Sunday, February 15, 2015

Everyone's a Critic, but What's the Real Problem?

"My two kids" is on the front page of today's Honolulu Star-Advertiser "Insight" section.  Paul McKimmy, a faculty member at the University of Hawaii College of Education, shares his experiences as a  parent with two children in the same grade level at the same public school.  One is thriving; the other is struggling. I hope that all educational leaders and policy makers read his personal story and professional insight and discuss and rethink some of their decisions that negatively impact our educational system.

Those of us in education see first-hand the correlation between socioeconomic status and student achievement.  Societal factors have a huge impact on some of our most needy students, and expecting them to be able to focus on school when their basic needs are not met is unrealistic. We know that given time and a caring staff, schools can have a positive impact on disadvantaged students. We know that teachers can be the impetus for students to be the first in their family to break out of the cycle of poverty and attend college.  We know that school can be the one constant in a child's life, the one safe place where family problems can be forgotten for a few hours. We know that every student is different and when they begin school, they do not start at the same starting line; in fact, some students are far behind other students when they first enter kindergarten. Yet we expect them to be at the same place at the end of the year,  Think of it as a running race; can we reasonably expect someone to start half-a-lap behind and finish at the same time as others who started with a big lead? Yet that seems to be what the public expects of schools.

I began my teaching career in a program for low-income preschoolers, Head Start,, and I firmly believe that providing resources to change the lives of families in poverty can pay big dividends. Head Start is not just a preschool; it provides access to health and social services to families to enhance their lives and give them hope for the future. Head Start encourages family involvement and volunteering in the classroom to help parents learn effective ways to help their children at home. Many students transition successfully from preschool programs for the disadvantaged to kindergarten. Studies also indicate that there are positive long-term benefits for children who attended Head Start.

Yet, we are unwilling to commit funds to early interventions such as universal preschool or social service programs that teach parents how to parent.  Just as we all need support when we attempt to try something new, parenting is something that does not come naturally for many new parents.  Those who had no positive parenting models may not know how to nurture their children so they will be ready for school. When students start kindergarten unprepared for the expectations of school, they may demonstrate behaviors that will impact that child's academic progress.  Blaming the school or the teacher is easy but also very unfair. In most cases, teachers and schools do their best to address the needs of the students, but they struggle to close the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots.

As Mr. McKimmy concludes in his op-ed piece, "We don't have a problem with a broken system or poorly performing teachers.  We have a poverty vs. privilege problem; but we choose to attack public schools and the teaching profession as an easy target rather than addressing the real issues head-on."  It's time for us to stop blaming schools and teachers and start providing the opportunity so ALL students can be successful in their educational experience.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Does a Higher Salary Mean Better Teachers?

Recently, a friend posted an article on Facebook: "Here's What Happens when a School Pays Its Teachers a Lot, Lot More Money."  I read the article with interest. Did a rigorous interview process and high expectations along with high pay - $125,000 per year plus incentives - result in improved student performance in a high-needs school despite larger class sizes and less administrative support?

According to the results of the study, funded by the Melissa and Bill Gates Foundation, "After four years at the charter school, eighth-graders showed average test score gains in math equal to an additional year and a half of school, compared with district students.  The study found these charter students' gains equaled more than an extra half-year in science and almost an extra half-year in English."  

The conclusion of the author? With higher pay, "teachers perform better and students learn more."

To say that higher pay led to greater student achievement gains is too simplistic and doesn't take into account other contributing factors: student motivation, parent involvement, how students were taught, how many hours of extra instruction were provided, and whether students had opportunities to participate in electives or extracurricular activities. Did teachers collaborate on lessons and share data so all students showed gains, or was each teacher judged individually?

The fact that there was a 47% turnover of teachers after one year concerns me.  Just because a teacher is experienced and has had success in the past does not mean that he or she can go into any other school and have the same results.  The first year at any school is a learning experience, and being judged mainly on student test scores does a disservice not just to the teacher, but to the students and the school itself. What message are we sending when nearly half of the staff is replaced after a year? How can we build a collaborative and inclusive culture at the school when there is such a high turnover of teachers?

In his blog, "Questioning the Data," George Couros states, " . . . what is the measure of success? You may see an increase in test scores but kids might hate coming to school every day, because it is easy to teach to a test, while also killing a love of learning in our students. You can also see that you can improve a score in anything if you put a massive focus on it."  

We all know that teaching is an art; content knowledge is not enough.. Effective teaching and learning is about building relationships with students and colleagues and having the pedagogy and skills to manage a classroom of students and engage them so they are invested in their own learning. Effective teachers are constantly learning and adjusting their lessons to meet the needs and interests of their students. As a school principal, I could not agree to a system where teachers are evaluated and retained solely on how well their students performed on a statewide assessment. Students are more than a test score, and our job as educators is to help all students discover a passion for learning so they can achieve success. A huge salary does not guarantee that.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Predicting the Super Bowl Winner

Yesterday was the BIG GAME for many folks who see the Super Bowl as a reason to get together with friends to cheer on their favorite team.  For my hubbie and me, it meant we practically had the whole golf course to ourselves since everyone else was watching the big game.  Don't get me wrong, I am a sports fan, but our teams (the 49ers and the Dolphins) weren't in it, so I was content to check the score on my iPhone every so often until we got home in time for the halftime show with Katy Perry. (I enjoyed it but not as much as last year's with Hawaii's own Bruno Mars.)

Football is just a game, but it's also a great way to teach students lessons.  Our physical education teacher, Mr. B, invited students and staff at our school to enter a Super Bowl contest. He received lots of entries! I asked him about it on Friday, and he shared that in past years, he got some pretty wild responses from students such as scores that were more reflective of a baseball or basketball game than a football game, a personal reason for picking a team based on heart rather than head ("I like their colors" or "I like their name better"), and evidence that the student didn't really know what the Super Bowl was.

We teach our students to predict from the time they are in kindergarten.  Predict what will happen next in the story and explain your reason; predict what the weather might be like tomorrow; predict what will happen when we do a science experiment with the class, predict the results of the Presidential election, etc.  Somehow, though, students weren't making the connection to a real life event like the Super Bowl.

This year, Mr. B made it a point to discuss the contest with the students. He asked them what a prediction is - an educated guess based on data.  He also had a few tiebreaker questions that required students to do a little researching to find the answer.  Mr. B shared that the responses this year indicated that students actually checked football scores and thought carefully before submitting their entry.  Many of the responses were very specific when answering the tiebreaker questions: the game was being played at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona; Tom Brady played football at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, etc.  Those questions about which colleges Tom Brady and Russell Wilson attended? It's never too early to emphasize a college-going mindset with our students!  The final question asked what does Super Bowl XLIX stand for?  Is this similar to coding? Were the Romans the original coders?  I realize it's not part of the Common Core State Standards, but sharing the Roman Numeral system would be a great lesson that could engage students in thinking logically.

Mr. B will be announcing the winners of the contest today - one for students and one for staff.  I chose the New England Patriots, but the score I wrote down was 20-17.  Someone else will probably be closer to the final score, 28-24.  And if teachers wanted to, they could extend the lesson and ask students if there are other ways to get a score of 28-24 and see what students come up with (there are numerous ways).

I love sports, not just for the competition, but for the many opportunities we can incorporate learning in all content areas!