Sunday, October 5, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

For the past few weeks, our curriculum coordinator (a dear friend and all around wonderful, thoughtful person*) has been coming at me with data. She knows perfectly well that I find numbers repellant, so she tries to soften me up with lollipops and promises. She claims that by digging into the data about NECAPs and NWEAs we will be able to increase our test scores! She tells me this fully believing that I give a rat's ass about test scores. She also tells me that by looking at the data I will be able to give targeted instruction to my students to help them become better readers and writers -- now that's more like it.

Here's the thing, though - she wants me to focus on "bubble kids" or those students who were just a few points shy of scoring in the proficient range on the NWEAs. And, if you're looking at numbers, that makes a lot of sense, right? If I can focus my limited attention on kids who are nearly proficient, I can take our school from being in the AYP doghouse into the promised land, and we'll all be able to attend conferences with teachers from York and Kennebunk without bowing our heads in shame. Except, wait a minute, we aren't talking about numbers, not really. WE'RE TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN! Human beings with hopes and dreams and moms and dads and futures. Shouldn't my focus be on helping those kids who are furthest behind, the ones at greatest risk for dropping out and going to work in the coal mines?** Statistics may tell me that I will have the greatest impact school-wide if I focus on "bubble kids" but when I look into the big brown eyes of Natalia, who has a voice like an angel and the reading level of a third grader, I don't care that she scored a one instead of a two. All I see is a kid who needs my help.

Data has its place. Making big decisions about scheduling and curriculum design should always be based on data rather than our own (mis)conceptions about what's important and what's not. And, if the data can show me specifics about where my students have gaps in their learning, bring it on! But let's not forget that behind those numbers are real live people who deserve everything a public education can offer them.

* For real - she is one of the best people I know. We just don't happen to agree on this one issue, as you can probably tell.
**There are no actual coal mines in Saco, Maine.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Being Odd is Good

For the past few days I have been attending the Northeast TURN Conference, and boy does my brain hurt! TURN stands for Teacher Union Reform Network, so this conference brings together educational leaders, union big wigs, admins, smarty pants from Harvard, and humble 8th grade ELA teachers, all for the sake of strengthening education. TURN was created many years ago from the notion that educators should be at the forefront of education reform, and that unions shouldn't just be about protecting the 20 minute lunch; unions should be advocates for social justice.
I've attended five of these conferences in Cambridge and I've gone twice to the national TURN conference in Chicago (where I developed my deep and abiding love for the Chicago Cubs). Sometimes the work of TURN feels too big for little old me. What do I have to say to people from Washington, with their posh suits and their knack for talking for ten minutes without actually saying anything? This time, though, I decided to talk, even if my ideas came across as small or silly. I'm glad I did, because I made some great connections and engaged in some wonderful conversations.
Here are some of the highlights of the conference, which was focused on education in general with a side order of teacher evaluation:

  • Here's a metaphor for you in response to the suggestion that the answer to failing schools is to train teachers better: Imagine a dangerous intersection. There are 30 accidents a day at this intersection, so street reformers come along and say, "Let's have everybody take classes in driving, since the greatest indicator of success in road safety is safe drivers." OR here's an idea- you could put in a stop sign! Systemic change is necessary, bandaids and placing blame won't cut it. 
  • Another metaphor:  If we ran hospitals the way we run schools, doctors would say, "Regardless of your ailment, we are going to give you identical treatments in the hopes that it will make the majority of you well." 
  • The idea that we will start kids off in Kindergarten, bringing them together from disparate backgrounds and at widely varying levels of cognitive ability, and then keep them together for 12 years regardless - that's not helping anyone. 
  • Teacher evaluation should be used not to find and fire but to support and inspire. 
  • Education reform must address three issues if it is to be meaningful:
    • Customized education that meets every kid where he is in early childhood and continues through graduation. We acknowledge prior experience, different ways of learning; the meritocracy no longer applies (mass customized learning).
    • Deal with poverty front and center - the things that stop kids from attending school and being able to thrive physically and emotionally. This must be the work of our unions, too, and non-cognitive features need to be addressed. 
    • Create a level playing field for out of school opportunities.
As always happens when I attend a conference where Big Ideas are presented, I have trouble sleeping because my mind races with what I want to do about all I've learned. That's not a problem, though - I kind of like that about myself. When I was talking to Andy from Massachusetts Education Partnership District Capacity Project
 I told him about the challenges of working in a school that desperately needs change but is filled with fear about that change, how difficult it is to stand up and call for systemic reform when it's so much easier to keep my head down and just teach. He patted me on the back, smiled, and said, "You're odd. Being odd is good." So that's my mantra now - being odd is good.