Archives for the month of: July, 2014

I believe we may be getting somewhere on the quest to specify exactly what it is that a good teacher does.  This article by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post discusses Alfie Kohn’s findings about passion:


Actually, practice doesn’t always make perfect.


In what will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, it turns out that putting in time doing math problems or practicing scales, when done mindlessly and merely to satisfy some kind of requirement to spend time on a task (or to fulfill your requisite 10,000 hours), gets you nowhere.  What makes the difference is the passion you bring to your hours.  If you care about math, or music, or whatever you’re working on, if you take an interest, if you approach it with curiosity and engagement, then your hours will advance your achievement.


“The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice,” wrote Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald in Psychological Science. In fact, they calculated that, overall, the amount of deliberate practice in which someone engages explains only 12 percent of the variance in the quality of performance. Which means 88 percent is explained by other factors.  .   .


The question posed by Macnamara and her colleagues was appropriately open-ended: “We have empirical evidence that deliberate practice, while important, …does not largely account for individual differences in performance. The question now is what else matters.” And there are many possible answers. One is how early in life you were introduced to the activity — which, as the researchers explain, appears to have effects that go beyond how many years of practice you booked. Others include how open you are to collaborating and learning from others, and how much you enjoy the activity.


That last one — intrinsic motivation — has a huge empirical base of support in workplaces, schools, and elsewhere. We’ve long known that the pleasure one takes from an activity is a powerful predictor of success. For example, one group of researchers tried to sort out the factors that helped third and fourth graders remember what they had been reading. They found that how interested the students were in the passage was thirty times more important than how “readable” the passage was.


There is much more in this article that sheds light on the misunderstandings of homework and “grit” generally, but the implications for teachers, and for understanding what teachers do, are clear:  at our best, we inspire kids to take an interest.  We show them why they should care.  When a kid asks, “When are we ever going to uuuuuuuuse this?”– that is our cue for song.  Why read books?  Why learn?  Why take an interest?  In order to live more.


A teacher who can make this clear to kids creates a climate of intellectual inquiry.  Kids transmogrify from mules to hungry learners.  It is a kind of magic, breathtaking to see.


Imparting knowledge is the least of it.  A good book can do that.  But to inspire interest:  that is where the magic lies.


I'm going to be reading your books, Mr. Kohn.

I’m going to be reading your books, Mr. Kohn.

Test scores are like blood pressure measurements.

A measure of one aspect of your health.

A measure of one aspect of your health.

The numbers are right there, all unquestionable and, well, numerical.  Up, down, plottable on a graph.  .  .  how cool is that?  It takes all the guesswork out of the equation.  Except, hang on, it turns out that if you measure again ten minutes later, it might have changed.  It changes all the time!  And although we hope to see it stay nice and low for your lifetime, and lots of things you can do to improve your health will affect your BP, it isn’t in and of itself a definitive measure of your state of health– just one aspect.


So it is with test scores.  Yes, they measure something (although we aren’t at all sure what that is.  Often it appears to be socioeconomic level, which we have other, more direct ways to measure).


But efforts aimed exclusively at lowering your blood pressure are typically short-sighted and unnecessary (except in cases of blood pressure crisis, which is where my analogy breaks down.  There’s no such thing as test score crisis.  Kids don’t drop dead of low test scores).  Better to improve your overall health and let your  BP follow.  Get more exercise.  Eat more fruits and vegetables.  Get a good night’s sleep.  Handle stress effectively.  Spend time with those who love you and do loving things for them.  Be outside in nature, breathing fresh air and feeling the sun on your skin.  Those things will improve your entire, whole health picture– as well as your BP.


If your doctor were to browbeat you about your BP and focus on nothing but those numbers, it not only wouldn’t improve your health, it might have a bad effect even on the BP.


So, test-happy folk:  quit with the test score obsession.  Let’s focus on the whole kid, the whole learning picture.  If we can create safe, interesting, welcoming schools and present kids with good books, interesting ideas, and caring teachers, they will learn.  Then the test scores, like their BP, will take care of themselves.

Please read this:

Wrong answer by Rachel Aviv, from The New Yorker.


It tells the story of the cheating scandal in public schools in Atlanta in 2010.  Administrators adopted a mantra:  No excuses and no exceptions.  This meant that kids’ test scores would rise no matter what, or educators would be fired (after first being publicly humiliated).


The teachers in Park Middle School loved their kids.  They were giving them food, washing their clothes, providing places for them to sleep– doing all the things that teachers do to comfort stressed and endangered students so they can begin to focus on learning.  They knew that if the test scores didn’t go up and up and up every year (thanks to No Child Left Behind and Adequate Yearly Progress), the school would be closed and the kids would lose the one safe and loving place the kids had.  So they began, at the urging of their principal, to erase wrong answers on state tests.  The goal was to keep the school open, so they could continue to minister to the kids.


The loss to the kids is a tragedy.  Because of an artificial number pulled out of someone’s ear, an arbitrary cut off they could not surmount, teachers lost their jobs, the school closed, and the kids’ safe haven vanished.


And yet we still have economists testifying that test scores are a good way to measure teacher effectiveness.

Check out this interestingly bizarre and deceptive op/ed piece from yesterday’s Washington Post:


Teachers unions sacrifice high standards to evade accountability


By Hanna Skandera and Kevin Huffman July 24 at 8:35 PM

Hanna Skandera heads the New Mexico Public Education Department. Kevin Huffman is the Tennessee commissioner of education.


It begins with some insults about teachers behaving badly in general, and then moves straight to the authors’ faith in Common Core State Standards:

In classrooms across the United States, higher academic standards are inspiring students and teachers. Students are more engaged and excited in school, raising their hands more often, asking more questions, thinking critically and solving problems instead of just memorizing facts. Teachers feel more motivated, creative and empowered to develop new and better ways to reach their students.

There are so many unproven and untrue assertions here it’s hard to know where to start.

  • Higher academic standards? Higher than what, the standards states had before Common Core sprang from the head of Zeus? Not necessarily and definitely not in all states.
  • Standards are inspiring people? How does that work?  If I impose on you some arbitrary standard, like the notion that you’re going to have to run a 7 minute mile or fail, do you feel inspired?
  • Kids are more engaged than before the Common Core? I’d like to see some evidence that teaching to a test makes for more than fear-based engagement.
  • Teachers were worthless before the Common Core and kids were entirely disengaged because nobody knew what they were teaching?
  • Kids used to spend most of their time memorizing facts? Since when?
  • Teachers have more scope for creativity now that they will be measured against bubble tests?

Not one of these points makes any sense. But that’s not all! The article goes on to say that teachers, motivated by the desire to “evade accountability”, are uniting to crush these wonderful, inspiring, soaring standards.   They continue:

Instead of cultivating fear by spreading misinformation and arguing for less and less accountability, union leaders and their supporters should honor their commitments to our children and parents. They should honor their commitments to employers who rely on our education system to prepare young people to compete in the global economy. They should honor their commitments to civil rights leaders and advocates for the disabled who have fought for decades for greater equity in education, and to parents, who have the right to know how their children are performing.

To start with least things first, I would like very much to see a ban on anaphora unless you’re trying to make the case that you’re Martin Luther King Jr. or Winston Churchill.

Second, I would like to see education reformers quit referring to themselves as freedom fighters for the poor and disabled. It is very hard to see how raising the passing scores on a standardized test with the express motive of failing more kids puts you in the camp of the heroes who risked their safety and lives in Selma—and those who actually work with those kids day in and day out are the guys holding the firehoses.

I would also like to hear someone talk about good teachers. If as many as 3% are ineffective, as alleged in the Vergara case (and since retracted by the person who plucked the number out of the air) what about the 97%? Why must we prove ourselves on bubble tests each year if we’re doing a good job? I honor my commitment every class period, to each kid, each family, and each important idea I was hired to teach. My principal is charged with ensuring that. My students and their parents can see that it is true. Why would we trust the testing company to discern what my employers already know?

But the most important error here is conflating test scores with achievement. Anyone who has taken a standardized test knows that how you do on one test on one day means very little about your curiosity, willingness to persevere even in the face of obstacles, resourcefulness, pertinacity, and background knowledge, to say nothing of the actual subject tested. Bubble tests just don’t do a good job. They’re all we look at because they are convenient, like looking for your keys under the streetlamp even though you lost them back there in the dark.

Standardized tests also mean nothing about how well you will “compete in a global economy.”  I’d like to know how well Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, or any other supremely successful global competitor would do on the GRE.  Or the SAT.  Or the PARCC.

I agree that parents and administrators and kids themselves need to know how they are performing—and what teachers are doing to help them achieve their highest potential. But standardized tests that drill down into a specified skill set do nothing toward that end, nor indeed any other end other than enriching the testing companies and discrediting teachers.

Which, judging by the tone of this piece, is precisely the point.


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