Thursday, May 31, 2012

Testing conundrums, mysteries, riddles, and enigmas

Recently there has been a lot talk about the dangers of standardized testing. The arguments against standardized testing range from the pressure it puts on students to the narrowing of the curriculum to the time spent in test prep instead of real teaching. I would not disagree that there is a mania around testing that can at times be damaging to the educational enterprise. I would not disagree that those of us in schools can create an anxious environment around the whole testing issue. As a Superintendent I get anxious right before the state test results are released.

Yet my concern is how do we hold ourselves accountable?

Students come to our schools to learn. We must be able to demonstrate that students are learning. We do that by assessing students.

Some might argue internal, end-of-course, teacher made tests are good enough. I disagree.

I want some external validation and verification that what I say students know they know. That requires some sort of standardized assessment that I can give across classrooms, across buildings, across the district.

Of course, schools should not become test prep factories.

Of course, schools should not focus exclusively on external measures.

Of course, schools should have a well rounded assessment system that provides a variety of measures of student achievement.  That would include teacher made, classroom specific assessments. But it would also include some external standardized assessment as well.

Standardized tests must be a part of any well organized, comprehensive, authentic assessment system.

Without some external measure I do not believe that we can truthfully say that students know what we say they know.

The conundrum is how do we create an assessment system that has a variety of measurements that collectively give us a picture of how each student is performing?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fish, fishing, fishermen, and the quality of teaching

I have engaged many times in the act of fishing and yet have failed to catch a fish. Could it be said that I was a fisherman or does the fact that I did not achieve my goal argue that I was not a fisherman? 

If you call yourself a salesman but never actually sell anything should you be considered a salesman?

If you call yourself a doctor but nobody ever gets healthy in your care should you be considered a doctor?

These are not - as surprising as it may seem - unimportant questions in my line of work.

I am a Superintendent. I am responsible for making sure that students learn. Most believe, as I do, that students learn best when they have a quality teacher in the classroom.

In fact, this year, teachers in the state of Michigan have to be rated highly effective, effective, minimally effective, or ineffective.

How do I determine a highly effective teacher?

Do I only look at the results?

In looking for a fishing guide I would look for someone who has caught fish not just someone who has the best fishing gear.

In determining how effective a teacher is should I not look for someone who can demonstrate that students have learned?

Or is it not as simple as that?

Can a person be good at teaching even though their students may not be able to demonstrate that they have learned?

Can teaching and learning be separated?  Can you have someone who engages in the activities of teaching but does not actually help a student learn?

Fenstermacher and Richardson, in an article that explores many interesting components that surround the issue of quality teaching, ask one particularly important question: What is the point where it is no longer acceptable to say we are teaching when no learning follows from our efforts?

Students must learn. But should we separate, at some point, teaching and learning?

Teachers who are judged to be highly effective, using Michigan's terminology, should be able to demonstrate good instructional strategies, knowledge of the curriculum, and an ability to assess learners. They should also be able to manage the classroom, engage students appropriately, and create a positive classroom culture. But should they be able to demonstrate that students have learned?

If one believes that the only variable in learning is teaching then we could and should hold teachers solely accountable for student learning.  But Fenstermacher and Richardson make the point that "focusing exclusively on teaching as the basis for success relieves the learner of any responsibility."

They also state that there needs to be a social support system - family, community, and peer culture - to support and assist in learning. Additionally, they make the point that learning is supported when there are sufficient facilities, time, and resources to accomplish the learning goals. 

Learning requires more than just a quality teacher. It also requires efforts by the student, by the social support network of the student, and by the school or district. But how do you wrap all of that into a teacher evaluation?

As a person tasked with identifying if a teacher is highly effective that question causes me heartache. Evaluating teachers is fraught with nuance. It is not a simple checklist that can easily identify a teacher's impact.

But ultimately that is what I want - a process that makes me think about what a teacher does and what is the impact. I can't be satisfied with easy or simple answers. For the answers we arrive could potentially impact our children for a lifetime.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

High school rankings: Are they important?

Three separate high school rankings have appeared recently. These are the usual end-of-the-year reports that have been circulating in one form or another for years.

The Washington Post Challenge Index takes the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests taken each school year and divides by the number of seniors who graduate. It provides both a national rank, a region rank, and a state rank. (Novi's ranks: 756 national; 69 in the Midwest; and 7 in Michigan.)

Newsweek also compiles a list using a variety of factors: graduation rate, college matriculation, AP/IB test participation, AP/IB test scores, average ACT/SAT test scores, and AP tests offered by student. By this ranking Novi is number 472 of all the high schools in the United States.

A third ranking appears courtesy of US News and World Report. Here Novi is not ranked either nationally or in Michigan even though some of the schools that are ranked have scores that are lower than Novi's scores.

What does it all mean?

Jay Mathews, an education writer for the Washington Post, has an article that discusses the high school ranking phenomenon. The bottom line is that each list has a formula that include some schools and exclude other schools. He admits that if a school is on any of the three lists it should be happy.

From my perspective the lists try to identify a set of criteria and then measure schools against that criteria. Novi does well on two of the lists and is mysteriously left off the third list.

External validation is important.

More important is a robust accountability system that we develop and measure ourselves against. We are in the process of developing that.

Two of our four district goals deal with student achievement:

  1. The Novi Community School District will ensure that each student will make no less than one year's growth in one year's time.
  2. The Novi Community School district will ensure that all students achieve at a high level. (There will be no achievement gaps.)
If we can accomplish these two goals, every student in our district will be prepared to leave our district and be successful. Our responsibility is to ensure that students learn. These two goals help us focus on that goal.

Rankings are interesting and they make for some enjoyable debates. But what is more important is being able to clearly demonstrate that every student is making progress and that every student is learning. If we can do that then I can rest well at night.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Wonder Center

Have you ever wondered why some shells are white or why caterpillars are so small? Students in Mrs. Latham's first grade classroom have those same questions plus many more. They have a "Wonder Center" where they can post their questions. Then they can talk together about them, figure out ways to find answers, and keep wondering about the wonderful world that we live in. I hope that you wonder every day!


Friday, May 18, 2012

Improving education: Not technology but perspective

A new discussion is breaking out that echoes discussions of long ago. Move away from the factory model of schools. Create a more open, flexible, and organic educational system.

Change our schools. Our factory model needs to give way to newer, better, more appropriate ways of education.

The power of technology will unleash new, better, faster, more engaging, and more meaningful ways to educate our children.

In some ways, the power of technology has changed the way we educate.

Most classrooms either have or have access to technology. It transforms learning experiences.

One of our classrooms was studying frogs. A student - an elementary school student - connected with a "frog" expert, arranged to have the expert connect through technology with the class, and the class then engaged in a Skype discussion.

Powerful, engaging, and ultimately very similar to experiences that those of us who are older had when an expert would come to our classroom to talk with us about their specialty.

Yes the Skype experience is similar but it is not exactly the same. Information was transformed because of the technology. Information was more easily obtained.

This transformation means something. Students take ownership. Teachers are not the guardians of information. Any nine or twelve or fifteen year old with a cellphone can access Google and get information, check answers, or challenge a point of view. Students can become the expert more easily. Information or ideas can be challenged.

The real power of technology is not the technology - it is the perspective.

Technology changes student expectations of how learning takes place.

For today's students the expectation is that learning will be personalized.

For today's student the expectation is that technology will be a part of what they do.

Yet, from a teacher's perspective, technology is hard to control. Students can go places and find information that the teacher may not know. The information may challenge what the teacher said.

The "information" may even be incorrect but the student may believe it because there it is an the Internet.

So how do we use technology to improve our classrooms?

Technology is not the answer. Technology is a tool. The change to our schools will not come because technology has been introduced. I don't really believe that technology is the change agent.

What is the change agent? A change in perspective.

Students have changed already.

If we - the educational establishment of administrators and teachers - don't change our perspective of how to engage students we will be left behind. No longer can we believe that we have all the answers. The answer is teachers and administrators who believe in the power of students and trust that together we can create learning environments that will enrich our lives.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Orchestra Concert


The Novi Middle and High School orchestras performed tonight. Outstanding effort by Mrs. Rais and the orchestra.

Learning about Picasso


Students at Deerfield in Mrs. North's class were learning about Picasso. Students used his painting of flowers to paint their own picture.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Strengthening Ties


Kindergarten students from the Japanese School of Detroit sing at the Gift of Trees celebration today. Commemorating 100 years since Japan gave the cherry trees that are planted in Washington DC, 36 communities in the US received cherry trees this year to celebrate the ongoing friendship of the US and Japan. Novi was a recipient of twenty cherry trees. Three were planted today at Novi Meadows School.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Author Visits Novi Middle School


Author Neal Shusterman visited Novi Middle School today. He shared his views on writing, learning to write, and how to improve as a writer.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thank a teacher

Today, May 8, 2012, is National Teacher Day. Everyone of us has a favorite teacher. Many of us have several. Teachers made a difference in my life. I hope they made a difference in yours. 

Take time today to reach out and thank those teachers in your life that have made a difference.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Middle School Play

Novi Middle School students performed Once on This Island. a great job by everyone.

The MHSAA should let Eric play.

Eric Dompierre a 19 year old jr. w/ Down syndrome attends Ishpeming HS. The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) won’t let him play because of an “age restriction” rule. The MHSAA should let him play.

Novi High School Art Show


Novi High School art students proudly displayed their artwork tonight at the Novi Civic Center. Outstanding pieces throughout the show!

A New High School Mural


Students from Ms. Harvey's art class work on a new mural at the high school. The mural will extend over 40 feet and incorporate the wildcat theme. Great job!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Meadows Math Boot Camp


Mr. Michalski's Math Boot Camp students earned their reward last night - their 5k run. Throughout the school year students stayed after school on Wednesday and came to school early on Thursday. They spent a half hour working on math and a half hour running. Learning discipline through both, last night 105 students ran together in their 5k Fun Run in Novi. Great job!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tell me that students learn in our schools

I read an interesting article in the Washington Post today. In the article a group of teachers and parents from Georgia - the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective - talked about what schools in Clarke County are doing when third and fifth grade students are identified as "projected to fail."

Projected to fail what? you might ask. That is a good question. Evidently these teachers are being asked to identify students who are projected to fail the Georgia state assessments. These schools then engage in a "blitz" that provides these students with focused, remedial help to improve their skills. The article suggests that schools are "foisting" on these students an inappropriate and maybe inferior education.

These teachers describe regrouping of students so that all of the "projected to fail" students are grouped with teachers whose job is to provide "intense remediation." Other students who are not projected to fail get to experience "acceleration and enrichment."

While I would certainly agree that the methods that are being used might be open to some critique and that basing the "projected to fail" criteria on only one indicator like the Georgia state assessment is somewhat problematic, the tone of this article rubs me the wrong way. Students are in school to learn. Teachers are in school to teach. If we cannot demonstrate that teaching and learning are occurring in my mind there is a problem.

The article suggests that we punish these "projected to fail" students by making them slog through boring, repetitive assignments designed to improve their skills. Students who perform well on the state assessment escape this remediation and get to go to classes with exciting assignments that spark their interest and curiosity.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a fan of boring, repetitive assignments. I believe that students need to be engaged and inspired in school.

However, I am not a fan of districts or schools not taking their responsibility to demonstrate that students are learning seriously. I agree that basing the decision on whether a student has learned or not on one single standardized test is not only wrong it is foolish.

If I believe that then I need to build a system that will accurately communicate the ability of a student. And that system cannot ignore state assessments. But state assessments should only be one piece of the puzzle. I should have other pieces of the puzzle that are robust and that demonstrate the ability of the students in my district.

As a school superintendent I feel a significant amount of responsibility to be able to demonstrate that students learn in every classroom in my district.

Two key question gnaw at me:

  1. How do I know that students are learning?
  2. How do I communicate that students are learning to key stakeholders - students, parents, the Board of Education, and teachers?

I would not disagree with the conclusions that this article reaches. It states that the relationship that teachers develop with their students is important. I would agree. But part of that relationship should be an expectation that students are learning. It also encourages schools to engage students with challenging and creative projects. I would also agree with that. All students need challenging and engaging lessons.

However, I would argue that these factors - teacher/student relationships and engaging lessons - do not prevent us from holding ourselves accountable. We should be able to demonstrate that students are learning. If we can't, why should a parent support our schools? Why should the community support our schools if we cannot demonstrate that students learn when they are with us?

Perhaps the real issue here is the use of only one assessment - in this case the Georgia state assessment. Spending an inordinate amount of time and energy just to get a student to pass a state assessment is not a great use of our time and talent. Passing any state assessment does not guarantee that a student will be successful.

But schools have failed to offer an alternative. We fail ourselves and our students when we do not create a robust accountability system that can clearly communicate that the students in our schools are learning. State assessments results should be part of our accountability system. Internal, robust classroom assessments need to be a part of our system as well.

When we back away from holding ourselves accountable we "foist" on ourselves and our communities a watered down version of what schools should really be.