Monday, June 29, 2009

In order to fix education - study Fleetwood Mac

I am attending the National Educational Computing Conference here in DC and went to the keynote address by Malcolm Gladwell last night. I was a fan of his after the Tipping Point. I have become a little less so in recent years – especially after reading Freakonomics and seeing a great second reason given for the reduction in NYC crime. It suddenly dawned on me that maybe anecdotal causal evidence should be suspect.

So there I was armed with a healthy dose of cynicism when Mr. Gladwell launches into a comparison of educating our children and Fleetwood Mac. Since many in the audience were from my generation, it was a good hook. The basic premise is that (he managed a quick plug of his book Outliers) we all think of Fleetwood Mac as a kind of overnight success but it took 10 years, 16 albums, many different musicians to get to that big. Note that the core group of musicians who produced the self titled album and Rumors were an overnight success. So it is a bit of a stretch from the beginning – but it was not too much of a leap.

So Mr. Gladwell states that “studies have shown” that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything and that it is almost pointless to rush that time like the 10 years for Fleetwood Mac. He then points out that on the TIMSS test (the math test where US students are horrible) there is a 120 question psychology survey at the beginning. Heinously long for any survey and most kids don’t like to finish it. Turns out that the kids that answer the most questions on the psych test are also the same kids that perform the best on the math test. His dramatic conclusion is that math isn’t about math aptitude but the patience and ability to slog through lengthy, time consuming work – 10 years just like Fleetwood Mac.

Now – his data can be questioned a bunch of different ways – but I do agree with his premise. Here in the US we have come to the “belief system” that you are either good at math or bad at math. And either way, more practice will not help. We choose to ignore the 10,000 hour rule while other countries that have gone way beyond us choose to give everyone a lot of math practice to master the concepts.

Then I got distracted for a little while because I was outside the hall in a viewing lounge and 15 different people were twittering on his talk – pretty funny to see all those computers up on twitter – half of this little audience were in full tweet.

The second lesson of Fleetwood Mac is that they didn’t really build on their initial success – they built on their failures. A capitalization strategy builds on success and a compensation strategy builds on failures. His theory is that people/groups (like Fleetwood Mac) who build on compensation strategies are much more successful. Thus we should let students fail and they will compensate by being better students. He then made it sound like only people who are dyslexic can make great CEO’s because of their compensation strategies.

Again – I kind of agree with the premise and believe that part of our problem over the last 15 years is raising the most pampered generation in history where no one can fail – everyone gets a trophy for participating and we socially promote kids that can’t read.

The final lesson from Fleetwood Mac is that they tried many different music genres before deciding on the California sound (huge leap here – they decided on that because Stevie Nicks joined the band and that is what she was good at). His conclusion is that student learning is likely a zig zag pattern and not a linear progression but all schools are set up on a linear focus.

Again – the data link is weak but the conclusion is sound. We need more individualized instruction and learning that is not structured on an archaic system but is based on the student’s ability to learn.

So I can agree with Malcolm. In order to fix student learning we need to fully analyze Fleetwood Mac - - but the leap it took to get to that conclusion was pretty lame.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

There will be shrieking

It happens every June here at ABCTE – I get yelled at because people fail their exams and are in danger of losing their jobs. About 40% of our candidates respond to our surveys that they are currently working in education. A full 20% are actually the teacher of record and they came in on an emergency license or some other license. Because of their situation, they now have until June 30th or July 31st to complete their ABCTE program or they cannot teach next year.

The problem is that people wait until the last minute to take their exams. So if they don’t pass, there isn’t a lot of time to get things done. In some cases the automatic response by these teachers is to shriek loudly at all levels of the organization hoping that someone will just miraculously pass them. Obviously this doesn’t work. So we all scramble around to get them some help and then in to re-test.

The automatic response you may have is that these people are procrastinators, at worse lazy, and don’t deserve our help. But I take a different view – they don’t have time during the year to get things done. If you have ever taught, you know that first year teaching is physically and mentally exhausting and at night you still have to tweak those lesson plans, grade papers and run your life outside of school. This doesn't leave much room to study which is why we prefer, and strongly encourage, that all alternatively certified teachers get their work done BEFORE entering the classroom. But that is not always the case with the teacher shortages out there today.

So next year we are going to push a little harder in April to reduce the shriekage in June – but knowing how hectic the end of the school year can be, I won't hold my breath.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ending Over-reaction

A while back I noted that school districts love the irate parent ploy when budgets are being discussed. They start letting parents know that sports will be cut, class sizes will be huge, activities cut and music/art programs eliminated. Obviously the parents get mad, attend budget meetings and let the county commissioners know they may find themselves electorally challenged in the next election.

The same holds true for teacher layoffs. In Arizona there was mass panic about the pending layoffs and now we are told that almost everyone notified that their job was over is being rehired. We are hearing the same thing in Florida and in South Carolina our teachers are getting hired as well.

Is it the stimulus or just common sense replacing over-reaction. I believe it to be the latter.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Drop out prevention

For those who are interested in getting more info on Colorado, you can hear the melodic voice of Dave Saba (me) on a podcast from the Independence Institute. Also a great post from ediswatching on the latest education happenings in Colorado.

We will have to develop a drop-out prevention course for all our teachers in order to meet the new law on teacher certification in Colorado. We grumbled a bit but when we saw some of the resources from CDE has already put together on this it becomes a much more exciting project. We have also talked with the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE) to get some great local input.

Our intent is to make this a free program available to all teachers since there are so many great resources out there and there is such a need…..if you would like to offer your thoughts, or help, on this important project please feel free to give us a call.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It's about the students in Colorado

I had the pleasure of attending the Alliance for Choice in Education event in Denver this week. Many out there in the education world hate choice and think it is a bunch of rich white guys trying to foist their economic principles on the education system.

But in Denver it is about saving kids. ACE knows that they cannot save every child stuck in poverty, but they feel strongly that saving one at a time from a destiny of failure is a worthwhile cause.

Keep an eye on Colorado. There are some incredible people out there who really care about kids and that passion is creating results. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) is putting resources there after an amazing start at the Democratic Convention. They don’t have vouchers, but they have school choice and they have over 150 charter schools that are getting results.

The Colorado legislature recently passed a bill to allow greater flexibility to the state school board on alternative teacher certification. There is also a much greater focus on dropout prevention AND they have a credit recovery programs that are getting some great attention.

There are signs that maybe, just maybe, people will continue to focus first on the students in Colorado and put the adults a distant second

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Reform-O-Meter takes a hit

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli is keeping the Obama Reform-O-Meter which he has pointing to a fairly neutral education agenda for the President and Secretary Duncan. He needs to point the arrow more to the left this week.

We got notice that the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) is beginning to release some of the $635 million they have to dole out under ARRA. They want to give out $143 million to 35 lucky groups to improve teacher quality. From the email:

  • Department of Education (DOE) announces funds to improve the quality of new teachers by creating partnerships among Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs), high-need school districts (local educational agencies-LEAs) their high-need schools, and/or high-need early childhood education (ECE) programs. Partnerships would create model teacher preparation programs at the pre-baccalaureate level through the implementation of specific reforms of the IHE's existing teacher preparation programs, and/or model teaching residency programs for individuals with strong academic and/or professional backgrounds but without teaching experience.

Note that we are not eligible because we are not an Institution of Higher Education even though we currently have an innovative approach that prepares people from professional backgrounds who don’t have teaching experience.

But now, in the name of innovation, the DOE is going to throw a ton of money at groups that have never created a model teacher preparation program. In fact, when they create so-called alternative teacher certification programs they are almost always a few classes short of their normal master’s program.

Exactly the opposite of what Clayton Christensen says we need in order to create disruptive innovations in education. True innovation will not come from within the system. Note that Clayton even refers to ABCTE in this CNN Commentary.

Roughly a third of the “innovation” dollars go to those most firmly entrenched in supporting the status quo. Looks like Mike needs to move the arrow.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Teacher lottery

Interesting summary on Kane's Work on teacher effectiveness in the Harvard Review. I think the most interesting evidence found in the article is that:

  • Kane and his coauthors found that schools can gain a fairly clear picture of a teacher’s effectiveness in the first two or three years. Beyond that point, the returns on experience—as teachers improve with practice—begin to diminish. “You’d expect the distribution of teacher effectiveness to get tighter as the years pass,” Kane says. “But we see the opposite. There’s a tendency for the more effective teachers to get better faster, while the weaker teachers don’t catch up.”

I am fascinated with this incredibly wide variation in teacher performance. The reason for the phenomenon above is that no one gets fired and everyone gets the same raise each year. So poor performers really have no incentive to improve. They can just continue to muddle through in their permanent state of in-house retirement.
Meanwhile, the many teachers who care continue to improve their teaching and continue to look for ways to reach more students and create more student success.

So the system will continue to harbor this wide division of teacher performance and education becomes a lottery – if you get the great, caring teachers you win – if not, you lose……for life.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Stop the Madness

Birmingham, Alabama took a very strange step last week. They decided to continue to hire teachers from the Philippines even though Baldwin County used this same route a few years ago and it didn’t work out so hot. And they are recruiting overseas in spite of the fact that so many people in this country have lost their jobs.

People wonder why we education reformers get so irate. But here we have an excellent example of maintaining the status quo just because that is what you have done in the past in spite of evidence telling you not to go down this path again. Baldwin County hired 12 teachers from the Philippines through Avenida International Consultants in 2007, and only three of those teachers remain today. That's a stunning 25 percent retention rate, yet Birmingham is ready to hire teachers through that same recruitment agency.

In the nine states where ABCTE operates, we have a teacher retention rate of 85 percent after three years. Additionally, 95 percent of principals rated American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence teachers to be as effective, or more effective, than their peers.

It seems insane that Alabama schools would go down a path that already failed them once when there are more viable options that can help them fill their math and science positions with people here in the United States that need jobs today. But maybe the administrators just like going on junkets to the Philippines with education dollars instead of dedicating them to the students.