Narrowing in on the Learner

Do you want to ….

  1. Boost your students’ self esteem?
  2. Keep them engaged?
  3. Have an alternative to testing your students to death?
  4. More specifically support their needs?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions read the infographic below which is all about competency based learning.

Competency-Education-Infographic
Source: Digital Learning Now 

Racing to the Top and Leaving the Impoverished at the Bottom

dollar eyePoverty cripples societal advancement. When prevalent in the richest nation in the world, it becomes mindboggling. Why are so many individuals struggling under the weight of poverty in America? Why is nearly 1 in every 4 children considered impoverished in this land of Race to the Top? Are we racing to the top of the wrong metric?

 My hat goes off to the many families who are pushing their children to aim higher than the constraints of their impoverished surroundings. As members in a society, we share their challenges too, even if we turn a blind eye.

During an interview with CNN, actor Jeff Bridges and “Share our Strength” founder Bill Shore, express why poverty, child poverty specifically, is our responsibility; “If we’re not taking care of our kids, we’re not taking care of our country. If another country was doing this to our kids, we’d be at war.”

relative-child-povertyIn a post titled, “Map: How 35 Countries Compare on Child Poverty,” the Washington Post reports, “A new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, turned up some alarming statistics about child poverty. More than one in five American children fall below a relative poverty line.” Out of the 35 countries examined, America ranked 34th.

Mind you, In this study, UNICEF is using its own “poverty line.” Internationally, poverty is defined as families living on less than $1.25 or $2.00 per day, and as much as we grumble about how little we are paid, no gainfully and legally employed American is limited to these lowly amounts. (But in the shadows? That’s another story.) In America, poverty is defined as families living on less than about $22,000 per year.

Because of such huge gaps between developed countries’ internal economies, UNICEF instead measures how much poorer children are from their country’s national average.

“The UNICEF report looks at something it calls the ‘child poverty gap,’ which measures how far the average poor child falls below the relative poverty line. It does this by measuring the gap between the relative poverty line and the average income of poor families.”

Again, from the Post, “The picture (in the U.S.) looks even worse when you examine just how far below the relative poverty line these children tend to fall.”

What are we doing, America? And what should we be doing more of?

Eric Jensons, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind” provides insight into the weight of these children’s challenges. He highlights four major risk factors that, because of economic hardship, burden the developing child and hamper student achievement.

E = Emotional and Social Challenges

A = Acute and Chronic Stress

C = Cognitive Lags

H = Health and Safety Issues

This may explain why many of our students coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds experience difficulties performing in their classrooms. Unfortunately the direction educational policy is headed (as well meaning as it may be) is unjust, unequal, and unapologetic for learners outside of more affluent communities. If a student doesn’t make the mark, they are tracked to remediation or retention in attempts to correct their academic deficits rather than build on their strengths!

Show me a dropout who complained about not getting tested enough, and I’ll show a dropout that never dropped out. The truth is, how often do we hear about students dropping out because they felt the system spent too little time focused on their deficits? How many were exasperated with the focus on their strengths? Is this “leave no deficits behind” approach really attending to their needs and cultivating their interests? Clearly not.

However, while schools, school systems, and educational policy makers can play a role in transforming practices to meet the needs of these learners, we as a larger society have a role to play as well. We, the people, need to stand up to demand that the promissory note that MLK, Jr. referred to way back in ‘63 be delivered upon, because it is clear that we are, as a nation, are still defaulting on that promise.

Again, from the Post: “The poor U.S. showing in this data may reflect growing income inequality. According to one metric of inequality, a statistical measurement called the gini coefficient, the U.S. economy is one of the most unequal in the developed world.”

(What would MLK have to say about that, I wonder?)

Until such time that we fully, tactically and strategically engage in the war on poverty, we must focus where we can — on the students, children, and learners in our charge. Their voice, their dreams, their empowerment must be our first and foremost goal.  But how?

The 2007 Dispelling the Myth Award winners, Osmond A. Church P.S./M.S. 124 K-8 School, have done a remarkable job in breaking down those barriers.  Recognized for significantly raising students academic achievement, their dedication to these young minds is reflected in their success. With an enrollment total of about 1,227 students; 97% are low-income, 33% African American, 44% Asian and 21% are Hispanic, educators were able to provoke a lasting change. What once had dismissed this school, because of their high achievers awarded them much acclaim. Perhaps this school’s mission is responsible for their turnaround; “to inculcate all members of the school community with an understanding and acceptance of diversity, fostering individuality and creativity, where high expectations are the norm for all students.”

Yet we know a well crafted mission isn’t enough. Without the leadership and vision to pursue it relentlessly, such a mission is an empty platitude rather than a way out of poverty. If we want to actualize the talking point that education is a pathway out of poverty we must focus on four things:

1. Leadership.

2. Equity.

3. Cradle to college rap-around services.

4. Sustaining educator engagement.

And even these offer no guarantees without a larger effort to break the status quo of inequality. And judging by where we fall in a comparison of developed nations, our leaders seem abysmally disinterested in racing to the top of that metric.

So, for now, education offers our best hope for affecting change and breaking the predictive cycle of race, class, and gender on educational outcomes. So, bring along your copy of Jenson’s work and lets get to work.

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc
Graph: WashingtonPost

18 Myths of Education (Infographic)

Below is a provocative infographic from Open Colleges, an online university in Australia.

What do you think about these? Agree? Disagree? Little bit of both? Share your thoughts in the comments.

<img alt="" src="http://informed.s3.amazonaws.com/informed/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/600px_final the original source.jpg” />

An Infographic by Open Colleges

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The Importance of Student Voice

The following is a guest post by Mark R. Boyer, Assistant Superintendent for Learning, Singapore American School

Student Voice

I was recently approached by a high school student who asked, “In order for student voices to be heard, should student evaluations of teachers be mandatory and used in the teacher’s performance review? Furthermore, is there a way to make sure that student feedback is fair and valid?”

If we truly believe in the value of students to be co-designers in learning and empowered in their learning, shouldn’t we also value their important feedback? If we do value student feedback, then how can we make this meaningful and constructive?

Many schools in the U.S. and internationally are addressing this “controversial issue” with no consensus on a particular approach to pursue. Some schools advocate for student feedback as a “weighted component” on teacher evaluation with other components, some schools provide opportunity for student feedback that is exclusively reviewed by the teacher, and some schools provide opportunity for the teacher to verbally reflect on “themes” within student feedback with one’s supervisor. Many schools simply ignore student feedback as too complicated and untrustworthy.

The most significant recent research on teacher evaluation was initiated in 2009 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and resulted in a 2011 report known as Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). One of the five variables valued by the MET report was “student perceptions of the classroom instructional environment” in which a field-tested instrument (i.e., Tripod Survey) was used.  A finding of the MET report was that there is a significant interdependent relationship among student achievement, classroom observations and feedback by supervisors, and student feedback.

The challenge in all of this, however, is to be clear about the purpose of teacher evaluation so as to guide appropriate selection of tools and processes, and to also understand that contextual needs in one system may be very different for another system. Finally, quality implementation of the right tools and processes is everything. Anything less than quality implementation can have confusing and damaging results.

The downside of ineffective implementation of student feedback can lead to the following:

* students may not appreciate demanding teachers until years later, and may provide premature responses

* students may not be “trained” in how to provide constructive feedback, whereupon responses can be personally and professionally hurtful

* teachers may feel that popularity is most important, and consequently adjust teaching to “win” students

* students may use their own grades to determine how they view their teachers, and perhaps not always take personal responsibility

* a culture of evaluation and judgment may become more prevalent than a culture of mutual respect, trust, and support

Having said this, the quality of the student-teacher relationship is essential to quality teaching and learning. I believe quality feedback is key to growth and improved performance, whether the feedback is as a student, teacher, or administrator. Rather than a “weighted” component on teacher evaluation, I would suggest the following approach for student feedback:

Allow all students throughout the school to provide anonymous survey responses using a few standard questions for their teachers (with appropriate accommodations for elementary students) and perhaps a few questions of particular interest to the teacher, which then becomes a conversation between the teacher and supervisor. This conversation would not be about specific comments, but rather about any predominant themes:

    • What pleased you most from your students’ responses?
    • What surprised you?
    • Are there any changes or adjustments you intend to make as a result of this feedback?

The supervisor’s evaluation of this component is then based on the teacher’s reflective ability to respond to “themes” within student feedback, and the supervisor can also serve as a prompt for any areas deserving further consideration. When effectively implemented, this approach would ensure that student feedback is purposefully heard and valued and that the professional relationship of the teacher and supervisor has further information for reflection and consideration.

In line with the MET report, I think some kind of triangulation of qualitative and quantitative data that utilizes student feedback (with teacher reflection), teacher and/or Professional Learning Community evidence of student learning and growth (with teacher reflection), and supervisor feedback from classroom observations (with teacher reflection) would help to provide a balanced and multi-dimensional approach for more intentionally and comprehensively understanding teaching and learning. There’s certainly considerable development needed in each of these areas, but can be worthy if the focus is on creating a learning-focused school in a trusting and mutually supportive environment where everyone is vested in each other’s growth and success.

Education is a lifelong calling, and it is value-added when there are meaningful processes to help all of us as educators to grow, to build on our relationships, and to continuously reflect and act on ways to improve the quality of learning and opportunities for all students.

Image: Dell’s Official Photo Page CC

To Break the Mold, Is Competency Learning the Key?

This piece was first published at Mindshift KQED and was written by Katrina Schwartz. It is reposted here with permission of Mindshift.  

batch-and-queue

More schools are starting to question whether traditional age-based classrooms are the best way to go, and to change the dynamic of teaching to the middle, they’re experimenting withcompetency-based learning, a system that moves kids along at different paces once they’ve shown they can grasp a key concept of a unit.

Kim Carter, executive director of QED Foundation, is a big supporter of competency-based learning.

“The choice is, do we want an education system that’s obsolete or do we want a system that is valued and creates value,” Carter said. The foundation offers training, coaching and consulting that focuses on student agency, as well as communities of collaboration both inside and outside school. Eventually, she says, that pace should be negotiated, with the student gradually taking over more responsibility for her learning.

Competency-based education is gaining momentum across the country. Already New Hampshire and Maine schools have transitioned to the model. Schools in Oregon, Iowa, Minnesota, and many other states are following suit. The Common Core State Standards are also pointing in the direction of requiring competency rather than just a passing grade. Though Carter says the language of the Common Core favors performance-based assessments — students will have to show what they can do — she thinks it’s unfortunate that a test will measure the learning, because at best, a test approximates meaningful assessment, but does not demonstrate real-world application of knowledge.

“The standardized tests that allow us to compare across states tell us nothing about the individual,” Carter said. “They were not designed to tell us anything about the individual; they are designed to measure the effectiveness of programs. That’s a very different thing.”

If learning becomes more personalized, tests should too. “The whole idea of competency is the ability to apply, document, and defend your learning,” Carter said. She proposes that schools use a common rubric to assess “uncommon learning.” In other words, she proposes teachers need to be strict in their expectations and required criteria, but more flexible in terms of how a student gets there. Students don’t all have to read the same book or create the same project, but they do have to demonstrate that they understand and can use the core competencies.

If a student gets 50 percent in a class in a traditional school, she fails and has to repeat the course or grade level until she scores higher, even if the score means that she understood half the material. Forcing her to repeat everything is inefficient and puts the student at a disadvantage for the rest of her academic career. In competency-based classrooms, students relearn and demonstrate competencies in only the areas that challenge them before moving forward.

“‘Batch and queue’ is horribly inefficient and destroys kids’ concept of self,” Carter said. “It’s likemanufacturing, where you put everything through the same system and compare it to standards at the end. If it doesn’t match, put it through again.”

CHALLENGES TO IMPLEMENTATION

Shifting to a truly competency-based system means big changes for schools and would produce a ripple effect. “If you are truly going to go competency based and not just have a veneer of change, it will require retooling our systems,” said Carter.

Teacher training tailored to a competency-based education system is still one of the biggest hurdles. Many training courses have been the same for decades and don’t reflect some of the changing trends in education, Carter said. Successfully implementing a competency-based system is no easy feat — it means valuing what a child can demonstrate he knows, rather than assuming a correctly answered test question signifies he can apply that knowledge.

“Competency-based education is a huge shift, not just in terms of actual practices, or what we do in the classroom, or how we document what happens in the classroom, but a change in what we believe,” Carter said. And teachers need to act their way into believing, they can’t just be told to do it. She points to nursing or other higher education programs that ensure graduates have the basic skills and competencies before they can progress as good models to follow.

The other big barrier is teacher evaluations. Right now teachers are assessed by how well students do on a test. But understanding how well a student really knows the material should take more than that, just as teacher assessments should be based on more data points, Carter said. Teachers and students are trapped in the same system, one that is at odds with competency-based models.

“Our whole evaluation system is pretty young in the sense that we have only a few rudimentary means of assessing what students know,” Carter said.

Ultimately, teachers need to be trained and supported in the same way as students. And for both groups the standards have to mean something. Carter fears that if the education system continues as it has been, it will not only be obsolete, it will provide diplomas that have little validity.

Image: Mike 1952 via Flickr cc

Unpacking the Basics of Equity in Education

Equity Protest at UN Climate talksAchieving equitable classrooms, schools, and communities is vitally important, yet much easier said than done.

While educators and education leaders may sometimes feel powerless to affect change on a large scale, they do have control over their local environments — classrooms, schools, and districts. It is here where equity work can, and should, begin.

Below is a video of Rachel Lotan, the Stanford education professor who is director of both the Stanford Teacher Education Program and the Program for Complex Instruction. In it she outlines some of the basics of equitable education as well as some ideas for reframing how we view and envision our systems of education in order to move toward greater equity.

Hat tip to David Cohen, founder of Accomplished California Teachers multi-author blog, for originally sharing this valuable resource. See below for more resources on equity in education and add your own in the comments below. 

For more information about equity work, check out these valuable resources:

Image: Young FoEE, flickr

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