Students teaching students: What can we learn?

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After reading the last two posts on pre-service teacher education (here and here), I began to reflect on an experience I had before any formal knowledge of teaching. When I was in college, I spent several summers teaching with Summerbridge Hong Kong (SBHK), an English summer program that provided a low-cost English immersive experience to low-income local students.

Like many overseas language programs, SBHK hires relatively inexperienced high school and college students from the US, UK, and Canada to help local students improve their English skills and increase their exposure to international cultures. Unlike many such programs, SBHK focuses on the development and empowerment of its teachers as much as of its students.

Looking back, after graduate study and several additional years of teaching, I continue to wonder what more I can glean from the program’s philosophy of education and model of teacher training.

Rather than prescribing a curriculum, the program’s administrators scaffold teachers towards designing and delivering their own 4-week lessons. Before arriving in Hong Kong, teachers work with a prior SBHK teacher as a “virtual mentor” to begin developing a final project for their class. Once they arrive, they participate in a series of training workshops designed to introduce them to basic principles and techniques of teaching, as well as to help them break their final project into 3-5 themed “mini-units.” Each mini-unit focuses on a skill that students will need to complete the final project. Throughout the summer, teachers use a similar backwards approach on a smaller scale to develop individual lesson plans, each of which works towards the focus of the mini-unit as well as the final project for the class.

Every step of the way, the Dean of Faculty, an experienced teacher or graduate student in an educational field, provides feedback that is intended to support teachers in meeting their own and students’ goals in the classroom. Just as students are encouraged to think of English as more than just a school class, teachers are encouraged to think of teaching as more than just a job. This is facilitated by encouraging teachers to try new strategies and techniques and to learn from their mistakes rather than fearing consequences. Celebrating such attempts allows teachers to develop as teachers and to take pride in their teaching.

Despite its seemingly loose structure, this program transforms some 300 low-income Hong Kong high school students from disheartened English language learners into dynamic language users who by the end of the summer communicate with confidence on stage in front of hundreds of people. Over 90% of program graduates consistently pass the HKCEE (Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination), compared to the 65% average of all Hong Kong students. While there is no such quantitative survey of teachers’ progress, in my years of working with this program I have yet to meet a single teacher who has described a negative experience. Regardless of how unrealistic it seems, such a model seems to work, at least for language education.

While there are obvious limitations to duplicating this exactly in the K-12 setting, structuring an environment in which teachers and students alike are encouraged to take ownership of their own classroom and education seems both productive and intuitive. Such a program can be structured enough to prescribe end goals for students and teachers through a semester, while remaining flexible enough for individual teachers to develop strategies optimum for their own classes or contexts. However, doing so requires parents and administrators to treat teachers as professionals and afford them the trust and respect such status deserves. In the same vein, it encourages the implementation of policies that increase teachers’ resources and confidence and encourage them to engage students and facilitate learning to the greatest degree possible.

However, such an approach is impossible to standardize. While every student in the country certainly deserves to benefit from the best teaching methods on hand, standardization assumes that there exists a singular optimal approach to teaching regardless of region, student demographic, income level, familiarity with US culture, etc. Standardization and scripted lessons can result in lost learning opportunities because such segues deviate from the script or in inefficient teaching methods that neglect students’ personal interests or previous knowledge. One of the most memorable and enjoyable lessons I ever taught was on body parts and illnesses to a night class of adults, each of whom had multiple tattoos and piercings.

Encouraging teachers to adapt their teaching to fit their own contexts rather than penalizing them for doing so provides spaces in which they and their students can have agency – and interest – in their own classrooms.

 

Geeta Aneja

ganeja@gse.upenn.edu

 

 

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The Cost of the Data

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Teaching is delicate work.  What’s inside a student’s head is invisible, unique, and constantly evolving, and as teachers, our job is to know what’s in there and craft our instruction to match.  Figuring out exactly what a student is thinking and why is hard, but I suspect most teachers are, like me, inveterate junkies for the process.  It’s like careful detective work, a sort of cognitive investigation, in which we uncover confusion and map out the current state of understanding in order to build on that understanding. 

This detective work is fundamental to the teaching and learning process, and good teachers have been doing it since the dawn of time.  We currently call it lots of things (“data-driven instruction,” “responsive teaching,” “formative assessment,” etc.).  We put it front and center in many conversations about effective teaching, and rightly so: you need to know what kids know in order to help them know more. 

When we recognize the importance of up-to-date, accurate data on student understanding, we are faced with a tricky question: how frequently should we test students?  Let me point out an important factor that I believe is often overlooked in answering this question.

We must admit that the balancing act between instruction and formal assessment is a zero sum game.  Put bluntly, we have ‘em for eight precious hours a day… how do we want to spend those hours?  In my experience, decision-makers outside the classroom (administrators, researchers) often overlook the cost of the data, and in cases where this trade-off is considered, the arithmetic can be faulty.  What do I mean? 

Well, sometimes calculating the cost of test data is as straightforward as it seems: if a particular test takes 45 minutes and class periods are 45 minutes long, then that data costs one period of instruction.  Easy-peasy, right? 

But sometimes simple arithmetic doesn’t work.  What if a test takes 25 minutes and needs to be administered in the computer lab.  Lining up, trekking to the lab, finding seats, booting up computers, logging on, and getting settled… maybe 5 minutes.  And then logging off, lining up again, trekking back to class, and getting re-settled… another 5 minutes.  (This is all if we’re lucky and if we’re talking about older kids.)  Now we have 10 minutes left in the period, and the classroom zeitgeist is likely a bit jumbled.  Several kids probably need to go to the bathroom because of testing nerves or excitement over the disruption in routine.  Someone is crying because they’re worried about the test.  Someone else left their jacket in the computer lab.  Let’s face it: the period is over.  A 25-minute test cost 45 minutes of instruction. 

Or consider the phrase, dreaded by every classroom teacher ever: “oh, I’ll just be pulling kids to do some testing throughout the morning.”  Sure, each individual assessment might only last 15 minutes, but can we say that only 15 minutes of instructional time was lost?  Nope.  The constant movement of individuals in and out compromises the learning community that naturally forms over the arc of a lesson: each kid is missing a different chunk of learning, and (for young students) the distraction and novelty of classmates coming and going can be critically distracting. 

What I’m saying is that assessment data is not free.  We pay for it in instructional minutes, and it behooves us to think long and hard about whether the information we obtain is worth the cost we pay for it.  

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Crowdsourcing Research

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Dear Teaching Diablogue Community,

I’m here today not to offer my opinion on a topic, but to ask for yours.  As Talia Carroll’s most recent blog rightly points out, the pre-service experience is as much about developing a personal philosophy of teaching and education as it is about learning the ropes of your content, instruction, and classroom management. In fact, our assumptions about the students we teach, the communities we work in, and the systems we’re a part of, have profound implications for our day-to-day practice. The implications range from how we treat individual students to how we reproduce (or disrupt) societal  inequities.

With this in mind, I am in the process of designing a research project around the question “To what extent do pre-service teachers’ beliefs about  education change over the course of their training?” Through this study, I hope to learn more about pre-service teacher perspectives while offering participants an opportunity to engage in reflection around the development of their professional identities as teachers.

The crux of the research would involve interviewing a group of teachers at the beginning of their pre-service experience – before they’ve started classes, classroom observations, and research projects. I would then circle back with those folks at the end of their first year (of a two year program) and ask them to essentially have a conversation with their bright-eyed self of 9 months earlier. To what extent do they agree with their statements, how have their views changed, is there anything they would add or retract? I would then probe for the why behind these opinions.

So here’s my question for you: what type of prompts and questions should I ask in that initial interview?  I’d like to find questions that will get at the deeper, perhaps implicit assumptions about the purposes of schooling and motivations for teaching. Some ideas I’ve come up with so far include:

-What do you think is the most important issue in education right now?

– How do you define academic achievement?

-Who are your future students?

-What does it mean to be a “successful” teacher?

-What do you need to learn in order to become a successful teacher?

I would love to draw on the collective wisdom and experience of Diablogue readers and writers for more ideas. If you work with teachers, what do you think changes the most over the course of their preparation, and what questions would anticipate those shifts? If you’re a teacher, what questions would you have answered differently before and after you attended your teacher education program?  Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

My Urban Experience is Better than Yours

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Each year, I am afforded the opportunity to engage with a group of pre-service teachers at The Pennsylvania State University through the Philadelphia Urban Seminar. The seminar boasts attendance of over ten institutions in the United States and several from countries in Europe. In this two-week, immersion course, I work alongside a phenomenal teaching team dedicated to facilitating a holistic experience for the pre-service teachers in what is often the students’ first time in an urban context.  

What is most exciting about the experience is seeing how our decisions as a teaching team influence the pre-service teachers’ perspectives about urban contexts and youth. For example, many of the pre-service teachers begin the course not having any interest in even considering teaching in an urban context upon graduation; however, their two weeks in Philadelphia seem to really challenge some of their preconceived notions about teaching in environments unlike the ones to which they are accustomed.

As someone whose focus is in higher education, and not primarily K-12 contexts, I’ve been challenged over the years to sincerely examine the ways youth in urban contexts are taught, and by whom. Hence, my experiences serving on the teaching team have been valuable! 

The pre-service teachers who we get to engage with are all passionate about teaching. As future educators, I strongly believe in the importance of their exposure to experiences that they may perceive to be qualitatively different than any of their own (in their own educational experiences). What I’ve learned is that sometimes, pre-service teachers use difference as an opportunity for them to become saviors – and even more, to vilify the schools, parents, teachers, and communities for the challenges that the students sometimes face. However true this may be, the team is conscientious about meeting students where they are in their understanding of urban education, as well as challenge them to think beyond any normative prescriptions of what they believe education should look like in this country. 

So, I wonder how can we, as teacher educators, prepare and implement a curriculum that gives pre-service teachers the necessary exposure to educational contexts unlike their own, while at the same time nurturing their curiosity, as well as challenging their leanings to “save” children? I recognize that it’s possible to encounter challenges if pre-service teachers identify themselves as saviors of children in need. Pre-service teachers who want to “save urban children”, may engage in behaviors that detract from the education of their students, and instead maintain the belief that they are the next star of a movie like Dangerous Minds, valuable time is lost addressing larger systemic issues in education. 

Issues linked to resource disparities across school districts, school closures, and access to schools (e.g. proliferation of charter schools), to name a few, are important issues to address. I’m clear, though, that a two-week course may not be the most appropriate place to address such concerns, especially given that the pre-service teachers under our purview are at the beginning of their education. With that said, our pre-service teachers do have the opportunity to hear from former seminar participants who currently work as full-time teachers in the Philadelphia school district. Though the narratives of these full-time teachers are simply glimpses into what it’s like to teach in an urban context, our pre-service teachers have have clung to what they’ve heard.

The teaching team and I are working towards systematically exploring the experiences of the pre-service teachers in our course. We’re finding that specific concentration on the pre-service teachers’ development of their teaching philosophies (e.g. how they intend to approach teaching) are important in helping them more fully understand the differences they’re immersed in for the two weeks. Stay tuned for some exciting findings!

In the meantime, I make these suggestions for all teacher educators out there – identify numerous opportunities for pre-service teachers to actively engage in contexts that are dissimilar to their own, be willing to tackle difficult (sometimes sensitive) topics in the classroom, and create communities of support and resource sharing in your teacher circles. While it’s likely that no one person can make significant change alone, a person can band together with other passionate people who care about the cause.

Be bold. Consider your influence on the future of education in our country. Continue learning. Teach with fervor.

 

Talia K. Carroll

@taliakaymonette

www.linkedin.com/in/taliacarroll

Zombie Satire and the Ministry of Value-Added

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George Orwell and Jonathan Swift appear to have come back from the dead and are now running the editorial board of the LA Times.

May 14’s Editorial announces, with the courage required of any modest proposal, that the LA Times has doubts about using value-added models based on student test scores to evaluate teachers.

The editorial notes, “This isn’t the first study to cast doubt on what has become a linchpin educational policy of the Obama administration but there’s an interesting element that lends its findings extra weight: It was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a well-known supporter of using test scores in teacher evaluations.”

And Orwell et al conclude by pointing to a key problem with these types of evaluations: “The problem is that, under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, states have been rushing to set up rubrics for judging teachers based, to a significant degree, on rigid use of test scores.”

Interesting note about the Gates Foundation’s involvement, to be sure. And you’ll get no argument from me about the problems with the U.S. Department of Education’s pressure to rush test-score based evaluations into practice.

But the most interesting element is left unstated. In Orwellian style, the past four years of LA Times reports and editorials have been dismissed without a whisper of mention or a hint of mea culpa. Readers unfamiliar with recent history might not realize that, after the Department of Education and the Gates Foundation, the LA Times has been the most prominent advocate for using test scores in teacher evaluations.

Not only did the Times commission their own value-added studyof LA’s teachers. Not only did the Times declare “value-added analysis offers the closest thing available to an objective assessment of teachers.” Not only did the Times disdain the judgments of principals and parents, and the results of periodic assessments when “seven years of [standardized] student test scores suggest otherwise.” Not only did the Times’ reporters present themselves as capable classroom evaluators, equipped by their value-added evaluations to find and write about evidence that supported the conclusions that had already been objectively determined by the statistical model. Not only did the Times release teacher’s scores to the public, creating enormous pressure on districts and states to rush to develop their own test-score based evaluations. Not only was the Times’ release of test scores praised by the Secretary of Educationin the Administration’s “first…support for a public airing of information about teacher performance,” thus suggesting that the Times may have even been responsible for pressuring the U.S. Department of Education to hurry up with this “objective”, “no-brainer” idea of  evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores.

But the Times also deliberately misrepresented alternative views on value-added, (in)famously claiming that Derek Briggs’ study “confirms many Los Angeles Times findings on teacher effectiveness” in spite of the fact that the abstract of that study vehemently declared “the research on which the Los Angeles Times relied for its teacher effectiveness reporting was demonstrably inadequate to support the published rankings,” and had “serious weaknesses making the effectiveness ratings invalid and unreliable.”

All of this unstated backstory is really interesting. But it’s never mentioned.

As far as Orwell’s ongoing role on the editorial board, I’m not sure if the LA Times lacks the workforce that would be required to actually rewrite all of its previous advocacy of value-added, or if they are simply counting on our collective laziness and amnesia to help us ignore this humiliating about-face.

But I have to admit. I remain a fan of Orwell’s earlier work, when the lies were more out in the open, in-your-face, and honest:

On the sixth day of Hate Week, after the processions, the speeches, the shouting, the singing, the banners, the posters…when the great orgasm was quivering to its climax and the general hatred of Eurasia had boiled up… — at just this moment it had been announced that Oceania was not after all at war with Eurasia. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally.

There was, of course, no admission that any change had taken place. Merely it became known, with extreme suddenness and everywhere at once, that Eastasia and not Eurasia was the enemy.

Billion Dollar Disaster

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Reporting from the Frontlines of LAUSD’s iPad rollout, here is an update from
Sue Denim: LAUSD 7th Grader

Back in October, everyone was excited to get the iPads. Then the date got changed to January and then changed again to April. Finally, after six months of waiting, we were going to get our iPads!

That day, we spent two hours trying to log in to our iPads. There were many problems with logging in; about half of the students’ I.D.s and passwords wouldn’t work and they couldn’t log in at all.  About an hour into this, the Wi-Fi crashed from too many people being on the internet and no one was able to login.

We also weren’t allowed to take our iPads home because some students at other schools had failed to return them to school the next day. Apparently, the LAUSD school board had not considered that this would happen. We couldn’t bring them home, and then we couldn’t use them during school because we would need to have an extra period at the end of the day to return them. Since that extra period wouldn’t be able to fit into our schedule, we couldn’t use them during school.

It’s May 6. I still haven’t used “my” iPad. The school district clearly didn’t think this idea through well enough: there are many things that went wrong and caused this to be a disaster.

Editor’s Note: The above entry, including the title, was written by an LAUSD 7th grade student. Sue Denim is not her real name.

What We Measure

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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.