Wednesday, December 4, 2013

PISA results and motivation

A confluence occurred:

A) NBC News ran a story about the PISA results on December 3rd, in which a Chinese student (who appears to be high school-aged but wasn't identified as such), when asked, "Why do you want to study so much?" responded, "Because I want to have a better future."

B) A colleague was telling me that very few of her students even knew about the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, which offers free in-state college tuition to students who score highly on all aspects of the MCAS exam.  Many students appeared to be downright shocked to know that this was even available, and several commented that they would have tried harder had they known about this their sophomore years.

C) While researching information for my Modern America class, I saw that, according to an article in EdWeek citing stats from the US Department of Education, in 1969, 77% of the population of the US had a high school diploma.  More recently, this number has settled to just under 70%. That's a lot of high school diplomas...

These three things converged in my head to cause me to think that part of why the US is being "passed" by other countries on measurements of assessment like PISA, is not only because we are teaching outmoded content in outmoded ways, but is also because our students are hell and gone from the attitude displayed by the student in China.  There is little to no connection in the minds of our students that a high school education is the door to a better future. High school is what they do because they have to. They are required to be there, but they don't see how their learning could lead to a better job, a higher wage, and thus greater economic security. Where that got lost, I don't know, but it got lost. "I have to be here," is what many of my students say when I ask why they come to school.

I think that if more American students saw both an intrinsic and extrinsic value to what they did in high school, they would be more invested at performing at a high level, and thus would apply themselves more--they would "try harder" to get that scholarship.  I'm left wondering who and when and where and how can we as a society can communicate this value to our teenagers. "So you can go to college," is lovely, but if more, future school is the reward for school, the value and motivation wanes for focusing on what is immediately in front of the person. Especially when the person is 15. And especially when the person is being presented with irrelevant material...

Oh, and apparently 6100 15 year old US students took the PISA. According to the US Department of Education, that's out of a total high school age population of about 20 million (public and private) students aged 14-18. You can decide if that is or is not a representative sample of students, and thus whether or not we should be gnashing our teeth about being surpassed by Vietnam...

And if you like, the PISA results are tabulated here. Makes for some interesting reading...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Goal vs. Plan

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said it best: "A goal without a plan is just a wish."

Needed in some schools: Stop wishing; start planning!

My goal for my department is to successfully implement Common Core Reading and Writing standards in our curriculum by the 2014-2015 school year.

My plan began two years ago.

Year 1 (12-13)
Step 1: "Be an expert." I need to become an expert in Common Core Reading and Writing standards.  My timeline to become an expert: 1 school year. I will attend conferences, gather information, and spend time reviewing the different standards.

Step 2: "Play."  Design my own activities that utilize the language of the Common Core and try them out in my class.

Step 3: "Collaborate." Work with someone else in my discipline to expand my practical understanding of the standards.

Step 4: "Shake Hands." Once I know my stuff, I will have the members of my department meet the standards; We will discuss them as a group (both small and large) and have the opportunity to develop an understanding of what the standards are asking.

Year 2 (13-14)
Step 5: "Integrate." Have members of my department create assignments that align with Common Core Reading Standards. This is done collaboratively, with large group sharing of outcomes.

Step 6: "Evaluate, Re-Create/Curate." Have members of the department utilize the standards in the creation of common assessments, collect data on student performance, then tweak for future use. Share and curate assessments that are created. This is where we are now.

Step 7: "Be comfortable." Department members are familiar with the Reading Standards, have several resources at hand, and have designed lessons, activities and assessments that reflect the standards. No one is a stranger to the standards, and colleagues are supportive.

Step 8: "Repeat with a twist." The department will go back to Year 1, step 4 with the Writing Standards, and cycle through steps 5-7 with them during the latter half of this year and first part of the 14-15 year.

Year 3 (January, 2015)
Step 9: "Relax." The department should feel comfortable (and perhaps slightly smug) about their mastery of the Common Core Standards.

Is it perfect? No, of course not.  It won't be all smooth either.

But it is a plan, and it does help my goal become realized.

Which gives me an excuse to say:

"I love it when a plan comes together." --John "Hannibal" Smith.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A response to Trevor Packer about AP World History Scores

Today, Trevor Packer, the College Board's Head of AP, according to his twitter bio, tweeted the following:

AP World History scores, 2013. 5: 5.7%. 4: 13.5%. 3: 29.4%. 2: 30.4%. 1: 21%. These may shift slightly as late exams are scored.

This year’s AP World History essays earned the lowest scores ever. It appears many students are being rushed into the course.

Out of 9 points possible on each of the 3 AP World History essays, the mean scores were: 2, 1, 1, the lowest essay scores ever on this exam.

113,000 AP World Hist students (60% of all) earned 0/9 pts on Q2 (politics – continuity/change in medieval cultures)

Ideally, AP World History is a 12th grade course, after a standard world history course in an earlier grade. But some 10th graders excel.

The AP World History exam is designed and scored by many college faculty, who ensure it reflects the standards of a college course.

You can see the actual tweets if you go to the feed of @AP_Trevor. 

So the test results indicated that students did universally poorly on the Free Response Questions with mean scores of 2, 1, and 1. Why is that, I wonder? And overall, the vast majority of students who wrote the exam, over 70%, did not earn a score that would garner them college credit!

In my experience, any teacher worth his or her salt can look at student performance on an exam and gauge a number of things. The majority of good teachers, when confronted with a universal fail (because that's what mean scores on the FRQs of 1 and 2 out of 9 are: failure) are faced with one of two causes for that failure. It is either a failure to prepare well, or it is a failure to write a good test. Mr. Packer would indicate by his tweets that it is the former, and not the latter, and that this is due largely to students being "rushed" into taking a course that is ideally taught to 12th grade. On what does he base this assumption? Presumably, since all AP courses must submit a syllabus to the audit process and receive approval to be named "AP," the College Board is aware of the grade levels, content, structure and pedagogy of the class being taught. Is Mr. Packer indicating that the College Board has been rubber stamping courses that are poorly structured? Surely not. Is Mr. Packer indicating that they should not approve this course to be taught to any grade lower than 12th? Why, then, are classes like mine, taught to 11th graders, approved? If the course is for 12th grade, then it would behoove the College Board to limit the courses designated as AP to lower grades by applying an even stricter standard of pedagogy to those syllabi for non-senior classes. But they don't. Perhaps there is not enough free response practice built into the syllabi of the nation's classrooms teaching AP World. But if that were the case, why are classes lacking in sufficient practice time approved? My students write an essay every two weeks, and we spend a lengthy amount of time reviewing the score guides. Is that not enough because they are juniors and not seniors? I don't think that Mr. Packer has a leg to stand on with his justification for the score results based on preparation. This simply is not an acceptable reason for the low rate of success on the Free Response Questions, and the low overall scores unless Mr. Packer is meaning to discredit the audit process. And maybe he is, but since his checks come from the College Board, I rather doubt it.

No, the conclusion we can point to is that the Free Response Questions were poorly constructed. Now, Mr. Packer's defense is that the exam is scored and designed by "many college faculty." This would certainly help to explain why recent questions are written around such esoterica as Cricket and Indian Politics, the mechanization of the textile industries in Japan and India in the late 1800's, and the "continuity and change of politics in medival cultures." Could you write a broader question? When 60% of your students can't even write an acceptable thesis statement for a question and gain one point, Mr. Packer, you have a poorly. written. question. Or you have 113,000 poorly prepared students nation wide. So which is it? Were the 40% who scored higher than a 0 on that question all the 12th graders? I doubt it.

Mr. Packer, the initial test data are telling you that you need to hire a different group of people to write your questions, because the esoteric minutia that interests your "many college faculty" don't result in good questions. I have not seen the FRQ's from this year's exam, and I shall not rely upon my student's reportage to comment on them specifically. But I can feel very safe in assuming that the questions did two things: poorly represent the scope of actual world history in any larger sense (i.e.: they were likely pulled from 600CE-2000, (a mere 1400 years, not even close to the full 8,000 years the course is supposed to address) and that they relied upon students using information about Europe to generate answers. Those are the overwhelming trends of the FRQ's in recent years. Perhaps the "many college faculty" who design and score the course are all specialists in European history? are all a group of modernists? cast offs from the AP European cohort? Of course, when you design a course that is not supposed to deal with Europe and North America, and then you only design the test questions around Europe and North America, those are the results you get. Face it, Mr. Packer, just as happened in 2002 with the first time around, your "many college faculty" wrote a bad test.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Myth of Digital Natives

Year two of the 1:1 iPad initiative in my school is progressing, and as time has passed, I've been realizing that a fundamental assumption I was making was completely wrong.

In 2001, Marc Prensky wrote that, "our students today are all "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet." (You can read his work at:,%20digital%20immigrants%20-%20part1.pdf) I read this at the time and thought he was correct in his description of the "digital native," and I accepted that I was a "digital immigrant."  However time and experience has helped me to realize the error of his and my assumptions.

I agree with Prensky that there is a difference between the students today and the teachers who teach them in terms of levels of comfort with the technology. My students are fearless with their handling of devices. (Often too fearless, as evidenced by the rising number of cracked, chipped and spider webbed screens in my classroom...) However, there is a difference in being fearless with handling and being fearless with using! They are not native speakers of the technology they hold. Here's why I think so:

1) A digital native would instinctively utilize digital tools. When I ask my students to articulate their understanding of a topic and give them a free choice of how to do it, they automatically gravitate toward something that they draw, hand write or compose on paper. They do not gravitate toward anything on the iPad.  They have to be anywhere from encouraged to required to leave the comfort of paper and writing implements to make use of the digital tool they hold in their hand.  Their default is analog, not digital.

2) A digital native who spoke the language of computers and the internet would be able to do more than a rudimentary search for a topic in a search engine. They would be able to ask sophisticated questions in a way that would actually use the search engine to find answers to their questions without me having to teach them how to use the tool. Yes, they all go to Google to do research, and they prefer that to researching in books. But, all the ways to refine a digital search continue to elude my students at the deep, native level, and instead this trait exists on a superficial level.

3) A digital native would be able to creatively take advantage of digital tools available to them. They would be able to generate ideas in a digital format and see them through to completion without the instructor having to model the use of the format, the composition and the creation. This I have to do every time we do a project in my class. Any app we use must be explained and demonstrated by me before my students will make use of it in an independent fashion. And even then, they will only use the tool in the way in which I showed it to them; they neither take risks with it nor do they innovate with the tool to combine it with other tools.

I have stopped giving my students a wide open range to express themselves while using the iPad. The results are disappointing.  The students say it is overwhelming, they don't know how to use the iPad and its many apps to articulate their understanding, and they need me to show them how, tell them what to do, and translate their paper desires into a digital format.

Perhaps, now that my district has pushed iPads down to middle school and will expand into the elementary schools in the coming year, when a student who is currently in kindergarten arrives in my classroom having had this device as a part of his or her educational life, I will not have to lead them in the use of technology, and they will begin to resemble the digital native Prensky described.

This is all not to say that the iPad isn't working well, for in many ways it is, it is just to say that we teachers can't assume that our students are going to be any more knowledgeable, creative and comfortable with digital learning tools than we are.  At this point, I may be older than my students, but I remain a level above them when it comes to knowing how effectively to use technology to learn.  And that means that sadly, Mr. Prensky was wrong.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

My argument against a politician for MA Senate vacancy

Dear Governor Patrick:

As a citizen of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I write to make a rather unusual request.  With each day that passes, it becomes clearer that there will be a vacancy in the Commonwealth's Senatorial delegation when John Kerry moves into the President's Cabinet.  I am certain that there are many in the political establishment who will be interested in filling that vacancy, and no doubt you will be pressed to appoint various "highly qualified" politicians to fill the vacancy. Most recently, Representative Barney Frank has made his case public. As you consider the vacancy, I would ask that you remember that Article 1 of the Constitution makes it clear that a Senator should be over 30, a citizen for 9 years, and a resident of the Commonwealth, nothing more, and there is wisdom in that simplicity.

As a citizen of the Commonwealth, I would ask that you make use of your power to appoint a replacement to select someone from outside of the political class that operates in this Commonwealth.  Please choose an individual who has neither held public office, nor been a member of either political party's establishment.

My reasons for this request are three:

1) We are living in a time of partisan gridlock. Every member of the establishment of both parties in this and every state seem to be unable to even socialize with each other. None are interested in doing anything other than advance their parties "agenda." Everything is contentious, and nothing is collaborative. All of the Federalist Paper's warnings of factions have come to fruition. "Highly qualified" politicians who are beholden to a party for their political careers won't be able to set the party aside. The current result of this indebtedness is that there are no new ideas in Washington, and I think everyone can agree that we need new ideas desperately. Congressman Frank, though a skilled legislator, has not been successful in moving the country forward in any of the issues he claims to be able to impact in the Senate.  Taking nothing away from his legislative accomplishments, isn't he nothing more than the same wine in a new bottle? Appointing an unknown person would help to end partisan gridlock by introducing a person who is not beholden to the party establishment of either party. This would allow the new Senator to seek the best path to solutions, not the over-trodden party path.

2) We need new blood in our political institutions.  Look at the tenure of our elected officials in the Commonwealth.  All the Representatives in the House have served so long that they don't remember what it is to actually work for a living. Our State Legislature sees turn-over only due to scandal or retirement.  Every indicator we could use clearly points to the fact that we have a political class in our country. All are wealthy, all are older, all are white, all are, for lack of a better word, aristocrats.  We are perilously close to losing a government of, by and for the people. The barrier for participation as an elected official is so high monetarily that ordinary citizens can't aspire to public office.  That is not how our system was meant to be. Appointing a person from outside that political class, someone who does not match the stereotype, would inject newness into a body that has become old and stale and help to undermine the presence of a political class in our society.

3) Holding public office is no longer viewed as a noble endeavor by our society.  Rarely do I hear students in my school talk about a desire to serve our country through running for elected office. It is not an aspiration by those outside the political class. (i.e.: those not named Kennedy...) This is directly related to the above, as Senators are seen as rich bums who can't get things done. Pulling in someone for appointment who is a regular citizen who is simply a person "of continental character" creates a clear role model for those young people to believe that they can hold office too. It opens doors for greater participation, and we need that right now.

Obviously whomever you appoint will have the seat temporarily, and the usual suspects will no doubt run for the office once the interim period ends. In the end, it is likely that the electorate will be forced to choose from whichever stooge the two parties put up.  But maybe that appointed person will choose to run in the future as well.  Maybe that person will inspire others to run. Maybe that person will propose legislation that helps cut through the clutter and actually bring about change.  Maybe that person will do nothing more than just represent the Commonwealth with dignity and honor, having been genuinely honored by the appointment, rather than feel it is an entitlement.

So please, Mr. Governor, broaden your net.  Invite those who are new to the process to participate, even if just for a short while. Look around the Commonwealth to find the best person who is over 30, been nine years a citizen, and who resides in the Commonwealth.  Those are the first criteria by which a candidate should be judged; I urge you to remember that as you contemplate this vacancy.

Thank you for your time,

Todd Whitten
Natick, MA