What We Measure


I listened to Dr. Susan Embretson speak at UCLA last Friday.  Lots of what she said went over my head, which might be because she’s just a lot smarter than me – a situation I’m fortunate enough to be in pretty much every day of the week at UCLA and at home. But one thing I caught was that she’s working on new ways of generating test items automatically.

Her work is making it easier and cheaper to develop reliable new tests. Efficiency is always good. And research in the area of item response theory and computer adaptive testing is leading to exciting developments in diagnostically measuring student progress and providing each student with more appropriate and quicker feedback. Exciting may seem too strong a word for this extremely complex and math-heavy research, but you can check out the School of One to see what this type of individualized education could look like.

But, on the other hand, for most teachers and students, the effects so far seem to be more testing, and thinking about more testing made me think about the bigger picture of educational research. I began to wonder, not for the first time, whether a large part of this progress and this important work is rather beside the point as far as students and teachers are concerned.

Maybe we need to step back and think about our schools from a variety of perspectives. What are the problems that other people might wish we were working on?

From students’ point of view, one of the biggest problems is the lack of jobs. Huge numbers of black and brown teenagers are unemployed. But, partly due to our research emphasis on measurement and our policy emphasis on accountability, vocational programs have been cut or curtailed sharply.

From parents’ perspective, one of the biggest problems has got to be our children’s health.  The growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes seems highly relevant, yet the testing/accountability mania has led schools to cut PE, health, and recess.

From the planet’s perspective, one of the biggest problems is the epidemic of waste caused by humans.  Yet every day our schools teach our children to throw away huge amounts of food because lunch and recess times are too short and play time is too precious to be spent eating.

We are measuring carefully, but the things we’re measuring are not necessarily the things we care about. Undoubtedly, researchers are concerned about and probably even working to end unemployment, obesity, and global warming, so if we truly care about these and other issues, we need to start thinking a little less about how to measure and a little more about what we  measure.


Eat Your Vegetables


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about purpose: What’s the purpose of this blog? Who is the audience? And is that audience interested in that purpose?

It’s a tricky line because this blog is intended to jumpstart a conversation that everyone seems to agree is a good idea, but that no one seems to have much of a personal stake in having. The point is to get educators from all different fields talking directly to one another – teachers talking to researchers, researchers to teachers, quantitative researchers to qualitative, scholar activists to policy analysts, etc., Everyone I’ve talked to (and yes, that is an unscientific sample) seems to agree that this dialogue, this conversation, is a worthy goal. Yet everyone also seems to agree that this conversation is largely silent as of now.

On a personal level, this blog has helped me start lots of interesting and useful conversations, but on a broader level, it has spread a bit more haphazardly. This conversation seems to fall into roughly the same category as reading up on the candidates for the local city council race. We all know we should do these things, and we all have the vague sense that, in the long run, it will be good for us and for our community if we carve out the time to get these things done. But, on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis, we often have more pressing concerns, responsibilities, and interests.

Teachers, for instance, generally want practical advice. They want ideas that they can use to tweak tomorrow’s lesson plan and get better results. Philosophical debates on value-added models, Teach For America, massive open online courses, and iPads (link to these) might be interesting, but on a daily basis, teachers often feel powerless to impact these debates. The problem is, if teachers don’t pay attention (and they often don’t), then folks are having a conversation about changing teaching and learning while the most informed people are out of the room. I think this often leads to bad policy decisions, and also to less informed teachers who are likely to have difficulties implementing these policies.

Researchers are focused on practical concerns, too. Only their practical concerns revolve around advancing their own particular niche of expertise, working on publications, and furthering their careers. In a sense, it’s the same concern. They want to tweak their models and get better results. This seems to leave researchers having technical debates that almost no one else is listening to, so that, even when and if the technical questions get answered, those answers seem to have little to no bearing on how the policies are implemented.

So, if we agree that this conversation is worth having, and we acknowledge that it is largely not being had, then perhaps we need a new set of incentives to help us all begin to take part a bit more enthusiastically. Perhaps we should look at this blog less as an exercise in civic duty, and more as exercise. Less as a community clean-up and more as dusting our bookshelves. In other words, instead of focusing on why this conversation is worth having, we should all think a bit about what it can do for us. As teachers, we imagine a day when district and state officials might heed our counsel. As graduate students and even as tenured professors, we dream of being able to influence public policy. In order for our voices to be heard in these larger debates, we must train ourselves to speak and write convincingly. This blog, then, can be our training ground as well as our slowly expanding megaphone. As we refine our thinking and add additional thinkers, our platform will expand along with us, and so, when the opportunity comes for some or all of us to push that needle and sway the opinions and decisions that matter, we will be ready. Students in the teacher education program, comparative education, social research methodologies, and development psychology will speak directly to one another. Students from UCLA will get a glimpse into the education at Penn State and ASU, and vice versa. Teacher trainers will speak to researchers. And we will all learn from one another and begin to grow the community we will need in order to make the changes we all dream about.

Eat your vegetables, hone your skills. Write. The day will soon come, and may have already arrived, when your voice will be called upon.

Before I conclude, there might be one other thing holding people back. Fear of the unknown, or at least reticence and something that I think I might describe as a general tendency among educators toward a somewhat overdeveloped sense of humility and caution. Researchers are inclined to be careful about what they say. Papers tend to end with caveats and limitations rather than talking points and exhortations. But new styles can be learned. So if you’re not sure that you’re ready to write in this genre or this style, then this is the perfect place to start. When you have an idea that is half-way ready, send it to teachingdiablogue@gmail.com and we’ll be happy to help you polish it up to share more widely.

The Interactive Nature of Read Alouds: Ideas to Consider


Here’s a post from Courtney Kinney, a 12-year elementary school teacher and staff developer at Growing Educators, filled with practical tips to grow young readers’ literacy skills.

The power to capture your students’ imagination during an adventure to the time of dinosaurs, to transform your students’ world into an alternate time period, and enable them to envision being a dragonfly chased by a buzzing hornet.  You’re asking yourself, “What daily classroom practice has this power for my readers?”  The answer could be: Interactive Read Aloud.  That’s right, those 20 minutes a day of protected, dedicated time for engaging your readers with text by implicitly modeling reading skills and behaviors.

Understanding Interactive Read Aloud.  Interactive Read Aloud is a daily 20 minutes of implicit teaching when teachers gather their readers close together in their meeting area and model reading skills and behaviors they want all readers to develop.

  • Interactive Read Aloud is a time to build community while exposing readers to a variety of texts, genres, text complexities, and text structures.
  • It is a time for revealing our metacognition as readers and making it explicit by modeling our own reading behaviors by thinking aloud, stopping and sketching or jotting our ideas, or acting out scenes from the text.
  • It is a time to model thoughtful, reflective conversations and hone in on partnership conversations that lead to whole class grand conversations, which are eventually student lead, student monitored, and student driven.
  •  It is a time to model reading behaviors such as stamina, initiation, and rereading for meaning and fluency as well as a time to model reading skills such as envisioning, synthesizing, critiquing, or author’s perspective.
  • It is a time to focus on listening and speaking Common Core State Standards.

Here are some of our tips for creating a thoughtful Interactive Read Aloud in your classroom.

Interactive Nature.  Implicit in the name of Interactive Read Aloud is that it is an interactive time when readers engage with the text as well as with one another.  The interactive nature can take on many forms, including interacting with the text through stop and sketches or stop and jots on post-its, acting out particular scenes from text,  turn and talks with partners, or whole class grand conversations where readers engage in conversations with one another by responding to each other’s ideas with sentence stems that promote engaged conversation, such as: “I agree with you because…” “I disagree with you because…” “That’s an interesting point…” “Adding on to what ___ said, I think…”  By giving our readers the language to help support their conversations, we are implicitly teaching readers that an important part of engaging with text is formulating ideas and expressing those to others.  In this video clip of Jessica Martin, our Co-Founder and Director of Growing Educators, notice how she supports her readers by finding points in the text that support interaction in the form of acting out scenes to deepen the understanding of characters and promoting the engagement of all her primary readers.

Supporting Content Area Text.  Interactive Read Aloud is an ideal time to build your reader’s content area knowledge, to prepare them for an upcoming science or social studies unit of study, to engage them with nonfiction text prior to an expository writing unit of study, or simply to implicitly model how readers plan for reading informational text differently than other genres.  Weaving content area text into your writing or reading workshop can be bridged by supporting the thinking work during your Interactive Read Aloud.   This can be 20 minutes daily of dedicated time to study a particular genre or subject such as biographies, insects and animals, or the American Revolution, while exposing your readers to complex text and supporting them with strategies that enable them to access the content while navigating the text complexity.  In this video clip, notice how Jessica Martin navigates through content area knowledge while supporting her primary readers’ access to the structure of nonfiction text.

Strategic Planning.  In order to understand how to utilize text in a more effective and engaging way, teachers need to thoroughly read through the text prior to using it during an Interactive Read Aloud.  Knowing what reading skill and behavior you want to implicitly teach your readers, what reading plan you want to highlight for the text, when to stop in the text to model thinking and reactions, or when to have partnerships turn and talk to one another takes a very planful teacher.  Using post-its to mark the spots in the text you want to engage with is a helpful way to feel prepared during an Interactive Read Aloud.  In this video clip of Erin Donelson, one of our Growing Educators Staff Developers, notice how she sets up her upper grade readers to make a reading plan to follow along with her in this text.  Notice how strategic her planning is, due to her thoughtful contemplation and thorough reading of the text prior to her Interactive Read Aloud.

Navigating Through Text.  Interactive Read Aloud is an ideal time to implicitly model how readers, of any proficiency level, navigate through text.  Modeling reading habits can include such topics as re-reading, using a bookmark, text directionality, navigating a table of contents, book introductions or picture walks in fiction text.  With nonfiction text, such topics for modeling may include: highlighting text features, organizing note-taking for finding main idea, questioning strategies with sentence stems “I’m getting a hunch that…” and noticing writing craft moves.  Notice in this video clip how Jodi Manby, one of our Growing Educators Staff Developers, sets up a book introduction for her primary readers during Interactive Read Aloud with a text that will eventually be used to launch a persuasive writing unit of study.

Notice how in this video clip, Jodi enables her readers to navigate the text and engage in the interactive nature through turn and talks with their reading partners.

Enjoy this transformative time with your readers and inspire them through your own passion for the written word.

Growing Educators is an educational consulting firm specialized in providing professional development opportunities for public schools in reading and writing workshop, balanced literacy, and the Common Core State Standards.  Find more details:

Website:  www.growingeducators.com/professional-development
Twitter: @groweducators
Facebook: Growing Educators
Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/groweducators

Bonfire of the Valley


It finally rained in Los Angeles, which is a very good thing. This rain is a welcome bit of relief to the ongoing drought, which has the snow pack at 22 percent of normal.

Bureaucrats are deciding how many fish will die, at least 500,000 acres of cropland will be left idle, and at least one small town is projected to run out of water entirely this year, but in the LA area, we face no water restrictions, most of the comments about rain have to do with the troubles it causes for traffic, and I still see people washing the sidewalks off with hoses.

So the Central Valley is going up in dust.

Meanwhile, in a little valley closer to home, Centinela Valley Union School District Superintendent Jose Fernandez was paid $663,000 last year while school board members pleaded ignorance, saying “we would not knowingly give that high a salary.”


In 2010, after declaring personal bankruptcy and losing his home, he obtained, from the school district not a bank, a $910,000 loan at 2% interest for 40 years . He justified the loan by saying “This is something that exists in the world of senior managers.”

We live on one planet, but it seems we inhabit distinct, separate worlds. There is the world of Los Angeles, where we drive everywhere and wash our sidewalks to keep up appearances. And there is the world of the Central Valley, where we get our food, farm laborers are struggling without work, and farmers hate environmentalists because they are trying to protect fish.

There is the world of senior managers, where Fernandez’s personal bankruptcy resulted in a ludicrously generous bailout loan, a new house in Ladera Heights, and an obscene contract. And there is the world of poor students, where the materials budget was cut by $700,000 in the same year that loan was made, resulting in things like teachers not having enough paper to make copies.

It all reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, when Sherman McCoy,  a model of the 1980s era of greed who calls himself a “Master of the Universe,” ponders the necessity of taking a taxi rather than the subway to Wall Street. “Insulation. That was the ticket….If you want to live in New York, you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate.  Meaning insulate yourself from those people.”

For his part, Superintendent Fernandez appears to be in denial about his insulation when he says, “We did not abuse anything....We could have gotten a home in Laguna Beach or Brentwood. We picked a place [Ladera Heights, median income: $103,00] very close to the district, composed of people similar to people we serve in the district [Centinela Valley, median income: $33,000 - %49,000].”

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked. Perhaps we don’t live in one world, but in a kaleidoscope of gated communities, where the only four-letter word that arouses righteous anger is “tax,” where voter participation slips into the single digits in local elections, where parents drive their children two blocks to school, and where my lawn has priority over your avocado grove, though I will later complain about the high cost of avocados. In such a mishmash of worlds, a school leader grabbing for half a million bucks and a school board unaware of what they have paid their top employee is perhaps not surprising at all, only inevitable. If we’re going to do anything about it, we may have to tear down some of the insulation we have built up around our own worlds.

Optimus Crime


This is a depressing, pessimistic post.

Last week, I was talking about recess and the importance of play, but now I’m thinking of crimes and cons, greed and graft.

The problem is, the kind of optimistic, can-do problem-solving approach that we tend to take on this blog appears to have little to nothing to do with how decisions are made regarding our schools.

Here’s the evidence I’ve gathered. You decide if crimes have been committed.

Exhibit #1: Centinela Valley Superintendent Jose Fernandez was paid $663,000 in 2013. Fernandez runs a district made up of four schools and about 6,600 students. It’s mind-boggling to think that he was paid more than John Deasy, who runs LAUSD, not to mention more than President Obama. His ridiculous pay comes from optimizing an odd contract that paid him extra for working more than 215 days per year and reimbursed him for “purchasing” extra years of service to add to his pension.

Exhibit #2: The Daily Breeze reports that TELACU Construction has created a political machine in the Centinela Valley district, donating large amounts of money to campaigns in which almost no one votes, and which they nearly always win, and then getting voters to approve two construction bond measures totaling close to $200 million, which TELACU is now managing.

And, according to the Superintendent, the district intends to try for a third construction bond.

Exhibit #4: A picture from an LA school:


LAUSD teachers are upset about the District’s budget priorities and have launched a Facebook campaign to try to shame the District into fixing what is broken.

Exhibit #4: Omarosa, former “star” of The Apprentice, has entered the LA School Board race.  Here is an interesting note: “She didn’t respond to a question about whether she had ever voted in a school board election.”

David Tokofsky, a former LAUSD school board member, had this to say, ““It feels like things are out of control.”

I don’t know whether to throw my hands up, throw rocks, or throw my resume on some desk around here.

The best time of day


When my kids get home every day, I ask them, “How was school?” but the only thing I really want to hear about is recess. Just like when I was a kid, it’s still the best time of the day.

All around us, education is changing, but for far too many students, far too much of school remains a bore. All around us, reforms are being rolled out, and problems are being debated, but for students, the reforms are largely invisible, the changes aren’t addressing the biggest problems they face, and the solutions seem unlikely to improve their lives.

The Common Core promises to bring more complex thinking, and different tests. Race to the Top pledges to rid our classrooms of ineffective teachers, and No Child Left Behind is still whining like a toothless, stray dog, slobbering all over any school unfortunate enough to be housed in a state that can’t get a waiver, but largely ignored by everyone else.

Meanwhile, bullying, anxiety, and depression might be getting worse, and certainly aren’t going away. Childhood obesity has doubled in the last thirty years. And the population is changing, meaning that more and more students are learning English as their second or third language, and more and more students are growing up in poverty.

And those are probably not even the biggest problem students face.

The biggest problem is already upon us, yet, like a boat in mid-ocean under the crest of a tsunami, we have no idea of the powerful force we are riding.

In the next twenty years, according to an Oxford study, 47 percent of the jobs that people do now will be automated.  That’s right. Half of all jobs will be gone.

Bank tellers and receptionists – already gone. Next up might be truck drivers – the technology for driverless cars is almost perfected. Even accountants or doctors – computers can diagnose fraud or illness by sifting through reams of data.

Machines can do all the rote stuff better and faster than people. This may be great when it means robot vacuum cleaners, but it also means schools need to change a lot more and a lot faster.  But how?

MOOCs, iPads, and broadband in every school? I doubt technology will save the day. Teacher evaluation and value-added models? Better evaluation might help if it’s done right, but there seems little reason to believe that these changes are being made thoughtfully. Common Core? Something tells me new standards and tests won’t get us there, and won’t capture the imagination of students or adults.

So here’s an idea that just might be a better and more magical bullet, to help us with not just this drastic need to increase kids’ creativity, but with all those other problems: obesity, depression, anxiety, and even implementing the Common Core.

Increase recess. Drastically. How about two hours a day?

Kids would get lots of unstructured, but safe and supervised play. Kids are getting less and less of this type of play, and experts are accumulating more and more evidence that it is important to developing creativity (constructive boredom can force kids to come up with their own amusements), strengthening critical thinking (young kids intuitively know how to think scientifically, but lose this ability as they grow up), improving social skills (children learn to be aware of others’ needs in order to keep the game going), and building mental health (freely chosen play is a testing ground that allows children to develop confidence). And the benefits for physical health almost go without saying.

Teachers need recess, too – unstructured time to meet together, plan, and grade. More time to plan and collaborate is desperately needed, especially with the new demands of implementing the Common Core. It’s hard to imagine how we can significantly improve student learning without significantly improving teaching, and for teachers to get better, they need more time to plan lessons, reflect on their practice, and analyze student work. And perhaps they wouldn’t have to carry so much work home.

And parents would get a school schedule that more closely maps onto their work schedules.

We can do something about a lot of big problems, and we can do it by doing something that will be incredibly popular: extending the best time of day.

Teacher unions might worry that districts and principals would steal that time back from them and force them to attend unhelpful PD and meetings.  Lawyers might worry that more recess accidents would increase liability risks. But those are small problems, and they can be solved. If we don’t do something about this big problem soon, we might soon find ourselves living in the worst of times.

Reframing Teachers as Intellectuals


When I was six years old, I proudly announced to my parents that I wanted to be a teacher. My father kindly responded, “That’s nice, dolly, but you need to be something that realizes your full potential.”  Though my enthusiasm for education never diminished, neither did Dad’s various iterations of the message above: yes, teaching is a noble profession, a respectable profession, a necessary profession…but not a profession for you, dolly. You can do better.

I love my Dad. He’s an amazing father, and one of the most creative and ethical people I know. But he is also a pragmatist. Like many immigrant men and women who experienced economic and social hardship, Dad wanted his children to attain higher levels of financial security and professional prestige than he had. And he was well aware that in the United States, a teaching career assured neither. Although we’ve certainly argued about it over the years, I don’t fault Dad for his preferences, given the extent to which the surrounding culture reflects and reinforces this attitude. Education, while a top priority in our home, was a means, not an end. Unless of course you were going to be a university professor –to be a scholar, an intellectual, was a worthy aspiration. A schoolteacher, however? Not so much.

This pervasive attitude, even when held by well-intentioned people, is damaging to our education system. It discourages potentially fantastic educators from entering the field, and diminishes respect for those who have committed their lives to teaching.  It also leads to a lot of mixed messages about teachers’ value in society.  On one hand, we pay a lot of lip service to the power of a single teacher to change lives – there’s a whole genre of films perpetuating this image. Politicians speak of teachers as the keepers of the awesome responsibility of educating future generations. On the other hand, we see policies that seek to reward and punish teachers by boiling down their work to students’ ability to answer questions rather than to solve problems. We see low standards of entry relative to other professions, and low compensation proportional to the intensity of time and effort involved in the job. We have alternative credentialing programs that minimize training periods, perpetuating the myth that teaching doesn’t require substantial preparation.

These conditions beg the question, “Why is there such a weak association between intellectual pursuit and the teaching profession in the first place?” The changing context of formal schooling in the U.S. offers some clues. The history of teaching includes the feminization of education and the related phenomenon of the low prestige associated with working with children. Teachers’ unions grew out of a need to assert an economic and political voice in a patriarchal system that disenfranchised them. While unions made important strides in terms of employee protections, teaching continues to be regulated by a combination of government officials, educators, and district leaders, many of whom lack a background in education.  Furthermore, we are still haunted by the Industrial Age relic of the factory model of education which frames teachers primarily as automatons engaged in a one-way flow of information from adult to child, a “banking” system of learning where knowledge is deposited in a passive recipient to be withdrawn in the future. Implicit in these dynamics is a belief that teachers are not competent enough to manage their own activities, nor astute enough to speak authoritatively about the multifaceted nature of their jobs. This leads to a reality in which teacher knowledge and experience is often marginalized when it comes to determining educational standards.

In a recent Op-ed on the topic of teacher education, Professor Mike Rose of UCLA explored our tendency to overlook the complex cognitive, social, emotional environments in which teachers operate, positing that “teaching done well is complex intellectual work” that involves both extensive multi-disciplinary knowledge as well as the capacity to apply that knowledge. His ensuing discussion of teacher education reform centralizes an appreciation for this complexity. I’d like to build on this train of thought and imagine how things might be different if we start from the premise that teaching is an intellectually demanding job. Here are a few overlapping and interrelated possibilities:

Aspiring educators and those who influence them would consider teaching a more viable option. Much has been written about how countries like Finland have highly selective processes for becoming a teacher, resulting in both a deeper respect for teachers as the “best and the brightest,” as well as a better distribution of qualified teachers across the school system. The influential cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget believed that teaching was not seen as equal in “the scale of intellectual values” to other professions because it is not seen as technically or creatively special. Consequently, the opinions of practitioners are less likely to be taken seriously when it comes to claims of expertise. In contrast, those who attain entrance to their profession through a rigorous process are more likely to be seen as capable of setting standards and determining best practices. It follows that if teachers had to undergo a more rigorous training process, their participation in reform efforts would hold more credibility. Teachers’ opinions would hold more persuasive power. Becoming and staying a teacher, therefore, would mean you have a real shot at being able to influence the direction of your field.

Teacher training would change. A commitment to cultivating the teacher-as-intellectual would have profound implications for how schools of education operate. If we expect schools to produce critical, reflective thinkers, shouldn’t we expect teachers to embody and model critical habits of mind as instructional and community leaders? If we prioritized and valued teachers’ ability to think critically, pre-service teachers would engage more frequently with issues that compel individuals to unpack and question their assumptions about the dynamics of education and the purposes of schooling. Coursework in areas like research methods, comparative education, and education history would allow people to participate more fully in conversations about power and privilege and the politics of education (conversations typically reserved for “academics”). As a consequence, programs would better balance the need for experiential learning with the space to develop these skills and reflect on these deeper issues. This may involve lengthening the duration of training to better accommodate the development of practice that is informed by, rather than disconnected from, theoretical perspectives. To ensure that a lengthened training period does not discourage low-income candidates, universities and the government should invest significantly in subsidizing teacher education.

Research would better take into account the realities of the classroom. Though often drawn from the same population, the distance between educators and education researchers reflects an assumption that the former don’t possess the intellectual sophistication of latter. Teachers need to be positioned as scholars who are part of the academic body, rather than peripheral to it. While there is certainly research on a broad range of topics relevant to the school day, few studies are constructed with significant teacher input. Preparing teachers to participate fully in the process would increase the extent to which “on the ground” concerns are accounted for in rigorous academic research; their words would carry the formidable integrity of both experiential and theoretical expertise. Essentially, teachers would be seen to possess a solid foundation from which to critique and contribute to the educational body of knowledge.

These broad recommendations – higher standards for entry into the profession, increased engagement with intellectual discourse in education, a longer training period – are not new. My purpose here is to propose that the conversation should not focus on how to make teachers “better”, but on how to scaffold teaching as an intellectual profession that empowers and legitimizes teachers’ voices.

Of course, the prospect for teacher expertise to carry greater formative weight must be balanced by the need to honor the assets and input of the communities they serve. How to achieve this balance, however, is a whole other conversation…

What do you think? What other possibilities would a widespread shift such as the one described here engender in our school systems? At the same time, what kind of challenges could arise from it?

- Talia Stol