Thursday, November 27, 2014

What are We Doing to Our Kids?

For several years now, we've been waiting for  SBAC and PARCC to complete their assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. We heard that SBAC would be good for Hawaii, that we would see how our students compared to schools in other districts or states across the nation.  We would be comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges. Because of our school's highly transient population with students who have attended different schools before enrolling at ours, I looked forward to having something other than NAEP to share with parents when they expressed concern that their child would be behind when they returned to the mainland.

Last year, our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers volunteered to pilot the SBAC. At that time, they shared that the assessment was difficult, that students did not have sufficient time to complete the performance task, and that it was challenging to navigate the assessment on the computer.  They were honest and provided feedback about their concerns. We hoped there would be changes because we knew that this year, student assessments would be graded and scores shared publicly.

Yesterday, our school assessment team had an opportunity to review the SBAC requirements as well as the practice tests and performance tasks. As I realized the amount of time that will be expended to prepare for the assessment, I became increasingly concerned. It isn't just preparing to take the SBAC that concerns me. It's the amount of testing time needed to ensure that our students can be successful; it's the labor required to ensure the fidelity of the devices so technology doesn't impede our students while they're taking the assessment; it's preparing each student's individual account to check off the appropriate accommodations for each student; it's the test items themselves and whether it is realistic to expect students as young as third grade to have the computer skills to successfully complete the assessment tasks.

Click on the SBAC practice test link and choose a grade and the performance task for math or English Language Arts.  I did, and it immediately raised concerns for me. I consider myself pretty competent in navigating between on-line documents, but expecting that of 8-year-olds is unrealistic. (In fact, I personally still prefer to have paper copies of the readings so I can compare them side-by-side.) Students can highlight or take notes on what they read, but they won't know what to take notes on if they don't know what the task is that they will be asked to complete. (That's a strategy we teach our students - read the question or know what is expected at the end so there is a purpose for reading.) When students finish one section, they cannot go back to it, even if they want to clarify their answer. (How many times do we, as adults, save our document so we can go back to revise it?) Asking students to sit for long periods of time is unrealistic, yet that is what is expected.  (As an adult taking the practice test, I had difficulty getting through the instructions, the articles, and the constructed responses.)

Our classroom teachers encourage higher level thinking skills, collaboration, and creativity; we allow multiple ways for students to share what they have learned including the use of technology or Web 2.0 tools.  SBAC expects only one way for students to show what they've learned - through writing - and this could be a challenge, especially for those who struggle with reading or writing.  My concern is that any high-stakes assessment will not favor the out-of-the-box thinker or the person who may learn in a different way.

The truth is that millions of dollars have already gone into the creation of these assessments and millions more will be paid by states or districts as implementation begins this school year. While I understand that communities deserve to know how their school measures up against others, I fear that a focus on high test scores could come at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum where the individuality of each student is nurtured and appreciated. Is this what we want for our kids?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanksgiving Appreciations

I thought I'd share an old post, one that I wrote when I first started blogging.  I re-read it, and it is as relevant today as it was two years ago and shares my appreciations for our Hale Kula family.

Giving Thanks  - first posted on November 17, 2012

As we approach a three-day school week to celebrate Thanksgiving, this is a perfect opportunity to reflect on my principalship at Hale Kula and all that I am thankful for.  What makes a school special and unique is its people, and Hale Kula is no exception.

All of my schooling has been here in Hawaii, and I can't imagine being uprooted in the middle of the year and having to go to a new school, make new friends, learn new rules, procedures, and curriculum, and adjust to these new surroundings. Yet our Hale Kula students are asked to do this not once but multiple times in their school careers.  More often than not, this is occurring while a parent is attending training or is deployed.  Our students make the best of their situation even while they are missing a parent who may be off-island for training exercises or who may be deployed and in harm's way.  I marvel at their resilience, and my hope is that they will take what they've learned at Hale Kula about aloha, lokahi, kokua, `ohana, kuleana, and malama and share it with others when they leave Hawaii.

I am grateful to the Hale Kula parents who support our school and trust us with their children.  Military  parents' lives are so different from what I experienced as a young mom when I had family and friends to support me.  Being uprooted from their system of support is a challenge, and their confidence in our school to take care of their children is a responsibility we take seriously.  To the soldier parents who have committed to serving and protecting our nation, I send my heartfelt thanks.  And to the spouse who is left behind to take care of the home and the family while the soldier is deployed, you deserve kudos for all you do.  It takes a strong person to accept and adapt to military life and often, you turn every new change of duty station as an adventure and a learning opportunity for your family.  Mahalo for all you do.

I am so honored to be at a school with such a great staff.  I love going to work every day because I work with people who care about our school as much as I do.  Others may not realize the challenges of working with a highly transient military population, but your commitment and pride in your work is what makes our school so special.  I hope you realize the positive impact you have, long after the students and families have left Hale Kula and Hawaii.  I am truly proud to be part of our Hale Kula `ohana.

May all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

Friday, November 21, 2014

"My Profession No Longer Exists"

I was engaged in a rich discussion with a teacher this afternoon to discuss an observation I conducted with her as part of our teacher evaluation system.  Although the process can be time-consuming, the end-result is an honest conversation about the classroom, the students, the successes, and the challenges as well as the growth of the teacher. I honestly can say that I enjoy these reflective conferences and the opportunity to get to know the teacher better.

Then I went to check on my email. My husband had sent me a link to an article, and I was curious; he rarely sends me links, especially those about education. It was an article that was printed in the Daily Kos titled,"Teacher's resignation letter: 'My profession . . .  no longer exists' first published in April 2013. As I read the letter in its entirety, I was saddened. Here was someone who clearly was proud to be a teacher. He devoted 40 years to the profession, and now he was quitting because he lost faith in the system and the leadership at his school and in his district.

I have read many letters or blogs from disgruntled educators who feel we have lost our way. There are so many things to complain about - the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing, ranking of schools based on test scores, the comparison of schools by the public based on those rankings, test scores weighing heavily on teacher and principal evaluations, and the top-down mandates that keep schools and teachers from being empowered to address the needs of their students. I've been a critic, too, and I have been vocal about these concerns with my colleagues or in my blogs.

But even after 40+ years as an educator, I still love what I do. With all the changes taking place and the expectations of the public regarding teaching and learning, we need leaders who will support our teachers so they can do what they have been trained to do -- teach our students so they can gain the skills to reach their maximum potential. This means empowering our teachers to be innovative and to try new ideas in their classroom. It means having a venue for sharing ideas and problem-solving together. It means providing support and learning experiences so teachers can continue to improve.  It means building the capacity of our staff so everyone is valued for what they can offer to the group. When we work together towards our common goals, everyone benefits, especially our students!

Being an educator is challenging, but I cannot imagine a more rewarding profession to be in!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Thoughts about Math Fluency and Homework

Last night, our Response to Intervention coaches planned a Family Math Night to kick off Fact Busters Month at Hale Kula.  Teachers have expressed concern that students in the upper elementary grades are still counting on fingers and don't have their facts memorized. But is math fluency about memorizing facts or is it about understanding math concepts and using strategies to get to the answers quickly? A blog by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President Linda M. Gojak titled "Fluency: Simply Fast and Accurate? I Think Not!" states that students need to build  understanding and flexible thinking if they are to become fluent in mathematics.

I enjoyed observing students during the different activities at Family Math Night. There were games for them to practice math fluency, primarily addition facts for students up to second grade and multiplication facts for the older students. Parents encouraged their children to figure out the answers on their own, and some students were quick with their responses. Others struggled, however, and it is those students who need to build understanding and flexible thinking so they can be more fluent in mathematics.

We understand the relationship between fluency in reading and comprehension.  We know that if a student has difficulty with decoding and struggles with sight words, reading fluency is negatively affected.  The meaning of the sentence or paragraph is often lost when so much effort is spent on figuring out the words.

Likewise, students who have poor fluency in math facts will most likely struggle with problem-solving or other math application skills. The Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice  require students to be able to communicate their understanding and to use effective strategies to solve problems. Math is not just rows of problems with no relevance to real-life. Math should be understood and discussed, much like we discuss literature.

Our RTI coaches, working with students who struggle with math, planned a series of fun "Fact Busters" activities to encourage practicing and becoming more proficient with math facts and strategies. Students are encouraged to practice at home; they are monitoring their own progress. All students took a pre-assessment based on expected grade level targets and at the end of one month, they will take a post-assessment. Our hope is that 100% of our students will show significant gains.

Recently, there has been much discussion - even amongst our Hale Kula teachers - about homework. Some schools have even banned homework. We had a discussion about homework at our school a few years ago, and we never came to an agreement, so no policy was implemented. Personally, I believe that homework should not be stressful for the family. I cringe when I hear that students are taking two hours or more to complete their homework and that parents may not know how to help their child with more rigorous expectations of the Common Core. Homework should be a review of lessons, and if the student cannot complete the assignment independently or explain the instructions to parents, that is an indication that the homework is not appropriate.

Homework should not be drudgery, and it should be a review for students to build their skills. What kinds of "homework" can parents do to help their child with math fluency? Here are a few suggestions: In the car or just before bedtime, play math facts games. Mix up addition and subtraction for younger students and multiplication and division problems for older students. Find apps where children can practice math facts while playing a game such as shooting at UFOs or accumulating points towards a goal. Play games with cards or dice that help students with math facts. Have your child make their own flash cards of math facts they know. Have them review and add more to their pile as they master their facts so they can feel a sense of accomplishment. Ask children how many ways they can get to a specific number. For example, if the number is 5, possible ways would be 4+1 or 10-5 or  10-3-2 or 1/2 of 10. The possibilities are endless! When riding in the car, parents can give their child word problems and have them explain how they got their answer. Or turn it around and have the child think of a word problem using specific numbers and share their answer and how they solved it. There are so many opportunities and possibilities because math is all around us!

I am interested in seeing the results of our "Fact Busters" program and whether continued practice with math fluency will result in higher proficiency scores on our mid-year screening scores for math. One month is not much time to show improvement, but regardless of the results, we will continue to encourage our teachers, students, and parents to schedule time to practice math facts in ways that are fun for everyone.
Students and parents practiced math facts using iPad apps at Family Math Night.
Students played a "Math Facts Memory" game against a parent.   
@NCTM #halekula