Data: Is it Reliable? And What do We do with it?

It’s been almost a couple of months since my last post, and I find myself thinking of data again.

Earlier this month, the Gates Foundation released its cumulative findings on its 3-year Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) research project. They recommend a balanced approach which included observations and student perception surveys in addition to achievement test scores. If you look at the data in the report, much can be gleaned, yet it’s easy to see that effective teaching is a very complex thing to measure.

Also in the local news this week, teachers from a two different Seattle Public Schools, for various reasons, have stated they are going to boycott the district standardized test known as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).

There are many reasons standardized tests cause anxiety among students, teachers, parents, and school leaders. Often they are used as sorting mechanisms (admissions into schools, teaching effectiveness, and putting students on a certain track are just a few examples). Yet, if one approaches the data from these assessments with more purpose (to set new goals, to inform ones teaching, provide meaningful feedback, or guide learning), these measures can be useful.

Data today is abundant, but is it the right data? How data is collected, analyzed, and interpreted; how reliable it is; and what we do with it can make all the difference. Though the Gates Foundation and those Seattle Public School teachers are doing it differently, I’m glad there are many out there asking these questions.

Is Quantifying Teacher Performance Akin to Flipping A Coin?

Last week, on the way home from school, I tuned into a story on the radio titled: “Seattle Releases First Teacher Ratings Based on Student Performance.” Data is great, but if you paid attention to the elections a few weeks ago, there were two kinds of math going on. Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog predicted 50/50 states. Karl Rove’s analysis of the data had him flummoxed. The difference was that Rove was emotionally attached, was eager to win, and for some reason his analysis of the same polls was way off. Alternatively, Silver simply plugged numbers into complex algorithms.

Mathematicians have noted that test scores and teacher performance don’t necessarily have a strong correlation, yet an incredible weight and cost is attributed to these standardized tests. Math professor Johh Ewing says, “You might as well look at all the teachers and flip a coin and those that get heads, say, are good, and those that get tails are bad, and it’s not much different from using one year of growth to measure teachers,”

Ewings paper, “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by Data,” Looks at the potential pitfall of trying to create Value Added Measures to teacher evaluation.

Like the election examples earlier, we often attach a lot of emotion to the data creating a lot of noise. This noise had the potential to lead to bias. When a teacher says, “But I’ve done this for 20 years. I know this works,” it is evident that experience plays an important role. But is there bias involved. During those 20 years, did that teacher ever once control the experiment by not utilizing a particular skill? If so was the result the same, better, worse. Without trying to control for various things, how does one really know if what you do works. Is it just a feeling or is it based on empirical data.

Finally, there are so many things that make a good teacher: relationships with students, high expectations, integrity, care, leadership, collaboration, etc. Yet all of these traits can’t be tested for.

Standardized test scores are a reality and here to stay. As long as graduate schools use test scores as a tool to help with admissions, and undergraduate schools do the same, high schools and middle schools won’t have much of a choice. Elementary schools just follow.

There’s a dark side to this. Children as early as Pre-K are getting tutored in test preparation. Like the qualities of teachers, students have many amazing strengths and skills. However just because they struggle with test taking, potential doors my be closed without even giving the child a chance to show the brilliance that lies within.

And what about those 21st Century Skills – Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, etc. Will teachers drop integrating teaching these skills in order to meet the demands of the test scores? I hope not.

What Are Teacher Leadership Standards?

It was a marathon of a day with little time between to take in all that I was learning between sessions. One session that resonated with me was the call for identifying teacher leaders and giving them various responsibilities – not as add-ons, but by providing them the structures to take on these responsibilities. According to Kathryn Boles, we lose too many of our best teachers and attrition rates are too high. Many teachers do not want to become a principal/head of school, but they aren’t given the opportunities to be the change agents they want to be while still in the classroom. There are seven domains/standards for teacher leaders that have been identified.

Domain I: Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning

Domain II: Accessing and Using Research to Improve Practice and Student Learning

Domain III: Promoting Professional Learning for Continuous Improvement

Domain IV: Facilitating Improvements in Instruction and Student Learning

Domain V: Promoting the Use of Assessments and Data for School and District Improvement

Domain VI: Improving Outreach and Collaboration with Families and Community

Domain VII: Advocating for Student Learning and the Profession

You can get a lot more information about all these standards at this site (still under construction, but already very good). Every administrator should know about this site. Not only have standards for teacher leaders been developed, but the supporting strategies to support these have also been identified.

  • Increase the capcity to create staffing models that include differentiated career options for teachers. It’s shouldn’t solely be just teacher ==> assistant principal ==> principal ==> superintendent.
  • Develop new structures for licensing and/or credentialing teacher leaders.
  • Engage stakeholders in developing criteria-based models for the selection of teachers to serve in formalized leadership roles.
  • Develop systems for reward and recognition of the contributions of teachers in formal and informal leadership roles.
  • Establish compensation systems that recognize teacher leadership roles, knowledge, and skills.
  • Establish a performance management and evaluation system that is consistent with the identified and varied roles of teacher leaders.

I’ve a lot more to add on this one topic alone, but as I mentioned, the schedule is packed solid – Fantastic, but full. In fact, I’m getting ready for another 12-hour day of learning which starts in 15 minutes. Hopefully, I’ll be able to break some of the things I’m learning down into little chunks and how they apply to the classroom. In the meantime, check out that link above.

Atlanta Public Schools Open Amid a Testing Scandal –

Atlanta Public Schools Open Amid a Testing Scandal –

This article from todays NYTimes is alarming, but not all that surprising to me. What is really being assessed when tests create so much anxiety and pressure on students, parents, teachers, and administrators?

As a teacher, I’ve gone from worrying about how well my students do, to actually focusing on their mistakes. Mistakes actually provide you with a lot more information. Being able to analyze kids’ errors helps me understand and reflect on what I need to change. When I look at a test item, and see that more than half of my class got the item incorrect, it’s a good place to start asking myself why.

Unfortunately, standardized tests are good for expediency, but not always good for learning. The wrong answer doesn’t always provide enough insight. Take 2-digit subtraction with regrouping (borrowing), for example. If a child got the answer wrong, was it due to a misunderstanding of place value, did the child have a directionality issue, did they miss a step in the algorithm, did they simply add by mistake. A good standardized test may include incorrect answers that reveal some of the reasons, but not necessarily all. The only way to know for sure is to observe a child doing the problem and then asking them to explain what they did and why. It’s amazing the kind of insight you can gain from a few simple questions. Furthermore, with a test that provides four possible answers there’s a good chance your student had no clue, but guessed correctly. The correct answer provides very little information.

The other problem with some of the standardized tests out there, is the timeliness of the test-makers correcting and returning the results. By the time many schools get them back, it’s well past the point that they can inform the teacher with something useful about what they can change. With NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and RTTT (Race to the Top), the focus of test scores often becomes, “How did we do?” rather than “What can we learn from this?”

Many test companies are going to computer testing, which I think is great in terms of timeliness, but I wonder how kids 7 and under will do with a mouse. I’d rather the little ones touch their answers on a touch screen, but I suppose a mouse isn’t that far removed from filling in bubbles with a pencil.

This news story isn’t the first of its kind, but I hope it helps change the kind of pressure and anxiety that these tests can place on everyone involved. I’m not opposed to standardized tests; I think there’s a place for them. We have to keep asking, though, what are these tests actually testing and how can they help us be more effective. I hope that the policy makers behind NCLB and RTTT can learn from their mistakes and make student assessment something that’s actually FOR students and teachers rather than an assessment OF them.

I have one other minor criticism about these tests: they create a mindset of having only one right answer to a problem. While this may be true for a test item, we know that innovation comes from thinking outside the bubble and entertaining many possible solutions to more complex problems. By all means use standardized tests, but also include student interviews, their own reflections and assessments, observations, and the myriad of other assessment tools available.

Great Professional Development Resource

It’s been a couple of weeks since I was at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference, and my head is still full of resources and information. Today, I got an email from them with a few statistics about this year’s conference.

“More than 17,850 educators and exhibit personnel attended ISTE 2011, held in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Convention Center June 26-29. Conference highlights included:

  • 13,336 registered attendees
  • 4,562 exhibit personnel
  • Dozens of workshops with more than 2,611 tickets sold
  • An exhibit hall the size of 5.5 football fields featuring 1,423 booths and 501 companies
  • 149 registered journalists from around the globe
  • 1,025 attendees sent more than 3,000 letters to the U.S. Congress
  • Among the attendees were 1,152 presenters and 940 international attendees from 63 countries”
As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was daunting. Also in that email though, was a link to their ‘white paper’ on Coaching. ISTE’s webpage summarizes the details of the paper like this:
    • Situation: Effective use of technology is essential for teaching and learning in a global, digital age.
    • Problem: Many teachers do not know how to design and support technology-rich learning environments.
    • Solution: Coaching, combined with communities of learning, is a highly effective job-embedded professional development model
    • Result: Teachers experience technology as an effective tool for professional learning and develop the skills to powerfully use technology to improve student learning.
The paper’s content highlights include:
    • Introduction to three coaching models that provide highly effective professional development
    • 10 tips for leveraging technology, coaching, and community
    • 5 key benefits that result from the integration of technology, coaching, and community
    • Introduction to the NETS×C
You can download the whole paper here. It’s really a great read for all teachers/administrators who are trying to make changes in tech to better enhance student learning.

Best PD for Teaching IS Teaching

It’s been a while since I’ve taught during the summer, but this one particular program I started at yesterday intrigued me. First, the objectives of the classes were not written the way  State Standards or Core Curricula are written. For example, one of the objectives in one of the classes I’m teaching is for the student to ‘explore the different ways to employ creativity techniques in the development of a new invention.’ Second the classes are 90 minutes long which really allow for project/problem-based learning activities. Third, these are all multi-aged classes, so I’m seeing kids from ages 5 to 12 throughout the day. Not having committees, faculty meetings, regular email communication with parents, homework to assign, and unbelievable amounts of autonomy to reach or adapt these objectives to the actual kids I’m teaching, I have had time to play with, use, and have kids use technology in the class already. Finally, the program is only three weeks long, so there’s a lot of interesting thought that goes into planning out the courses. There are a lot of books about regular classrooms and how important it is to set the tone and expectations for kids in the first 6 weeks. I’ve only got three!

One can read and see examples of project/problem-based learning, but until you have a solid 90 minute block and figure out how to utilize that time best to suit the needs of the kids, it’s just a theory. By nature of the schools I’ve worked in, I haven’t taught a multi-aged class in over a decade. It’s been a lot of fun (and it’s only been my second day on the job). I am also loving the objectives being so open-ended and relevant to kids’ lives. While objectives for basic skills can be and are appropriate, it is evident that these kids are getting basic skills instruction and practice as part of their project/problem-based objective. Just thinking about the ‘real-world’ product that kids will create as a final assessment has been fun for me. Making the material relevant to them now, not someday in the future increases their motivation incredibly.

Professional Development can happen in so many ways. We can have workshops, attend conferences, teach other teachers, or coach, but in my mind, I think the best way to become a better teacher is to keep trying new ways to teach and adapt to your students.

In our own schools, it is possible for us to develop professional development like this. According to Douglas B. Reeves in his book Transfroming Professional Development into Student Results, he notes that not only does a school have to have vision for this kind of PD, but also implementation. Without implementation, the vision “not only fails to achieve the intended objectives but also engenders cynicism and distrust.”

Reeves also criticizes most schools for what he calls “Institutional Multitasking,” and that we need to FOCUS: Focus on teaching, curriculum, assessment, and leadership. Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009) stated that the largest effects in teacher improvement were found for programs offering between 30 and 100 hours over 6 to 12 months. We’d have to use all our faculty meetings and in-service days throughout the year just on one topic to reach that goal. So what is one of the biggest factors in supporting this kind of PD? The schedule. Marzano (2009) notes that school “leaders must be the architects of systems and schedules.”

Finally, Reeves talks about recognizing our biases and being willing to fail. “School leaders have a particular responsibility to respect research integrity, particularly when a teacher-researhcer expresses disappointment that a planned intervention was ineffective.” Teachers have to get over their fear of being wrong or making mistakes. It’s how we learn.

This summer job that I’ve got is a great one. Including the work I’m doing prepping for each class, I’m spending about 105 hours. That definitely puts me in Darling-Hammond’s range. Unfortunately, it’s not over 6 to 12 months. The systems and schedules for the next school year, may determine how effective our school’s PD is. I will have to build in my own to maintain what I’m currently learning.

We had a guest speaker talk about the campus's Green initiatives. These kids are examining native and invasive species on the campus's wetlands.

What is the Point of Learning?

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a TEDx event at Eastside Prep. Several speakers really spoke not only about what’s wrong with much of our education system (that would be too easy to do). They also spoke of changes that would enhance learning – the real kind of learning where you take risks, sometimes fail, but persevere until you get it. The reward is intrinsic. The value and motivation comes from the learning itself. For example, changing the schedule to allow for longer deeper inquiry or assessment without grades. Honestly, if I was evaluated on a grading system rather than through goal setting, feedback, and reflection, I wouldn’t do it. So why do we do this with kids in middle, high, and even some elementary schools? I’m glad people are motivated to put on events TEDx events focused around education. There’s another TED education event in this area, TEDxOverlake (How People Learn,) happening on June 18.

This week, the videos of these talks were posted, and I wanted to highlight a couple of speakers that addressed the above in different but concrete and passionate ways. The first is by Shawn Cornally, a high school math and science teacher called The Future of Education Without Coercion (you should also check out his blog, ThinkThankThunk.

The second is the talk by Dr. Tae whom I wrote about a few weeks back. His talk was titled: Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?

If you’ve read Daniel Pink’s Drive, read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, seen the movie Race to Nowhere, or heard Sir Ken Robinson speak or read his book The Element, a very similar theme emerges in all of them.

Meaningful Conversations

I am still digesting an incredible evening of ideas thoughtful discourse on public education from a diverse panel of advocates for public school and change at Seattle University (Part of their Conversations in Education series). Each made one articulate point after the other. While their views all differed slightly, they were all passionate, and there were clear common themes that came through. The panel included the following people: Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Tyrone Howard, Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, and Nicholas Hanauer.

The discussion was moderated by Joseph W. Scott (professor of Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Washington – and husband of one of my favorite profs at Seattle U.) He first asked each member to answer this question: Name the top two things on your list that you think is preventing achievement in public education.

Kati Haycock began and mentioned that we do not demand enough of our students. She also said we need to act on what we know. We know early childhood education makes a difference. Chester Finn mentioned that the state standards are too low, at least the Common Core curriculum seems to be better, he suggested, but warned that it only exists in math and reading and then reminded us again that the curricula is week. Tyrone Howard and Al Sharpton talked about the “New Racisim” which is saying to a child of color or poverty, “I understand your situation, so you don’t need to care as much, nor do I.” We need to become more comfortable talking about race and how education is not serving a significant part of the population. Denise Pope also agreed that our standards were too low, but particularly on authentic real-life skills. She mentioned that now we have doctors, who have aced every standardized test imaginable who cannot diagnose something because it doesn’t look “exactly like it does in the textbook!” She said there’s serious disengagement in school and kids are not healthy (both mentally and physically) – basically, she said (and I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t record it), “The curriculum is extremely broad, but about an inch deep and kids cannot think for themselves, collaborate in healthy ways.” Nick Hanauer (whose children I have taught), talked about bureaucracy, politics, and the need to distribute money equitably.

They were then asked to name one remedy they thought would work. It basically came down to proper distribution of funds, and shave away layers of bureaucracy.

Kati said, you cannot teach from a textbook – you need people who know HOW to teach, and you need to talk honestly and act.

Chester said we need to look at governance and strip away layers and have more leadership at all levels – not something that is hierarchical.

Tyrone said, use data and get effective teachers on board, incentivize them to go out to needy areas, include parents in the discussion, identify teachers that aren’t doing their jobs, try to remediate, if that fails – they should choose another profession.

Denise really spoke to the need for a strong Social / Emotional curriculum, and that the work kids need to do should be authentic, like the work we do. How many timed tests have you done lately? It’s like if my boss gathered all of us and gave us a timed test and those who didn’t score above a certain amount were fired. Many kids face high stakes testing daily, and we’re sending the wrong message to them. She said, kids need to know the value of being wrong, receiving redemption and leraning from it.

Nick spoke about allocating funds strategically and equitably and supporting legislators that support education. He gave concrete examples, like supporting arts programs in schools, and subject specialists. He also talked about the need to support early childhood education and all day kindergarten programs in public education.

Rev Al said, to change the culture, we have to create the culture, and to do that we have to have active engagement.

Active community engagement was on everybody’s list.

That was just the first part of the evening. There were three, but I couldn’t possibly try to summarize it all in one post, so I’m going to leave it there for tonight. I went with four colleagues, and I know one more who went separately. I just wish we could have had more people there , parents, board members, other leaders. It was an incredible and inspiring evening full of people modeling what they believe, taking action, and engaging in meaningful conversation.

What is Rigor?

According to the OED “…Harsh inflexibility (in dealing with a person or group of people); severity, sternness; cruelty….” Its obsolete meaning is “the sensation of numbness”

So, it’s no wonder that when charged with trying to define or explore rigor in math, the two researchers, Blintz and Delano Moore who wrote an article in this months Teaching Children Mathematics (December 10/January 11) titled “What Children Taught Us About Rigor” came away with a very interesting take on it all.

They looked at 2nd grade and 4th grade classes and depending on the perspective, teachers generally had very different definitions of rigor, than their students.

The authors stated that “rigor was the extent to which learners efficiently and effectively act on meaningful problems. Sometimes teachers characterize actions as problem solving that really are not…such actions are practice. Not that there is anything wrong with practice…but problem solving and practicing problem solving are not the same thing.

“Teachers primarily were seeing rigor from the realm of curriculum, where as students were seeing it from the realm of teaching and learning. The challenge is to integrate these two constellations.”

Here are the qualities of rigor identified:

  1. Active engagement: create learning experiences that get students actively involved in their own learning and the learning of others.
  2. Curiosity and inquiry: Develop open-ended lessons and provide a context that gives students encouragement and support to pursue extensions of those lessons.
  3. Confidence: Create a classroom environment in which students are comfortable taking intellectual risks.
  4. Meaningfulness: Design leaning experiences that are personally and culturally relevant.
  5. Critical thinking: Emphasize the how and why, not just the what.
  6. Problem solving: Offer opportunities for students to gain increasing ability to solve rich mathematical tasks as well as be thoughtful problem solvers.

While a teacher may be required to teach the steps in an algorithm, creating a lesson beyond that – that incorporates the 6 steps above requires rigor on the part of the teacher. When looking at teaching materials for children, those above criteria should be looked at carefully.

If you look at all the other definitions in the OED of rigor: strictness, hardships, privations, cruelty, etc., there is only one that states, “The requirements, demands, or challenges of a task, activity, etc.” That is what I think the authors meant.

Can One Be A “Champion” and “Well-Balanced” Teacher These Days?

I’m currently reading two books –  Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College and Mike Anderson’s The Well-Balanced Teacher: How to Work Smarter and Stay Sane Inside and Outside the Classroom.

The first of these piqued my interest when a nytimes article titled “Building a Better Teacher” appeared featuring Lemov’s book. The second book grabbed my attention mostly because if you try to do everything that a school asks you to do as well as use the techniques in Lemov’s books (by the way, many of those techniques are excellent for anyone who is a teacher), it is almost impossible to balance teaching inside and outside the classroom.

Here is an example in Lemov’s book about one of the “champions” he talks about: Julie Jackson who leaves her two children at 5:25 in the morning and doesn’t arrive home until 8pm later that same day. “After spending time with her family, she often flips open her laptop and emails until late in the evening.”

Lemov goes on to say that a good teacher isn’t someone with a gift, but someone who has “work ethic, diligence, and high personal standards.” I agree with that, but there’s often a cost – one of imbalance.

Lemov’s so-called 49 techniques are excellent, and while a little regimented, make perfect sense. For example, he suggests that you use precise and technical vocabulary. If you’re asking for the difference between two numbers in math, you are not asking about the difference in their properties. If you ask a child what the difference is between 10 and 8 is, and they answer, “One is a two digit number and one is a single-digit number,” in a way, the child is correct, but Lemov argues that you immediately correct this and define the term in math. Unfortunately, a lot of his techniques do not contribute to critical thinking or great dialogue among students, but also include some rather old-fashioned drill and kill ways to score well on a standardized test or simply to control one’s class.

Apart from lesson planning (also some excellent advice) what Lemov doesn’t do is talk about what teachers need to do outside of the classroom: collaborate with one another, discuss new curriculum materials, share what they have learned with each other, communicate with parents, consult with counselors, continue learning, read about best practices, correct student work, provide meaningful feedback, and so on. All of which require time, and yet so many schools have meeting after meeting only to read a list of announcements.

I’ll be sharing a few things I’ve learned with our faculty at our meeting on Wednesday. If they read this blog, they would have already seen my posts on those items. Since I’ll be presenting in a different format, I’ll try to make the most of it and try new things. We’ll see how that goes. Nonetheless, it will take preparation and time.

In Anderson’s book, he has some good advice. Advice though, that is difficult to take. He lays out his book in these sections:

  1. The importance of managing stress – Studies cited in his book find teachers have one of the highest levels of stress at work.
  2. Meeting our most basic needs – it’s true that I sometimes do not have the time to eat lunch because of supervisions, meetings, etc. He suggests journaling as a way to escape – somehow my journaling doesn’t disconnect me from work.
  3. Belonging: Becoming an Important Part of a Community – one of his suggestions in here is to engage in crucial conversations which he describes as those that can be difficult, however, I’ve noticed some people aren’t always receptive to those conversations.
  4. Significance – Teaching with a Sense of Purpose – Anderson suggests  creating a blog. He also says to remain creative and retain your voice. Today’s standardizations and textbook curricula are “sapping teachers of creativity and voice”.
  5. Competence – The Importance of Self-Efficacy – you’ve got to know what you’re teaching and feel good about what you do. Still, there is so much to know. This year, for example, my school took sustainability as its theme. While I’m a big proponent of this theme and its values, I’ve become more skeptical about organizations like LEED and the ‘greening’ of things. The bottom line is what behavior is really greener, not because it will get you a point, but because it is indeed a more sustainable practice.
  6. Fun -The Importance of Positive Engagement – when time is already an uncontrolled factor, how does one make a happy-hour fun. How does one build camaraderie, without it feeling like it’s forced? I’d love to create a lunch group for example and take turns bringing different things for members of the group, but with recess duties during lunch 4 days a week, that’s highly unlikely.
  7. Balance – The Importance of Planning out Time and Energy. Anderson’s suggestion of figuring out what to eliminate is a really good one. Last week, we only had half an instructional day due to snow days and the Thanksgiving holiday. We now have 3 weeks until a long 2-week break. Today, I sat down and prioritized the things that were most important to finish in these 3 weeks, and my job later will be to eliminate or postpone the items on the bottom of that list.

All in all, both books are good, but not great. Ultimately, I’d love to be a ‘champion teacher’ as cheesy as that book title sounds and be a ‘well-balanced’ one as well. Neither book  provided immediate help, but maybe over time they will.



Whether you love her or hate her, Lady Gaga has, in a very short time has become recognized around the world. This article from Fast Company talks about the gold standard of physical album sales (CDs) as the measurement for success. But she’s just reached over a billion views on youtube, sold songs in multiple formats, mp3 singles, etc.

The article says that it’s time for a much more robust way at measuring success and that there is plenty of other data to look at.

Hopefully we do that with children too, but if you follow some of the news, we still have standardized tests as the gold standard of student success. There are many different kinds of assessments available for kids, including self-assessments, portfolio collections, demonstration of mastery, rubrics, etc. While standardized tests can provide useful information if you get the results in time to actually DO something with them (like play to the child’s strengths and challenge them, or work on any observable gaps the results may produce), so often you hear of schools using the results as a way to punish or reward a school. Whether you’ve read Freakonomics (by  Levitt and Dubner) or Drive (by Daniel Pink), you know that the carrot and stick formula will either promote cheating, teaching to the test, or even worse apathy and lack of motivation. Even in education, standardized tests need to evolve so that they are a useful tool to help kids and teachers reach their full potential.

Do you know how successful your students are? Probably more important a question to ask is: Do your students know how successful they are?

You Can’t Hurry a Garden

…or children for that matter.

Keeping with Yong Zhao’s children are like popcorn, it was clear to me last week that some children weren’t ready to pop. We took a ruler out to our garden plot and decided to measure the rye grass and got a range from about 8 to 14 cm. Why cm instead of inches, it’s scientific, global, and in the common standards. What I tried to do was have them make the height of one box equal 2 cm. While half my class was ready to make that leap, the other half were still a little confused.

It was a good lesson in trying to remember where the kids are and not jumping to where you want them to be. I know growing a garden alone isn’t going to raise test scores, but it has the potential to definitely teach the children all sorts of great values about nutrition, agriculture, sense of community, the science of soil, nutrients, and plants, as well as data collection, measurement, and a whole host of other kinds of learning. Some of these activities may actually be useful in a test.

This week we visited our garden plot again, after reading Demi’s The Empty Pot about how honesty can be a courageous act. As a follow up to that reading we asked the children to remember what our master gardner said about each cover crop and what ‘trait’ each one had. The vetch was shy and would be the last out. The rye grass was tall and bold. The clover was friendly and loved to spread around. The students added to these traits, made one or more of these a main character and wrote a story.

What Vetch might look like when it's all grown up.

This time with careful guidance, the garden activity was meaningful to all and they came up with the cutest stories. It was a great way to teach about setting, character and plot through our garden.


Developing Your School Garden Program

The first thing I like about this chapter of the book, How to Grow a School Garden, is that the first year will involve some trial and error. Better with one grade, say the authors than four or five different grades. It also recommends that those most interested should be part of a garden committee for the pilot year. As one of my colleagues commented on a previous post about gardening, our school is rich with faculty who love gardening and have very green thumbs.

Managing gardens for a dozen or so classes becomes quite a management task, and often require garden coordinators. These can be paid garden professionals, the nearby community, or parent volunteers. They should be people who can share their passion with the children.

Next, linking the garden to the curriculum. The California Department of Education has published a set of content standards as have many others. That publication is available here.

As with other curricula, there should be a scope and sequence that makes sense, both to the school’s mission as well as the age of the students. Also, other subjects should be integrated with the garden curricula. Science is an obvious one, but garden art, language arts, and math are also fairly easy to integrate. From my experience with our lower school math teacher who is also a master gardener and has been generous to share her garden with our students, some of the activities we have done include: taste tests involving data collection and graphing, area and perimeter of garden beds, estimation and measurement (weight, length, number of beans, etc.), and geometry in the garden.

They highly recommend a garden journal, and as rigorous as your planned curriculum might be, be flexible and allow for the wonder and awe of nature to guide and possibly change your lessons.

It shouldn’t be up to the garden committee, or even the classroom teachers to maintain and grow the garden. It should involve everyone in the community and organizing maintenance schedules may be required.

Finally, this chapter ends with two things:

  1. The need for professional development. Non-gardeners like me will need to learn from the expertise that surrounds us and in turn, pass it on.
  2. The need to evaluate your program to help build on what works in the outdoor classroom, and what doesn’t.

Chef and author Alice Waters founded a non-profit that includes, The Edible School Yard. By the way, her new book, In The Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart is fabulous.

Photo from the website "The Edible Schoolyard" Click on image to get to website.

Teaching Engineering in the Early Grades

Many Schools Teach Engineering in Early Grades –

I love this article because I think it is exactly what kids need more of. Thinking outside the box, taking risks, looking at multiple perspectives, working cooperatively, designing, innovating, and many other skills are being developed here. In many ways, that is what science is about, but it’s also what problem solving is all about. And it’s not just in science, it’s in any field.

Getting outside one’s comfort zone isn’t really easy, but in order to keep improving, one has to ‘engineer’ and keep redesigning with the goal of improvement. That needs to happen in teaching too. If something isn’t going well, we need to reflect and try something different.

According to Tony Wagner in his book The Global Achievement Gap, he states that even the so called ‘good’ schools train students to get the right answer on a test rather than allow them to explore and discover how the world works. Chemistry classes that are run like a cooking show on TV where students simply follow a recipe, and physics classes, where students memorize formulas and solve for missing variables are all too common. In the end, they do well on the AP exams, but don’t have a clue about how the world works. Here’s what Wagner says are the 7 essential skills.

Kindergarteners’ worlds are full of wonder. How great that schools are allowing them to explore and discover. Yes, they need to learn how to spell too, but there should be a balance. Unfortunately, in our hurried age, where parents compete to get their kids into the best schools by giving four year old test preparation classes, and standardized test scores determine funding or teacher pay, the balance tends to shift to the items on the test.

I feel my school does a great job balancing these forces. Finding this balance, however, is not easy.

Common Core Standards Released Today

The finalized Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math K-12 were released today and I was surprisingly pleased with the math one. It is slightly different from the draft and there are several things I like about these standards:

  1. They’re simple. There aren’t too many of them. They are clear and achievable.
  2. They make sense. Having taught 2nd grade for 8 years, the standards are spot on. Of course many will be able to do more than that, but it is a reasonable goal for all children to achieve these standards.
  3. There is a clear scope and sequence (there were some odd gaps in the draft, but they seem to address what I noticed)
  4. The standards focus on content. It’s up to us to know, learn, and use best practices.
  5. It has the support of The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics (ASSM), and the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE)  who “support the goal of the CCSS to describe a coherent, focused curriculum that has realistically high expectations and supports an equitable mathematics education for all students.”

Standards are a great backbone that provide a good framework of expectations for kids, but often, there can be too many. Of course, if kids are ready, going beyond those standards is critical to their motivation and continued learning. Today were were given Sustainability standards to integrate with Science and Social Studies. Upon looking at those standards, it was nice to see that we are already doing all of them. We just have to make those things explicit.

There are several leading voices for and against standards. The April 2010 Ed. Leadership issue has several articles related to this. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I think of standards as a reference tool. Understanding your students well and knowing where they are in relation to the standards is what I find important.

I will be reading the English Language Arts standards over the summer which, for younger grades, focus on Reading, Writing, Speaking, etc.

Below are some links if you want to read more:

Common Core State Standards

nytimes article

NCTM and other math education organizations joint statement

Washington State Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Learning Standards (these were the ones presented to us today, but there are all sorts out there)


Continuing with Daniel Pink’s  A Whole New Mind’s 6 “senses.” The fifth right-brained skill he identifies is play. When you’re doing something and it feels like play, your motivation automatically goes up. Just imagine if your job was like that. What if learning for kids involved play?

Innovation and invention often come about from play. The Smithsonian had an exhibit linking play to inventors. It’s clear the with its new building, also had play as part of the design process.

Books, such as, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and The Power of Play: Doing What Comes Naturally by David Elkind have reached bestseller lists.

Kids need to be kids sometimes too, but often the pressures of ‘covering’ a ballooning curriculum all across this country continue to grow with new things added to it all the time.

In addition to the traditional core curriculum, themes like global awarenes, financial, business, and entrepreneurial literacy, health literacy, civic literacy, and environmental/sustainable literacy should all be integrated. In addition, Creativity and InnovationCritical Thinking and Problem SolvingCommunication and Collaboration, Information, Media, and Technology skills are all viewed as essential according to the Partnership for 21st Century skills. Then there’s life skills as well as social/emotional learning. No where does it say play. But I agree with Brown, that it indeed invigorates the soul. We need to make learning fun for kids, and they can learn so much from playing.

According to Daniel Pink, the workplace should include play. Companies like google have done remarkably well because of play. One of Pink’s recommendations is to play some sort of Caption This game.

Looking John Medina’s Brain Rules: it’s easy to see that play fosters many of them: Exercise, Attention, Stress, Sensory Integration, and Exploration just to name a few.

Everybody’s play is different. Currently, keeping this blog and tinkering with web2.0 tools has been my personal play, and I’m learning a great deal as a result. For others, gardening, walking their dog, or running, may be theirs. Sometimes we become too serious and biased by our previous experiences to let new ideas blossom. We don’t give ourselves the chance to fail to learn, and risk to succeed in a changing world. Instead, while well-intentioned, we let “busy” get in the way and forget to play.

What We Should Not Learn From China

The article, A Crack in the System: What We Should Not Learn From China from the spring 2010 issue of Independent School, is well worth reading. It makes points similar to those of Yong Zhao who will speak at this fall’s PNAIS conference. Unfortunately, all too often, standardized tests are the only tool used to sort students or judge the performance of schools or teachers.

The author Bruce G. Hamnond states that “Chinese students are capable of feats of concentration that boggle the mind of an American, and they are superb with problems that have clearly defined parameters. But tasks that are more amorphous, or do not have an obvious right answer, are often befuddling.” and “The uncomfortable realization is dawning that two core missions of independent schools, once thought to be synonymous, are in conflict: preparing students for college, and teaching them how to learn.”

To read the whole piece, click here.

K12 Common Core Standards for Math (I’m Glad It’s a Draft)

I’ve been trying to make sense of the draft of the K12 common core state standards for math. These are different from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)’s standards. Trying to line up what children should be able to do based simply on the grade they are in is not realistic. Staying close within the age range of the children I teach, I found it interesting that for Grade 1, they include “Tell time from analog clocks in hours and half- or quarter-hours,” yet there is no mention of introducing or teaching fractions until the Grade 3 standards. Then for Money, the Grade 2 standard reads, “Solve word problems involving dollar bills, quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. Do not include dollars and cents in the same problem. So I suppose asking a kid to add $1.50 and $1.50 is something I shouldn’t do? There’s no mention of learning about money again on these standards. Hmmm?

Math is a cumulative subject, but it isn’t linear, and like all things we learn, the more we use it, the more internalized it becomes leading us to be able to construct new concepts. While the standards and scope and sequence of most standards in math are linear, math itself is not. The subject of time involves many skills and for a second grader who doesn’t know how to read time on an analog clock, learning what skill or underlying concept is keeping them from moving forward.

Reading a dial is one skill.

Knowing that there are two separate dials (one divided into 60 parts and the other into 12) is another.

The one dial affects how the other dial moves.

The passage of time is another concept kids need to learn. How long is 5 minutes? Using and hour glass is a great visual for kids.

They need to be able to understand half and quarter of a circle and what that looks like.

They need to be able to count by fives as many clock faces don’t number the minutes.

AM and PM (many kids associate one with night and the other with day).

Time is not something that should be introduced in chapter 5, taught intensly for 2 weeks, assessed, and then done with. Kids should be asked to tell time out of necessity.

Student: Is it recess time yet?

Teacher: You tell me. There’s a clock over there.

The way your student responds can tell you a lot.

And for the children who already know how to tell time on an analog clock. Start preparing them for the problem that begins: A train left the station in New York at 3:30 PM …

Curricular standards (and how they are assessed) have been argued for decades. And they continue to be debated. Free creative commons digital textbooks, where students get to customize their own subject content and download it, are just starting. CK-12 is a good example (still mostly high school content).

Should Test Scores Be the Only Metric?

A sad post today: Whether it’s the current debate over merit pay in Florida, admissions to college, or national funding for public schools, using a single test score as the only metric for rewards or punishment might be flawed. Stanford New Schools in Paolo Alto was denied its charter extension due to low test scores. Do standardized tests favor certain populations? Why aren’t more metrics used? I’m curious if Linda Darling-Hammond advised Mr. Obama during his transition to close or improve bad schools. I highly doubt it.

You can read the nytimes story by clicking here.


We’re down to the Final Four, but this post isn’t about basketball. The hoops I’m talking about are the ones we are often asked to jump through in order to be certified to teach in this state. First off, Washington requires its teachers to enter a professional certification program. I completed mine a few years ago, but they have changed the requirements every year since its inception. I have a few colleagues going through it right now, and they seem to change things midway through. While I think it’s great to adapt and improve things, it makes it very difficult for teachers to apply this set of criteria to their work and make it relevant. Without a purpose, certification simply becomes one of those hoops.

Even to retain certification in Washington, a teacher needs to complete 15 credits or 150 clock hours of professional development approved by an Educational Service District every 5 years. Unfortunately, some of my best professional development experiences (those that have truly challenged me to examine the way I think about teaching or those that have inspired and motivated me to continue to pursue new things) have been those that wouldn’t qualify for clock hours or approved college credit. Books, articles, and blogs I’ve read, out of state conferences I’ve been to, lectures I’ve attended, work on advisory boards, and other committee work outside the realm of the school are just a few of the great ways I keep learning more about teaching. I know the state has to have some way of maintaining a set of standards. But this is a carrot and stick (if – then) model. If you don’t enroll in 150 approved clock hours, then your certificate won’t be renewed. In my mind, not something that encourages intrinsic motivation.