Friday, November 21, 2014

The Real Hero Teachers

While the corporate education reform movement is waiting for Superman and beating the bushes for non-educators who will “teach like a champion”, every day in thousands of classrooms across the country the real heroes of public education are working to provide the best possible education they can to children with widely varying backgrounds and preparedness for learning, often in over-crowded and under-resourced classrooms and under the cloud of a slanderous public relations campaign that seeks to make them out as the villains in a reform fantasy.

Of course, the real heroes I am talking about are the classroom teachers, building principals, and curriculum supervisors who have studied education, who are certified to teach and who are not looking for a quick exit to a more lucrative career, but are in the game for the long haul because it is their life’s work.

I am thinking about these real heroes today for two reasons. First, I read a research report in the Teacher College Record that at first I thought I was going to like, but in the end made me angry. The study, by Stuart S. Yeh, looked at charter school programs like Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Harlem’s Children’s Zone (HCZ) under the premise that  they “may potentially be very effective in closing the academic achievement gap.”

Yeh concluded that these programs were simply unsustainable when “scaled up and implemented nationwide.” The reason? This is where I started seeing red, so get ready. “The vast army of unemployed, highly dedicated teachers that is required to implement KIPP and HCZ on a nationwide basis simply does not exist.”

Not a flawed educational design. Not ignoring the harsh realities of poverty. Not hiring unqualified temporary teachers. Not skimming the student population to eliminate students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Apparently the numbers of available teachers who have the “right KIPP stuff” doesn’t exist. Especially considering that three year attrition rates in KIPP and HCZ schools approach 50%.

So, not enough hero teachers. That’s the problem. What constitutes a hero teacher for KIPP and HCZ? According to Yeh, a “highly dedicated teacher in these programs” works long hours, teaches Saturday make-up classes, gives students a cell phone number where they are available 24 hours a day, visits student homes regularly, fosters students’ college aspirations and dedicates a large portion of instructional time on test preparation. I wonder why attrition is so high.

For me a real hero teacher in a KIPP school would be a teacher who refused to drink the KIPP Kool-Aid, refused to abuse children with hours of skill and drill test prep, refused to implement the draconian KIPP discipline policies, resigned his position, walked out of the building and then started a blog to expose charter school abuses. I am thinking maybe GaryRubinstein.

The second reason I am thinking about hero teachers is because I had a chance to spend some time with some true hero teachers this week. In my capacity as a literacy consultant, I often get a chance to observe teachers at work. I never cease to be amazed at these dedicated, hard-working professionals who are always striving to improve their practice.

I am thinking of Ms. C, who works with a population of English Language Learners. She knew that her guided reading instruction was helping these third graders, but she fretted that they would not perform well on the new PARCC tests. The concern was clear in her eyes and her voice as we discussed the challenges that ELLs have in comprehension as they continue to work on their fluency in English. I tried to reassure her that her work was making a difference no matter what the PARCC tests might report.

And then there was Ms. F, working in a lively classroom of 28 kindergarteners. The joy of learning was readily evident from the enthusiasm the children showed for every task and also from the noise level that Ms. F struggled mightily to contain. It was a happy room and there was great literacy instruction happening. I saw one group of students taking some early tentative moves to apply sight words they had learned to real reading situations.

After school and after her challenging 6 hours with her troop of 5 year-olds, I happened across Miss F. as she held a hushed and concerned conversation with the school nurse about a child who was often sent to school unbathed and unkempt and arrived in class on this bone chilling November day with no coat.

And then there was Mr. M, one of those rare male kindergarten teachers I have a special affection for. I observed as he directed his little ones to a variety of literacy centers and then sat down for an outstanding literacy lesson with a group of children who were about to take off in reading. Every comment Mr. M made was supportive and on target to help the children develop both the skills needed to read and a sense of the joy of reading. As the lesson ended Mr. M said to the children, “You guys are so smart. I want you all to kiss your brain.” With that the children all kissed their hand and tapped themselves on the forehead.

These folks are the real hero teachers. The real hero teachers show up, day after day, year after year after year. The real hero teachers are certified to teach. The real hero teachers studied education in college and they apply that knowledge to the real, often difficult learning situations they encounter. The real hero teachers seek graduate degrees in education that will help them refine their teaching and they are open to the kind of professional development that can help them hone their craft.

Ms. C, Ms. F, and Mr. M are heroes, but they are not exceptions to the rule. They are typical of the teachers I have known and worked with over the past 45 years. Good, honest, hard-working, intelligent professionals doing the best they can. And the best they can is very good indeed.

The notion that there are not enough heroic teachers to replicate the KIPP or HCZ models is stupid. There are not enough of those teachers because the model is fundamentally flawed and it seeks to draw people from outside the profession, who may have a temporary commitment, but no desire to stay the course. These are not dedicated teachers, they are temps. You cannot build a lasting educational program with temp workers. You just need all the Ms.Cs, Ms. Fs, and Mr. Ms you can find. You’ll find them in public schools.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's in a Word? Vocabulary Instruction that Works

Words matter. We know that in reading there is a very strong connection between word knowledge and comprehension. Armed with this knowledge teachers have always focused attention on vocabulary in the classroom. Most of us can remember a weekly school routine of being assigned a list of words to look up, write a definition for and use in a sentence. This exercise generally ended with a quiz at the end of the week. The exercise was surely followed by forgetting the words by the end of the next week.

Because words matter, we need a better way to teach words than that old, failed routine. What we need to do is teach words from a conceptual base. The act of learning is the act of connecting the known with the new. In word learning, we need to take advantage of what children know (concepts) to help them add the new (words).

A concept can be defined as an idea of something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars. Words are what we use to describe those characteristics and particulars. So if the concept is journalism, we could generate the words reporter, news article, editorial, feature article, investigative report, magazine, columnist, objectivity, etc. Of course, each of these words is a concept unto itself. The point is that the words are related and it is that relationship that helps us learn words and gain a more sophisticated understanding of the concept.

Perhaps you have had the experience of watching a toddler beginning to develop language, like the child I witnessed pointing to a cat running through the room and saying "See, dog." What this young child is demonstrating for us is a developing concept of pet. At that moment the child looks at all four-legged furry things as dogs, but in a few months the child will have developed a more sophisticated concept of pet, which will now include four-legged, furry things with whiskers that say meow. The word cat will be added to the child's vocabulary and concept of pet.

As teachers, we can take advantage of a child's developing concepts to teach new vocabulary in a way that children can learn and remember. The key insight is that words are conceptually related to each other and we can help students connect new words to known concepts. Here is an instructional strategy that can help you put this knowledge into action.

In the Box, Out of the Box

Suppose we wanted to teach the word proprietor in preparation for some reading the students are about to do. Without telling the students the target word, I would ask the students,  "What would you call the person who is in charge of the 7-11 convenience store in town?" Words students say that seem to fit the description of "who is in charge" are placed "in the box." Words students say that don't fit the concept are also written, this time "outside the box."


At this point I write the target word  proprietor in the box with the synonyms generated by the students and say, "A proprietor is like a manager, like an owner, like a boss. When you read the word proprietor, think of the person who owns the business and oversees the work that happens there." I would then say, "Thanks, also to those who gave us the words outside the box, because to know what a word is, we also need to know what a word is not."

A simple lesson like this acknowledges what we know about learning and what we know about how human beings organize knowledge in their heads. Through this process, we add a new word to a concept that the children already have about store ownership and thereby raise the likelihood the word will be understood and remembered.

Of course, any single encounter with a new word is not sufficient. In order to truly integrate the word proprietor into their vocabulary, students will need to encounter the word many times in their reading and their discussions over the next several days and weeks. One key to helping students build vocabulary,  however, is teaching through a conceptual lens.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How to Get a Great Teacher in Every Classroom

In case you missed it, the federal government wants states to focus on equity in assigning teachers. To the apparent amazement of the federal Department of Education, schools in areas with high rates of poverty have trouble attracting and retaining highly qualified, high performing teachers. The feds want the states to come up with a plan to ensure that teachers are distributed equitably. Apparently, the belief is that it is a lack of a plan that causes this phenomenon.

Of course this being a directive coming out of the Arne Duncan led DOE, the states are being urged to use teacher evaluation data (read Arne's beloved VAMs) to determine whether those teachers who receive lower ratings are disproportionately assigned to schools with high proportions of racial minorities and students in poverty.

In the most absurd of all the absurd aspects of this discussion of equitable distribution of teachers, we have the city of Minneapolis, where the Superintendent of Schools, Bernadeia Johnson, was dismayed to find out that under the Minnesota teacher evaluation system that includes VAMs, Minneapolis schools  "with the largest number of low-income students have the highest concentration of poor-performing instructors." She says she has a plan to address this inequity by providing incentives and mentoring and by firing teachers. Fellow blogger, Peter Greene, does a great job of skewering Johnson's vapid assessment of the data here.

I would like to save everyone a great deal of time and effort. Let's just concede that if we use student standardized test scores as any significant measure of teacher effectiveness, the teachers who teach in the poorest schools will always be adjudged to be low performing, not because of the effectiveness of their teaching, but because of it has long, long been understood that standardized test scores are a reliable measure of relative student wealth. High percentage of poverty in the school =low test scores. High degree of affluence in the school = high test scores.

A high quality teacher in every classroom is, of course, a worthy goal, but ham-fisted approaches such as those encouraged by Duncan and those apparently being put into effect in Minneapolis will do nothing to move us toward the goal.

My last job in public education before my retirement was as the Human Resources Director for a affluent, suburban school district. I usually had hundreds of applicants for any job opening, and many of these candidates would have been welcome additions to any staff. This afforded me the opportunity to hire the best people I could find. It also meant that most teachers I hired stayed for many years, allowing them to become high functioning effective teachers and allowing for stability in program that fosters student achievement.

Why did I have so many well-qualified candidates? The school district was a desirable place to work. We paid no more than other districts in the state. What we had were the types of working conditions that teachers desire.

From this perspective, here is a plan for ensuring equity in the distribution of teachers.

1. Ensure that every school is clean and safe and has adequate resources. 

Like all human beings, teachers want a clean, safe place to work. They want a building that is in good repair, a well-managed building where safety concerns are minimal and the books, materials and technology that are required to do the job well.

In our cash strapped cities where school buildings have been allowed to fall into deplorable disrepair, where chaos is often the rule in the hallway and where teachers are often required to buy paper, pencils and books for the instruction of the children, we are systematically ensuring inequitable distribution of high-quality teachers.

2. Create a collaborative culture in the building.

Teachers want to work in a place where the administration works with the staff to create a spirit of productive collaboration. Collaborative environments have been shown to be effective in helping all teachers meet the needs of their students. See Greg Anrig's book, Beyond the Education Wars.

This collaboration needs to extend to teacher evaluation systems. Teachers are not attracted to schools where the evaluation system is done to them. The chief aim of a sound evaluation system is to provide meaningful feedback to the teacher.

Any system that uses Value Added Measures (VAMs) for teacher evaluation is sure to keep top teaching candidates away from high-poverty schools. Teachers understand that these measures are skewed against poor children and the teachers who teach them. As I have elaborated on here, a good evaluation system starts with valuing teachers.

3. Provide professional development that is designed by the teachers and for the teachers.

Teachers want to work in schools that help them refine their craft. A school that will attract high quality teachers is a school that not only provides professional development, but includes the teachers in the design and development of that professional development, so that precious time resources are used to meet teachers and children's needs.

4.  Do not use Teach for America recruits in the place of professionals.

One way to ensure inequity is to employ Teach for America (TFA) neophytes in the schools with high levels of poverty. A school building needs a professional workforce of well-trained and certified professionals and it needs a stable staff. TFA provides neither.

A good way to employ these recruits would be as teacher aides, assisting certified teachers in classrooms with high concentrations of impoverished students. That way the TFAs could provide valuable assistance under a professional's guidance and also explore whether teaching is a career they wish to pursue. Then they could go back to school and be properly credentialed.

5. Refuse to include merit pay as part of your plan.

Merit pay does not work in education. First of all, teachers are not motivated by money. Teaching is a calling and teachers are attracted to it because of their desire to work with children. Good working conditions, such as those described above, are much more important than financial incentives (beyond a decent and livable wage).

Secondly , merit pay is anathema to a spirit of collaboration so necessary for a high functioning school that can attract and retain staff. By definition, merit pay sets up a competition for scarce dollars. Finally, merit pay seeds resentments, especially when the measures used to reward winners are suspect and often grossly inaccurate.

To recap: If the federal government and states are serious about wanting equitable distribution of teachers they should focus on the working conditions that will attract top teachers to all schools and they should do away with the foolishness of VAMs, merit pay schemes and neophyte TFA replacement teachers.

Of course, if the federal government is really serious about overcoming the inequity of teacher distribution, they would first have to get serious about the broader economic inequities that pervade this country and are this country's greatest shame. Only by creating a more equitable society will we ever truly erase the many other inequities that stem from that singular reality.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Of Deficits and Differences: Building from All Students' Strengths

Whenever I do a workshop on reading with a group of teachers, I first ask them to think about, list and discuss their students’ strengths as readers. I do this because I believe that students learn based on their strengths, so an initial focus on strengths can go a long way to understanding what we might need to do to help them with any learning challenges they might have as readers. So, if teachers say that students are excited about reading, but struggle in comprehending what they read, I can begin to make suggestions on how we can use that excitement to propel instruction in thinking about text. If students comprehend well when listening to text, but struggle with decoding, we can talk about how to use good listening skills to help with decoding strategies.

I bring this up now because I am afraid I may have forgotten that basic principle in my last post on vocabulary development. In that post I cited the work of Hart and Risley, the widely disseminated research that purports to find a thirty million word gap between the words that affluent children are exposed to as opposed to those that children from low socio-economic status are exposed to. Fellow blogger, Paul Thomas, pointed out to me that there are many flaws in the Hart and Risley study, not the least of which is that they take a “deficit” approach to the language of children living in poverty. One thing that reading Paul Thomas always does for me is make me feel smarter. So after doing some reading from Paul's work and other studies he directed me to, I want to amend and extend my thinking on the issue. You can read some of Paul’s thoughts on the issue here and here.

The most important amendment to my thinking is the understanding that the varieties of  language that all children, rich and poor, bring to school are language differences not language deficits. I know this instinctively and, I hope, in practice, but by framing my last post around Hart and Risley, I am giving their work a power it does not deserve. Paul directed me to a critique of Hart and Risley by Dudley-Maring and Lucas, entitled Patholigizing the Language and Culture ofPoor Children. As the title suggests, the authors argue that by taking a language deficit approach, Hart and Risley perpetuate the stereotype that the children from poor households are somehow sick, lacking a basic requirement for learning. 

You can see the problem, I hope. If the children are sick, we think we must treat them. And how do we treat them? By attacking the disease of language deficits. By extension, we communicate to these children that the language and linguistic talents they bring to school are not useful. In the process we rob them of the greatest ally they have in coming to be literate – their own language and their own ways of navigating the world linguistically. 

Some important insight into what I am getting at here comes from Larry Sipe, late of the University of Pennsylvania, and a person who closely studied children’s responses to read-alouds. Sipe observed children in inner city Philadelphia interacting with a story being read aloud in interesting ways. Culture seemed to be one influence on how children interacted with the text. For example, Carribean and African American children would talk back to the text, spontaneously rise up and act out a part of the text, insert their own ideas in the text or take over the text entirely and tell an alternate story. 

Obviously, children who respond in this way are very engaged with the text, but what if this type of engagement is not valued by the teacher? What if the expectation is that children will sit and listen to the text until invited by the teacher to speak? It is clear that a mere difference could be turned into a lasting deficit through teacher disapproval. Children who do sit and listen and raise their hands will be advantaged over those who do not. Ultimately, a great learning tool that a child brings to school is extinguished because that tool is not valued in the school setting.

But what if the classroom teacher were open to these culturally appropriate responses to story? Sipe suggests that a more culturally sensitive classroom might accept the free expression of these types of responses and use them to promote a richer literary experience and deeper literary understanding. By extension, I would suggest that a richer literary understanding would lead to a richer word level understanding, hence allowing children to use their strengths in interacting and engaging in a story to build greater word level understanding as well.

Dudley-Maring and Lucas say that “teachers need to recognize the linguistic, social, and cognitive resources all children bring with them to school.” When a teacher values all students’ linguistic and cultural experiences, all children can draw from their strengths and apply them to becoming literate. We need to value every child's language and cultural norms as allies in coming to deeper understanding. When we do this, we celebrate difference, instead of seeing deficits and all children benefit. Ultimately, children’s everyday language and way of understanding the world can become the background knowledge for the learning of more formal school language.