for embellishment, no need for bloodythirsty soldiers to scalp the enemy, because the truth of the daily fight was frighteningly real enough. Listening to the interview made me think about when it's okay to create a fairytale versus show something real, how we depict "the enemy" and what that says about us in turn, and what makes violence acceptable (in life or movies or books). As I've told countless students, there is not necessarily one right and one wrong answer to any of these questions. That is why it's so valuable to have conversations in small groups, respectfully looking at various perspectives. We learn to grow as individual human beings and as a community when we engage in friendly critical discourse.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Fall is a time of new beginnings

Today is the last day of August, and although that should mean that it is still summer, the day dawned misty and overcast. It is clear that Oregon is embracing Fall once again. It is a time of bittersweet new beginnings. While it's always a bit sad to know that summer is once again over, every year brings fresh anticipation for the new school year. The stores selling school supplies entice people with the promise of new pens with cool ink and crisp, clean, college-ruled paper. And today, once again, school parking lots are filled with older-model Toyotas and Hondas, signs that teachers are back to work and preparing classrooms to meet new students.

Today also marks the first year in my adult career that I am not returning to a traditional school building, meeting with colleagues and planning lessons. I have started a new business and new educational opportunities. I am very happy about the new direction for my life and I am looking forward to working with many nontraditional students in a small setting, but there is still a part of me that misses opening the classroom door, dusting the bookshelves, and writing "Welcome back to school!" on the whiteboard in large green letters.
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