Why most parents’ kids are from Lake Wobegon

Photo from stage showing Garrison Keillor telling stories

“The Lake Wobegon effect” is a term for the tendency to overestimate one’s abilities relative to others.

Why do parents have such unrealistically high assessments of their students’ academic performance?

That’s a question Michael J. Petrilli asks at EducationNext in a blog post titled Common Confusion.

The Common Core was supposed to be associated with tests that showed more accurately the relationship between stated standards and student performance. As those tests have been used, student test scores have gone done—way down, in many cases—but parent’s reports of how their students are doing remains high.

A study released in May reported 90 percent of parents believe their children are performing at “grade level” or higher in their schoolwork.

In New York State, where I live, about a quarter of students fail to graduate on time. Of those that graduate and go on to college, about a third end up taking at least one remedial course in college. I can tell you  from my college teaching experience, if a student can’t pass the test to escape remedial English, that student hasn’t been at grade level for about eight years.

Chart showing2012 HS graduation rates in New York State and percentage of graduates that are college and career ready.

New York State’s report of college and career readiness of 2012 cohort of students.

Petrilli suggests giving parents more direct information about their kids’ performance on the report results, possibly even offering resources for concerned parents to use.

Peter Greene on his blog Curmudgucation takes issue with Petrilli’s comments, which Greene reads as being about Grade Inflation. Greene argues that if grade inflation exists in K-12 education, it’s allowed to happen because there’s no objective standard for what students should really be getting as a grade.

I find myself in agreement with both men on certain points: in particular with Petrilli on the need to report test results in ways that will make sense to parents, with Greene on the deleterious effects of the commodification of education.

That said, however, I think there is another factor that could be the causing parents’ assessment of their kids’ achievement to be way off:  The teachers could be accurately assessing what students have learned in their class, and the tests could be accurately assessing how well the students’ learning matched the standards but the material being taught and the material being tested may be very different.

I don’t have any hard data as to whether that is the case, but my observation of such things as topics for Twitter chats and for professional development workshops for teachers lead me to believe a great many teachers are focused on teaching such things as a growth mindset and grit, which can be acquired while engaged in activities that require developing those dispositions.

I think today’s educators spend way to much time attempting to teach things that they wouldn’t have to teach if they did a really good job teaching their academic content.

I don’t mean stuffing students with facts.

I mean teaching students to read, write, compute, listen, speak, and think in each of their academic subjects and giving students work that gives them the opportunity to exercise creativity, to be innovative and entrepreneurial, to treat others with respect, to make the world a better place.

To that end, it might not be bad if parents did ask their local school boards what they are doing to make sure teachers are teaching the right things.

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A new way to think about literacy

Literacy = reading and writing, right?

Technically, yes.

But suppose we broadened the skills that we include under the literacy umbrella to include speaking, listening, and thinking.

Then we’d have a suite of skills that people use to learn complex material.

Broadening the definition of literacy is where Mark A. Forget begins teaching any subject, from the humanities to vocational courses.

 Red umbrella labeled LITERAACY over 5 gears labeled reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking

An expanded definition of literacy facilitates teaching in the content areas using both reading and writing.

Skill acquisition during content learning

Forget (pronounced forzháy) stumbled over some good ideas that he later built on, drawing on research into how people learn.

Forget flips the classroom, using the class time for reading text material that typically is assigned for homework and giving as homework activities that encourage higher order thinking about that same content.

Forget uses textbooks the school provides as the reading material. Students acquire reading skills in the process of reading those texts strategically and collaboratively discussing their reading, defending their interpretation of it by reference to specific passages in the text.

Forget teaches strategies that students can use for the rest of their lives.

Forget varies activities to prevent boredom. He  has about two dozen activities that he picks from to accomplish specific objectives, such as learning to preview text, for example. Having those choices lets him insert some variety into the classes without changing his overall procedure.

Forget uses in-class writing every day. Usually the writing is informal (i.e, ungraded), a tool to help students “generate ideas, become engaged through concrete commitment, clarify their own thinking, or otherwise organize ideas in useful and meaningful ways,” Forget says.

MAX teaching strategies

After testing the procedures for years in a variety of school settings and in many different disciplines, Forget wrote Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills¹.  The “MAX” in Max Teaching stands for Motivation, Acquisition (learning that happens without instruction), and eXtension.

Forget does for reading what I attempt to do with writing: Use it as a tool for teaching content and developing the skills Forget includes under the literacy umbrella: reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.

What makes Forget’s method brilliant is less his originality than his consistency: He figured out how to teach so that students learn subject matter content and acquire literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—and he stuck to doing that class after class, week after week.

I don’t recall who recommended the book to me, but I wish I did so I could thank him or her.  If my colleagues in other disciplines used Forget’s methods, teaching writing to their students would be a piece of cake.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Forget’s ideas as I work through the rest of the book.


¹ I got my copy of Max Teaching with Reading and Writing through an independent bookseller at Alibris.com

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Reading, readiness, and unreadiness

I sat down to write a bit about three nonfiction books I’m reading.

That led me to wonder if there is a word that means the state of having started, but not yet finished, reading a book.  Unreadiness gets things wrong end round; nonreadiness is no better.

Probably the Germans or Japanese have a word for it that an alert reader will share.

But I digress.

3 books: Why Rural Schools Matter, The Physics of Business Growth, Max Teaching with Reading and Writing

Books I’m reading

The nonfiction books I’m reading are

  • The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes by Edward D. Hess and Jeanne Liedtka,
  • Why Rural Schools Matter by Mara Casey Tieken
  • Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills by Mark A. Forget.

Despite their quite different subject matter, they have a few common elements. Each is

  • written by people who write well
  • written by people who have lived the subjects they write about
  • written with the expectation that readers will do something based on their reading.

That last point is what’s keeping me from finishing them.

Why I’ve not finished

When I get to the end I’ll need to do something with what I’ve learned, something that’s likely to be uncomfortable, possibly difficult.

I’m ready to learn about.

I’m not ready to go try.

This is the central problem of professional development for educators: Moving from readiness to learn to readiness to apply.

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My students explain

While looking for some papers I needed, I ran across a folder of items I’ve culled from student writing over the years. Here are a few  of their observations to remind you why your work is so important.
Pencil with slogan "student expectations"Students know what they expect:

I expect my instructor to follow the KISS formula: Keep It Simply Stupid.

Can you do that?
Pencil with slogan "good writing"They may not be good writers, but students know what good writing is.

In a place of business, writing effectively means coming to a clear and concise point in as few words as possible in order to prevent wordiness.

Writing can also produce an emotional response.

I feel that one main characteristic of writing is the ability to convey ones message in a way that capsizes the audience.

Pencil with slogan "thesis statements"

Students have had the importance of a good thesis statement drilled into them for years:

A thesis sentence or statement is one or two sentences giving the reader information, a brief interdiction of what you are about to read. A thesis sentence is essential for the following reasons: so the reader will know what the paper is about, let’s a reader know what your poison is on the paper and when this is provided a reader will have some idea as to whether or not to contuse reading that paper.

Pencil with slogan "student weaknesses"Getting started writing is hard for many students:

It is hard for me to begin writing my assigned papers even after I have an idea. I guess you might call me a procreator.

Finishing on time is hard, too.

Due to some insinuating circumstances this weekend, I will not have my first paper ready.

Pencil with slogan "students learn"It can be hard to believe, but students are learning.

I see now that the brain is a mussel, the more you use it the stronger it gets.

Pencil with slogan "teachers matter"Your work is valued by your students.

Teachers are put on a much higher pedistool than other professionals because they are taking care of our children and, they should be.

Have a great year, good students, lots of chuckles—and don’t fall off your pedistool.

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Lessons about school improvement from a business book

dust jacket of Smart Growth by Edward D. HessI recently read Smart Growth: Building an Enduring Business by Managing the Risks of Growth by Edward D. Hess.

In it I found something I wasn’t expecting: Principles from business that apply to school settings.

Hess’s thesis is that the Wall Street model in which successful businesses grow smoothly and continuously with increased dividends every quarter is just plain nuts. (He phrases it more politely, but that’s the gist.)

Here in bite-size chunks are a few observations Hess makes in Smart Growth that struck me as applicable to schools as well as corporations. Unless otherwise indicated, the visuals are direct quotes from Hess.

Growth depends on people having time and learned knowledge to grow.

Substitute “school improvement” for growth and you have an often-overlooked fact about school reform: It depends on school staff having time and learned knowledge.

Schools can’t improve overnight, nor can they improve based on nothing but intuition.

People "act inconsistently and unpredictably, failing to learn…"

Much of school reform work is based on the assumption that educators will act consistently, predictably, and learn from instruction and mistakes.

That’s an unwise assumption.

Organizational growth is far from a smooth process.

Expecting 2016’s test scores to be better than 2015’s, and 2017’s to be better still?

Don’t count on it.

No matter how you measure it, student learning isn’t a smooth process.

Neither is school improvement.

People make growth complex and difficult School improvement can’t happen without people.

People don’t always cooperate in making school improvement happen.

You’ll save yourself a great deal of frustration if you don’t expect them to.

smartgrowth_t5

Change may carry unexpected negative consequences as well as the expected positive ones.

Innovation often brings something new, which we may find we didn’t really need, at the expense of something old, which we may later find we undervalued.

Quote: For companies to grow, their people must grow.For schools to improve, their people must grow.

Staff must experience intellectual, social, and emotional growth—none of which occurs in orderly, linear fashion.

Quote: People can change only so much, so fast, and so often.

School improvement depends on people. Administrators should remember people have limited ability to change—especially while they are being expected to carry on with other tasks that aren’t changing.

Quote: Any change will generate mistakes.Mistakes happen.

They happen every day while we’re doing routine things.

It’s foolish to assume mistakes won’t happen while schools are trying new procedures, new programs, new curricula.

Quote: Small changes can add up and have a big impact.

To avoid wasting time on trivia, schools often attempt big, broad, across-the-board changes.

All too often staff are not adequately trained for the big, broad, across-the-board change. (Remember New York State’s roll-out of Common Core?)

Time and resources for implementing the big, broad, across-the-board change may also be missing.

Small changes—even one teacher in one classroom implementing a better way of teaching—can add up to a big, broad, across-the-board improvement in a school over a period of time.


As you settle in to your fall teaching routine, which of these observations will help you avoid the frustration of trying to change your school by next Friday?

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Encouraging news for CTE

In the rural area where I live, getting high school graduates “college and career ready” is shorthand for getting graduates ready for college which will lead to a career.

photo collage of photos representing four CTE fields with slogan Hands and brains CTE

Career and Technical Education students who want the career without a four-year college degree get no respect.

Quite the contrary.

CTE students are mocked, bullied, and generally discriminated against even while stories about how adolescents without college degrees are building wildly successful businesses are discussed over coffee at Bob’s Diner.

I read three articles this week that made me think the tide might be turning.

Financial aid for nontraditional students

A month ago Microsoft launched a series of classes in data science through edX.org, the nonprofit online learning destination founded by Harvard University and MIT. The entire Data Science course costs $516.

Data science is are one of the hottest professions, with more job offerings than candidates, and median salary around $90,000.

This week eCampusNews reported a federal Department of Education experimental program will make financial aid available nontraditional students to take courses including coding boot camps and online courses offered by nontraditional training providers in partnership with colleges and universities.

Sounds a bit like the classes Microsoft has started, doesn’t it?

Such aid for nontraditional training would make good, twenty-first century jobs possible for CTE students in my area.

Auto mechanic changes oil on vehicle on lift

CTE can lead to a career in auto mechanics.

MOOC with graded paper option

Shortly after massive open online courses appeared on the educational scene,  providers of the free courses began offering students who participated in discussions and passed multiple choice quizzes the opportunity to buy a certificate as documentation of their experience.

Certificates for MOOCs I’ve taken have cost about $30—and I’ve taken MOOCs that were as good as the best traditional university courses for which I paid considerably more than $30.

Here’s the other thing: Students taking a MOOC don’t need to make any financial investment until they are sure they are going to get through the course.

Now MIT is offering a MOOC with more scholarly twist.

The 12-week course “Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness” will enable students to obtain a verified ID certificate by writing a paper which will be graded and commented upon by professional philosophers. For the MIT philosophy course, the verified certificate is $300.

In effect, students learn for free;  they pay only if they choose to take the final exam.

As competency-based programs become more common in higher education, I think we’ll see more MOOCs on the MIT pattern.

The MOOC format would essentially allow students to take a required course in a subject that’s difficult for them more than once, from different instructors from different universities, until they felt confident enough to do the exit activity.

That could be a boon for CTE students going after two-year degree in a competency-based program, for example.

Young woman with blonde ponytail lies under truck in parking lot making a quick repair.

CTE skills also come in handy in everyday crises.

Expanded CTE concurrent enrollment

To strengthen and expand dual and concurrent enrollment and early college high school options in Perkins-supported career technical education (CTE) programs, introduced Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Workforce Advance Act.

Strengthening concurrent enrollment programs for CTE students is essential if they are to get advanced training.

Most concurrent enrollment courses in rural areas are taught on high school campuses by high school teacher, but CTE students from those schools are often bused to regional centers for CTE courses.

CTE instructors there may not be qualified to teach non-CTE courses, such as English composition, that their students would be required to take their first semester of college.

The Workforce Advance Act would allow school districts to use funding to support teachers pursuing the credentials needed to teach these courses in their high schools, helping to remove a barrier to providing access to college credit.

Finally, the Workforce Advance bill would allow the Department of Education to use national CTE activities to help identify successful methods and best practices for providing dual or concurrent enrollment programs and early college high school career and technical education opportunities.

Finding out the best ways to provide both CTE  and general education credits is important.

As I explain in another post, assuming the CTE students’ high school background is good enough that they don’t need to take remedial courses (a big assumption) first semester,  students would be taking primarily general education requirements.

Through dual enrollment, the academically oriented students usually get those requirements out of the way, but the CTE student may not receive that benefit.

I don’t expect any of these developments to earn CTE students the respect and support they deserve or help them acquire the skills their home communities desperately need, but I’m pleased to see a few signs that the issues are beginning to be noticed.


Acknowledgements. Thanks to the folks at Scoville-Meno in Bainbridge for letting me take photos on the shop floor. And I hope the woman with the ratchet wrench who was making a quick repair to her truck in the municipal parking lot got to her destination safely.

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Why testing methods should matter to teachers

laptop computer with keys spelling COMPOSE highlighted. Banner says "Compose here."
Ignore for a moment the issue of whether standardized tests carry too much weight in education.

Do you want to handicap your students unnecessarily on standardized tests?

Probably not.

Steve Graham, who has researched and written extensively on writing in schools, says his research shows that students who take writing tests on a computer do better than those who answered in handwriting, but that is true only if the students were experienced in writing at the computer.

He writes:

A student’s mastery of the method of testing matters. For students with little experience, computer assessments underestimate their writing achievement.

(Handwriting that’s not legible produces a similar underestimation of writing skill.)

It’s 25 years since the first website went online: It’s time every student is fluent at composing at the keyboard.

It’s perfectly OK to have students use pen and paper to doodle their way to a plan for writing if that’s how they’re comfortable, but you need to have students practice composing at the keyboard regularly. I recommend practice at least once a week.

And, yes, you need to require keyboard composition even if you teach art or agriculture: This isn’t just an English teacher thing.

 

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When I looked him up online

A recent post by Eric Stoller about why “getting Twitter matters” to higher education’s student affairs folks was being shunted around Twitter yesterday morning.

The nub of Stoller’s argument is this:

Laptop computer screen bearing quote "Digital capabilities / literacies are important. They are connected to employability, revolution, activism, teaching, learning, communication, engagement, etc."

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the importance of digital capabilities/literacies a bit lately.

My local school district recently hired a new superintendent, Timothy R. Ryan,  who got exactly two sentences on page three of the school district’s June newsletter.

When I read the news, I did what I always do when “introduced” to people I’m likely to meet in person: I looked Ryan up online.

A few weeks later, I was chatting with a stranger. Before long the conversation got around to the local school.

The woman told me about a big hassle she’d had with the administrator who didn’t want her kid to be an exchange student, and her futile attempts to get anyone to respond to her concerns.

She concluded by saying she hoped the new superintendent would turn things around.

“But I have my doubts,” she said, “because I looked him up online and—”

I completed the sentence for her: “And he doesn’t have a digital presence.”

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Define ‘good paying jobs’

If Hillary Clinton loses the 2016 election, it could well be because she defines “good paying jobs” differently than a significant chunk of the electorate.

Last night as I watched as Clinton accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, I was struck by her implied definition of the term “good paying jobs.”

She never defined the term, but it was clear from the context in which she used it—”clean energy jobs” and “advanced manufacturing” for example—that she was talking about jobs that didn’t exist last century, jobs that were just getting a good foothold when the economy plunged into recession in 2008.

I don’t believe the angry, white American males who support Donald Trump  (or their female counterparts) would consider those “good paying jobs.”

Clinton’s “good paying jobs” require people to acquire new skills and to keep updating their skills routinely.

I suspect the angry, white males think of “good paying jobs” as those a high school graduate can walk in off the street and learn to do in a couple of weeks—and keep doing for the next half century with regular, substantial pay raises.

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, you ought to think what “good paying jobs” means in your students’ communities.

If the definition favors those who stop learning at the end of formal schooling, you have some educating to do.

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Above all, do no harm

Writing teachers who have worked with me over the years have heard me say many times that above all they should do no harm.

Reading a blog post by leadership and management expert Dan Rockwell recently inspired me to write about four ways writing teachers can do no harm.

#1. Don’t allow nagging issues to persist.

If Morgan and Mahil enter eighth grade unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that’s not your fault.

If Morgan and Mahil leave eighth grade still unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that is your fault.

Give students a list of three serious writing mechanics errors they habitually make in their writing in the first month of a school year.

Insist each student master each of those three, serious, habitual errors before the last month of the school year.

(The simple way to insist is to refuse to give a grade higher than a C to any paper that contains one of the student’s habitual errors.)

#2. Don’t  keep changing the objective.

Learning to write an informative/explanatory text is different from learning to write a narrative.

Don’t keep changing the writing objective just because you’re bored with the students’ writing.

#3. Don’t jump in to save the day.

Trial and error is a powerful teaching tool.

Let students make mistakes.

Then ask, “Where’s the first place in the writing process you could have done something different that would have prevented this from happening?”

#4. Don’t penalize mistakes during practice.

Learning to write is a bit like making pie dough: Even when they know the principles, it takes a long time for most folks to get a feel for the thing.

While students are getting a feel for writing, praise what they are doing right: turning in their work on time, not giving up, putting effort into planning, or reducing the number of their serious habitual errors.

What would you add to the list?

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