Category Archives: local control

“We’re Not Entertainers, and This Isn’t a Bouncy Castle”*

I have sometimes heard that curriculum and instruction should be left to the professionals, sometimes as a reason school boards should stick to setting student achievement targets and leaving how to get there to the superintendent. So,  a few thoughts.

To talk about curriculum and instruction is to talk about the purpose of our schools, about our educational values. The curriculum and instruction offered by public schools–publicly funded and publicly governed through an elected school board–is, inescapably, a matter of public concern.

You wouldn’t know it from the lack of debate in our community, but there are public debates about curriculum and instruction going on in many other communities. The math wars, phonics versus balanced literacy, 21st century skills versus knowledge, and so on. It isn’t impossibly hard to get up to speed on these debates. Bennett’s Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What It Claims, and What You Can Do About It and Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education are particularly good places to start, as they both speak directly to the evidence basis of some current educational practices and guiding ideas, which matters as we aim for evidence-based universal instruction.

Christodoulou’s book is really focused on the importance of knowledge and evidence that facts and subject content knowledge are not in opposition to, but in fact support conceptual understanding, critical thinking, creativity, or whatever supposed “higher-order” thinking skill one prefers to facts. Christodoulou organizes her chapters into evidence establishing the myth is influencing practice and then examines modern research or evidence that demonstrates why the myth is a myth.

In Part I of his book, Bennett provides an overview of the difficulties of social science and educational science research and translating that research into practice. In Part II of his book, Bennett examines the research or evidence basis of currently or recently popular educational practices and ideas.

Spoiler alert: There isn’t much, if any, evidence supporting the educational practices and ideas discussed in these two books, as you might guess from the use of the word myth in Christodoulou’s title or if you knew that Part II of Bennett’s book is titled “Voodoo teaching.” There is far too much good material in these books for me to tackle in a blogpost or two, so instead of trying to summarize all of the arguments, research, and evidence presented in these books, I want to try to collect some links here to demonstrate that some of the educational practices and ideas described in these books are alive and well in Iowa. [Note: I’ve read both these books on a Kindle reader with no page numbers, so I’ll be making references to chapters.]

Christodoulou’s Myth 1: Facts prevent understanding [Chapter 1]. Christodoulou presents evidence of facts and content knowledge being stripped out of standards, with a focus on skills or understanding, as if we could have those without facts and content knowledge (we can’t).

This is a problem in Iowa, too, starting at the top with the Department of Education (DE). See for example, the proposed draft social studies standards, focused on “civic competence” as understanding and skills–light on content, but kids, starting in Kindergarten, are going to get a lot of practice writing letters to the editor. Here are two statements from the DE website subtly disparaging acquisition of factual knowledge as “rote memorization”, the first one about social studies instruction,:

It goes without saying that Iowa’s History Teacher of the Year knows a thing or two about history. But he may know even more on how to make history come alive, engaging students to pursue a subject that in the past emphasized rote memorization of dates and places.

And a second one about science instruction:

The new science standards are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. They don’t put as much emphasis on content facts that teachers need to deliver to students in a classroom, but instead focus on what students should be able to do with the content they have learned.

The standards focus on student application of science content and skills versus the rote memorization of content facts. The standards are written to focus on teaching students how to be scientists and do science versus separating out the skills and content from the standards. By teaching students in a manner that makes them feel like a “real” scientist, we will be able to foster a sense of curiosity, increase creativity, boost confidence, and strengthen critical thinking skills.

Christodoulou’s Myth 2: Teacher-led instruction is passive [Chapter 2]If you are skeptical of the value of facts, you will probably also be skeptical of the value of the teacher-led instruction that effectively assists students to acquire factual and subject content knowledge in favor of teacher as facilitator, discovery or minimal guidance instruction. [See Nick Gibb: the evidence in favour of teacher-led instruction for a short run down of the evidence.]

You don’t have to look much further than our district’s motto (child-centered: future focused) for evidence that skepticism of teacher-led instruction is also an issue here. See also, for example, the district science curriculum review report that lists the following two points among the strengths of district science instructional methods:

  • Teachers are utilizing a student-centered, activity based approach to teaching science.
  • Students at all levels are involved in inquiry investigations and collaborate with their peers.

Christodoulou returns to this theme in chapter six, where she examines the myth that projects and activities are the best way to learn.

Christodoulou’s Myth 3: The 21st century fundamentally changes everything [Chapter 3]. It just doesn’t. If you are paying attention at all, it should be obvious that ideas about 21st century education are driving an awful lot of decision-making and spending in our “future focused” district right now, from 1:1 Chromebooks at the secondary level to serving as part of the FMP/GO bond sales pitch:

Christodoulou has some important commentary in this chapter that this idea about the 21st century being fundamentally different, and the actual technology difference, can be used to push content knowledge out of the curriculum, and thus deprive children of the opportunity to learn what they need to know to develop 21st century skills (which are actually not unique to the 21st century). However, here we’ll pop over to Bennett’s book, Teacher Proof, for some of his pull-no-punches words on 21st century skills and technology.

From chapter 9, titled “Buck Rogers and the twenty-first-century curriculum”, Bennett sums up the evidence for the 21st century skills movement as follows:

21st Century Skills: nice rhetoric, but empty of any evidence to back up its terrifying, prescient claims. Every time I hear a claim made by the movement about the absolute, vital, and over-reaching necessity that everyone, everywhere suddenly adopt these practices, I check out where they get their opinions from and find that, yes, they really are opinions. Opinions, based on opinions, based on opinions and we’re back to the turtles all the way down again. It seems a tremendously shaky platform, by which to base a transformation of the entire education sector. It seems a bad grounding by which schools are turned upside down, classrooms flipped and content stripped from the classroom. But there it is; it’s how it’s been justified, and it’s still happening. I kind of feel it’s my duty to point this out as often as possible because so much is happening so fast and on such little evidence; in fact, no evidence. It is, in the clearest possible way, a scandal.

There is loads more where that came from, but we’ll dash over to Bennett’s chapter 10 now, titled “Techno, techno, techno, TECHNO: Digital natives in flipped classrooms”, described by Bennett as “the Temple of Doom to 21st Century Skills’ Lost Ark.”

I think here we can remember that district administrators have already acknowledged that research does not support an expectation that student achievement will be increased by our technology programs. Here’s Bennett’s take on IT:

Use IT if it suits your style. Use it if it helps you. But don’t use it because you must, and certainly (if you have a budget for such things) don’t buy it because you don’t know what else to do. Good teaching relies on things that have been around for millennia: good subject knowledge; good classroom control; good communication skills; heart and guts. You don’t need anything else. Maybe a pen, if you’re feeling profligate. Everything else is chaff. Everything else obscures the teacher. I don’t need a damn thing other than my voice and a room full of kids. The rest is bull, dressed up as Buck Rogers.

I’m exhausted, and we haven’t reached Christodoulou’s chapter 6 on Myth 6: Projects and activities are the best way to learn (which calls into question the underlying premises of our statewide science and proposed draft social studies standards) or most of Bennett’s chapters on voodoo teaching that may or may not be relevant to us, including:

  • Multiple intelligences: if everyone’s smart, no one is (chapter 5)
  • Group work: failing better, together (chapter 7)
  • There are no such things as learning styles (chapter 12)
  • Game over: the gamification of education (chapter 13)
  • Learning to learn to learn to learn . . . . (chapter 14)

In any case, I haven’t really set out to have the debate about evidence for our curricular and instructional decisions, but encourage you to consider the possibility that this debate is needed. So, I’ll leave you with two more local examples.

Listen carefully to the GO bond presentation above and you’ll hear a reference to an action based learning classroom (right about 1:07:19) followed by an assertion that kids learn in different ways and a comment about brain research. Based on multiple payments made for purchases of materials and training (accounts payable 2/24/15, 3/24/15, and 6/23/15), I’m guessing that they are Action Based Learning classrooms. Here’s the compelling articles and research page, here’s a reference (book description) that the program is based on–wait for it–multiple intelligences and learning styles, and here’s a handout explaining Action Based Learning.

Check out this recent ICCSD Innovation & Technology Blog post, listing a benefit of technology program upgrades as being able to “facilitate promising new pedagogical approaches such as blended learning and personalized learning,  among myriad other benefits.” [Links within the quotes are from the original blog post.] The personalized learning link leads to an ISTE article with this assertion:

Personalized learning capitalizes on today’s students’ almost instinctual ability to use technology, but it is so much more than letting them use iPads, smartphones, whiteboards and other devices in the classroom. It is the purposeful design of instruction to combine face-to-face teaching, technology-assisted instruction and collaboration to leverage each student’s learning style and interests for deeper learning.

Digital natives and leveraging learning styles? Awesome. We really need to talk as a community, sooner rather than later.

*The title of this post is taken from Bennett’s Teacher Proof, chapter 7 on group work. The downside of having to pick a post title at the outset, is sometimes (more often than not?) a post can end up looking quite different than you anticipated when you set out to write it (weeks ago now). But I like it and I’m too tired to cast about for something better. So here’s the quote with more context:

There is nothing wrong with injecting a bit of fun into an activity by putting them in teams or getting them to cooperate with each other in a way that they find pleasant. As long as you remember that fun is an extrinsic aim of education, not an intrinsic one. We’re not entertainers, and this isn’t a bouncy castle, and I say that because I take their education seriously, and won’t waste a moment of their time when they could be learning.

Curriculum and Instruction

If you have been paying attention to the ICCSD school board, it should not be news that the district has a disappointingly large and persistent achievement gap. We have said we want to see improvements in math, and reading (and presumably science) proficiency. So we have talked about buses and demographically balanced schools through school attendance boundary changes. We have talked about implicit bias training and weighted resource allocation models and preschool and class sizes and the 1:1 Chromebook program and more.

What we are not talking about–at least not publicly, as a community–is curriculum and instruction. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that pest management issues have had more airtime at regular school board meetings than the district plan to implement the Next Generation Science Standards.

So why discuss curriculum and instruction? Besides that if we want better reading results, for example, talking about reading instruction seems the obvious place to start, consider this from an article on the ICCSD achievement gap in The Daily Iowan:

School District Director of Curriculum Diane Schumacher said the achievement gap, which has continued over the past five years, may be attributed to a lack of opportunity, parental involvement, or the English language barrier for Latino students.

“We see the achievement gap with students who are coming from homes that maybe don’t have the same opportunities for educational experiences that some of our other students might,” Schumacher said. “Homes that wouldn’t be able to have their kids going to summer camp, getting outside tutoring, and maybe even some that wouldn’t have their kids accessing pre-school.”

In other words, this seems to be an acknowledgement that district curriculum and instructional practices perpetuate out-of-school social inequities inside of our schools.

In the meantime, at several recent work sessions, we can start to see the opportunity costs* of talking about everything except curriculum and instruction. Embedded below is audio from a board work session in February, cued up to an exchange about the district 1:1 device program set to roll out next school year, which is costing approximately $1.5 million to start for technology upgrades and device purchases. Director Hemingway asks a question about whether we can expect a measurable increase in student achievement.

The answer is no. Administrators can go no further than student engagement may be heightened, attendance may go up, and students need to be able to use technology in the 21st century workplace, because research does not support the conclusion that achievement will increase as a result of the 1:1 Chromebook program.

At an education committee meeting the following week, administrators presented the student achievement action plan:

Student Achievement Action Plan 11-21-16

During the discussion, Director DeLoach asks questions about how we will know the plan is working or whether we will see the same results we already have.

Administrators say they can’t point to anything on the list that will generate particular test score improvements and even that they don’t expect to see movement on achievement data. Maybe it is just me, but it seems like a big problem that our student achievement plan ultimately seems most squarely aimed at improving school climate. If the student achievement plan is really mostly a school climate improvement plan, then we  may still need a student achievement plan.

Interestingly, the very first item on the student achievement plan list, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Tier 1, should be driving a public discussion about curriculum and instruction. From the Iowa Department of Education website:

The Iowa MTSS framework is made up of five components.

  1. Evidence-based curriculum and instruction provided at the universal level.
  2. Universal screening of all students.
  3. Evidence-based, instructional interventions at the targeted and intensive levels shall be provided to each student who needs them.
  4. Progress monitoring for learners below expectations.
  5. Data-based decision making throughout the system.

The idea is to support student achievement by starting with improvements in classroom curriculum and instruction (universal level) so that fewer children will require instructional interventions. [Improvements here are an opportunity to reduce the need for and importance of outside tutoring, and thus, improve equity in our educational programs.] So, for example, a school (or district) might adopt explicit instruction in synthetic phonics as part of the universal reading curriculum so that fewer children struggle with learning how to read. One would then expect to see reading proficiency rates increase. (Questions: are we making data-based decisions about improving student achievement if we focus on doing things that do not result in measurable, positive changes in achievement? Are we really trying to improve student achievement if we are focused on doing things that we don’t even expect will result in measurable improvements in student achievement data?)

Is the district already providing evidence-based curriculum and instruction at the universal level? We don’t have much evidence to determine that they are, with so little public discussion of curriculum and instruction. In the next post, we will try to answer this question by taking a look at Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof and Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths about Education.

*The opportunity costs being that we have fewer resources (time, money, effort) to devote to improving curriculum and instruction in ways that would increase student achievement. And further, that the need to use the Chromebooks and other technology purchased might become a more important driving force in instructional material selection than student achievement.

Curriculum Review and the School Board

Over at another blog about school, Chris asks what’s curriculum got to do with [the proficiency gap]?

I don’t know what the curricular options out there are, though, and I don’t pretend to have any special expertise in evaluating them. But at some point, if we are continually unhappy about the gaps we’re seeing in our students’ proficiency data, how should the board go about assuring itself that our curricular choices are not playing a role in the problem?

It seems to me that the board is in a difficult position. I don’t see how the board can independently reassure itself about curricular–and instructional–choices not playing a role in the problem of persistent proficiency gaps. The information and data the board needs to make that assessment, to the extent the district is collecting it, is entirely within the hands of the administration.

This means that it is the administration that must reassure the board that curricular and instructional choices are not playing a role in a proficiency gap. Is the administration providing adequate reassurance on this issue through the curriculum review process?

Consider the science curriculum review report presented to the board earlier this fall. Ask yourself how many of the listed strengths of the program have anything to do with whether students are actually learning science? [Hint: student enjoyment, activity, collaboration, and technology use are poor proxies for learning.] Ask yourself why there are proficiency gaps when teachers and administrators are in agreement that instruction is being differentiated to meet the needs of students in the classroom and what that means for the likelihood of them effectively evaluating whether curriculum and instruction plays a role in the proficiency gaps? Ask yourself whether there is any attempt to evaluate whether outside tutoring or parental help plays a significant role in determining how much science students are learning?

Whether or not you think the administration is providing adequate reassurance, this issue presents an interesting oversight problem for the board. How can the board effectively evaluate and direct the efforts of the superintendent with regard to curriculum and instruction if it is dependent upon the superintendent and his staff for information about the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction decisions made by the superintendent and his staff?

The most important thing for directors to do, I think, is to independently read up on curricular and instructional trends so that they can think critically and ask questions about the information presented to them by the administration. Directors won’t have time to become curriculum and instruction experts, but I don’t think they need to be experts to represent the community and hold the superintendent accountable for results. They just need to be willing to keep asking questions until they get the answers they need.

Teacher Leadership System Grants

The Iowa Department of Education has released the list of one hundred twenty-five six* Iowa school districts awarded teacher leadership system grants for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years.

Districts that apply to start teacher leadership systems are required to set a vision and goals for what they plan to accomplish. They also must address “must-haves,” such as setting a minimum teacher salary of $33,500, improving entry into the profession through efforts that include mentoring new teachers, and a rigorous selection process for leadership roles.

The teacher leadership system will cost nearly $50 million in fiscal year 2015. That amount is expected to grow to about $150 million annually by fiscal year 2017.

Local districts winning grants for the 2015-2016 school year include Clear Creek-Amana, College Community, Iowa City, and Solon. Marion and Mid-Prairie won grants for the 2016-2017 school year. These schools will join thirty-nine school districts that won grants teacher leadership system grants for the 2014-2015 school year, which include Cedar Rapids and Linn-Mar.

In case you missed it, the ICCSD school board discussed the district’s teacher leadership system grant application at the October 14th meeting. At least one-quarter of ICCSD teachers are expected to serve in leadership roles each year.

Questions: How will we know whether this is an effective use of $150 million per year? If at least one-quarter of your teachers are qualified for leadership positions, how much need is there for this program? Are the leaders just leading other teachers who were also quite capable of being leaders themselves? Would a smaller mentorship program aimed at new teachers be just as effective?

*The Iowa DE corrected the press release 12/21/14.

Winner Takes All

As Chris, and others have noted, it is pretty easy to be in favor of top-down, centrally-imposed standards if you are either in a position to control which values are reflected in the standards, or if your values happen to be reflected in the standards being imposed on others.

Now centrally-imposed standards supporters are generally quick to point out that local districts and teachers will still be in control of choosing how the teaching/learning gets done, the methods and materials to be used.

There is the obvious problem, of course, that you are free to choose from the limited number of options that conform to the grade level expectations outlined in the standards. Perfectly good methods or materials might be excluded or discouraged simply because they meet the standards in the “wrong” grade level.

Consider California’s decision not to adopt Singapore Primary Mathematics, because it doesn’t fully align with California Common Core mathematics standards.

Just because Iowa’s state board of education doesn’t approve materials in the same way, doesn’t mean a similar thing couldn’t happen here. EdWeek reported on efforts of Achieve to create and train teachers to use EQuIP, a system of rubrics for determining whether instructional materials are fully aligned to the Common Core, and notes that other nonprofit and for-profit groups are “wading into the alignment-evaluation business.”

See also the following, from a School Library Journal article, “What’s Happening at the Core?“:

Regarding publishing oversight, [Jay] Diskey[, executive director of the PreK–12 Learning Group Division of the Association of American Publishers,] says, “There has been talk over the past three or four years about having a national advisory group that would review or vet publishers’ materials. Nothing has gotten off the ground.” The reason? “At a time when there is significant backlash, it might be politically difficult to get something like that up and running.”

Of course, the choice of instructional methods and materials can also be, if not expressly limited, than at least nudged by writers of the standardized assessments items and scoring rubrics. It seems to me that Smarter Balanced Assessments mathematics response items favor a reform math approach to “explaining your work” or consider From Failing to Killing Writing: Computer-Based Grading.

Finally, I will note that I’m not certain that it is exactly true that “the Iowa Core sets high expectations but doesn’t dictate how to teach.” See, for example, this paragraph from page two the Iowa Core science standards:

The Iowa Core Curriculum for Science emphasizes student inquiry. The depth of understanding required of our students is not possible with lectures, readings, cookbook labs, and plug-and-chug problem solving. Students must be actively investigating: designing experiments, observing, questioning, exploring, making and testing hypotheses, making and comparing predictions, evaluating data, and communicating and defending conclusions. A district’s science curriculum cannot align to the Iowa Core Curriculum for Science without including inquiry as a guaranteed and viable, testable component in every science course.The science instruction should be engaging and relevant for the students. Strong connections between the lessons and the students’ daily lives must be made. This core curriculum reflects high standards of science achievement for ALL students and not just those who have traditionally succeeded in science classes. [emphasis in the original]

It is difficult to read this in any way other than a direct attack on traditional high school science teaching methods and materials. An attack that I can’t entirely comprehend, by the way. I attended a college-prep high school, and frankly my science classes were taught by lecture and labs, plus reading the textbooks and solving relevant math problems (as were my college courses, for that matter). We actively completed labs and wrote lab reports, which I think involves much of what is described here–observing, predicting, evaluating data, and all that–and yet seems likely to fall short on the “designing criteria”, even though I found myself well prepared for my first year college chemistry courses.

While I was drafting this, Chris weighed in on a similar theme: if national standards are good, what’s wrong with a national curriculum? And with that, I will have to tip my hat to Chris for keeping up with the grueling schedule of posting one post an hour and call it a day.

Accountability-Driven Education

There is a Common Core micro-blogathon happening over at A Blog About School. Chris is aiming for twenty-four posts in twenty-four hours. I’m hoping to join him by publishing a few centrally-imposed standards themed posts today.

I just finished watching the Common Core edition of Ethical Perspectives on the News on KCRG, featuring Chris Liebig as one of three panelists.

Despite all of the various reasons given for the need for a single set of standards to rule us all (some of which might be addressed in other posts today), the reality is that the need for a single set of standards seems to boil down to top-down accountability. We need a single set of centrally-imposed standards so that all schools and all teachers can be held accountable by the state and federal government–or ranked relative to one another–on the basis of a common system of standardized assessments.

That’s it.

And that seems like an insufficient reason to give up local control of our schools, and thereby give up local conversations of just what a “good education” or “good teaching” looks like. Or whether there can be more than one definition of what “good education” or “good teaching” is.


We Live in a Competency-Based World

The Competency-Based Education Task Force Final Report was released earlier this month.

If you have children who won’t graduate out of the system within the next five years–or are enrolled in one of the ten pilot districts–you may want to read this report plus review the documents available on the Iowa CBE Collaborative page at the Iowa DE website; even though much of the work is yet to be done, plans are already being made for statewide implementation.

Competency-based education may or may not be a great idea–though it seems to me to be an awful lot of effort to reinvent Montessori minus a few essential features–but I am starting to think that there is nothing the DE considers too new or untested that they won’t try to immediately, if not sooner, impose it upon the entire state; if small pilot programs are good, then aren’t Universal Pilot Programs involving every student/school/district in the State even better? See also the Common Core Standards (adopted weeks after the final draft was released), Smarter Balanced Assessments (attempted to adopt before any test items were even pilot tested–and they would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling legislators!), teacher leadership and career pathways, tying teacher evaluations to student assessments, and online classes.

Who Works For Whom?

Chris made a great point in a comment on the previous post: why ask superintendents what they think of their school boards rather than ask school boards what they think of their superintendents?  Who works for whom?

I’ve written previously on this blog about the utility of confusion or uncertainty about responsibility to parties who wish to escape accountability.  It is convenient for superintendents to blame school boards and school boards to blame superintendents–and for everyone to blame NCLB and consultants–when there is a failure to resolve issues or decisions that will be unpopular with someone are to be made.

Getting school board governance right is essential; school boards are entrusted with public money to provide educational programs and facilities to the school age children in our communities.  Iowa spends in excess of five billion dollars on public K-12 education each year; school boards have an obligation to their communities to ensure it is well spent.

School Start Dates

I was in a local classroom this week that was noticeably–though not yet unbearably–hot by 10:30 am, and quite frankly, I’m not sure how much is being accomplished in classrooms without air conditioning around the district.

So this might be a week that the tourism industry may have more sympathy on the school start date issue than usual.  But it is a long time until the upcoming legislative session, where school start date rules are likely to be an issue again after the State Board of Education failed to move forward on proposed rule changes that would have limited school start date waivers.

Heat notwithstanding, I still come down in favor of local control of school start dates.

Schools serve communities and the school calendar ought to reflect the rhythms of the community.  It makes sense to have calendars that match up with local colleges (especially as more kids use the PSEO option), athletic,and other school activity calendars, and local events.

Uncle Sam, May I?

There has been some talk in the current school board race that getting an NCLB waiver to end SINA transfers would be great for the district.

Despite being called ESEA Flexibility Waivers, there isn’t really all that much flexibility–just a different way to be locked into a high-stakes testing/school ranking/accountability scheme.

I’ve previously outlined the provisions of Iowa’s ESEA Flexibility Waiver request and I still think it is too high of a price to pay to avoid SINA transfers.  (When all schools are SINA schools, won’t that change how the whole SINA transfer thing works anyway?  Which schools could be designated as receiving schools?)

So, go check it out and see what is in the request.  Because, from the looks of these EdWeek articles, we would be locked into the details of the waiver plan if we “won” a waiver under threat of having our waiver revoked or having to go back to the USDE to ask permission to make changes.

EdWeek reports that federal approval is only required for major but not technical changes, but how would you know whether a change would be considered major or technical?  Apparently waiver states are expected to consult the USDE on all proposed changes and let them decide.

Now consider that the USDE just offered one-year waivers to a group of California public school districts, bypassing the state DE altogether.  A cynical person might think that looks like an awfully attractive opportunity for the USDE to keep moving the goalposts; all without Congress–or the Iowa Legislature–taking a vote.

Would that really be better for the district?