Saturday, December 29, 2007

I Have Moved

You can now find me at:

Differentiated Diplomas

I often wonder if a partial solution to helping colleges, trade schools, and employers determine the worthiness of students for their programs and businesses is the diploma itself. I anticipate my solution will not be popular among certain groups, but I do think it could eliminate some of debate over assessing student backgrounds and achievement.

My rough idea for four diplomas, which I would probably color code rather than officially name:

1 - The first diploma would be one where the student took the most rigorous coursework available, essentially an honors diploma for most students. Students could have their coursework scored on a points basis, and if enough points are earned then they would receive this diploma.

2 - The second diploma would be for students who took the mainstream ("normal" or typical) courses available to them when they have not earned enough points for the first diploma.

3 - The ELL (ESL) diploma for students who took a number of sheltered or ELL courses rather than reaching the basic standards or taking the basic course load of the mainstream student.

4 - The special education diploma for students with a large number of special education courses as part of their academic course loads. If the special education courses were merely support for the mainstream courses, then the second diploma would be earned.

These are just rough thoughts but make me wonder if it could be a potential assistance to determining or assessing student achievement. It may even lead to the elimination of the vast monies spent on testing and instead spent on more direct means of assisting students.

Just an idea I think about from time to time.

Higher Standards

An editorial supports raising the bar for students graduating from high school. Graduating seniors often take remedial coursework as freshmen in college and the low percentages of minorities applying to four-year universities are some of the pieces of evidence used to support this position.

While I, too, would like to see students better prepared for university life and coursework, I also see some concerning factors not discussed.

I firmly believe that elective courses often keep students in school and reveal to students their passions. By increasing the number of core classes (according to the article: "English, math, science, social studies and language") students take, the number of electives available to them would decrease.

Also, the public and school officials must be prepared for failure rates to rise initially. In any system when standards are raised, a period of time ensues where success levels drop and then they begin to recover. However, success rates may never reach previous levels.

Academic success is a social and community dilemma. The increase in single-parent households, the attitudes about school, the socio-economic status of households (the issue of poverty in general), and more affect student achievement.

It seems as though every solution to perceived academic shortcomings is conducted entirely within the schools, even though numerous factors outside of the school setting greatly affect student success--arguably even more so than what occurs within the classroom.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Where is the Money?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the United States has a current population of 303,124,730 and according to the NPP the Iraq War debt is about $481 billion.

Based on the population in Washington State, our share is approximately $10.4 billion. This could be used, at $58,000 per teacher, to hire almost 180,000 teachers.

Obviously this is unrealistic, but I feel it does highlight how much money is not going to education that could be. Even 5% of that money could hire 9,000 new teachers.

Class size is a continuing problem in my district and particularly in the high school, and I definitely hope this issue rises to the forefront of budgeting decisions this year.

As I mentioned on a blog response earlier this week, one of our assistant superintendents repeatedly states that class size does not greatly affect achievement results at the high school. He says this despite mandating classes of 20 or fewer students for remedial and state-test prep classes and encouraging smaller AP class sizes.

I used my classes two years ago to show how the same course I taught to two classes, one of 18 students and one of 28 students, showed a major contrast in overall achievement. The smaller class had a 10% higher average than the larger class. Plus, the smaller class had no failures.

Did I mention the superintendent sent his kids to a private school where class sizes are half of ours? Hmmm...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Attendance Update

Looking at the new attendance policy's (the entirely punitive, unyielding policy we currently use) effects on absences and tardies, the preliminary numbers don't show success as of yet when looking at my past grade books. My look at the numbers is not a pure, scientific look, but it is what I'm seeing.

I truly believe we are punishing the symptom of the problem. We don't cure appendicitis by giving the patient Tylenol for the pain. Masking the symptom doesn't cure the disease. Our attendance system punishes the symptom (absences and tardies) instead of curing the disease (attitudes about class and school).

Following this post is a brief recap of what the staff was shown this year.

This is what I've found so far on a per student basis, keeping in mind that the new policy began in 2006:

1. Overall 1st semester absences have risen from 8.9 to 9.3 per student from 2005 until now. This is about an increase of 75 total absences.
2. Overall 2nd semester absences have risen from 9.6 to 10.5 from 2005 until 2006. Obviously this year's 2nd semester numbers won't be ready until June. This is an increase of about 162 total absences.
3. Honors students' absences have risen from 3.9 to 7.0 during 1st semester (2005-2007) and from 4.9 to 6.1 during 2nd semester (2005-2006).
4. Non-Honors students' absences have risen from 10.3 to 10.8 during 1st semester (2005-2007) and from 11.0 to 12.1 during 2nd semester (2005-2006).
5. Tardies have declined for honors students and risen slightly for non-honors students.

What I'm seeing in my classes is that absences are on the rise, slightly in some cases but rising nevertheless. The honors students have effectively deciphered the system and are maximizing their absences with the fewest number of negative consequences. They openly discuss how they can dodge detentions while still missing classes.

Additionally, I looked at absences by subject and period. Students in my Sophomore English courses (the lowest level I have) have the highest increase in absences while 1st period absences have risen more than any other period. I wonder what the Freshman rates are.

We have one administrator and three full-time employees essentially working their entire shifts on this attendance system. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know this system is not cost effective and is not going to solve the problem.

Brief Recap from an earlier post:

"At a staff meeting we were shown a chart detailing how the number of assigned detentions has risen for attendance infractions and another chart detailing how many absences are labeled excused and unexcused. These were presented to illustrate our increasing successes in "solving" the attendance problem.

At the beginning of the year we were told the measure of success would be the declining numbers of absences and tardies. However, this presentation did not show that data.

Two staff members before me asked questions which were not really answered, so I asked what our ultimate goal is with the new attendance policy (we had the same one last year, but this year we give double the detention time and only track tardies on a weekly basis rather than through a full semester). I stated the data shows parents are doing a better job of calling in and excusing absences and we are doing a better job of enforcing consequences for unexcused absences and tardies, but isn't the number of absences and tardies our true goal? What are those numbers?"

Online Alternatives

In this Oregonian article the successes of an online school are touted as a potential solution for students looking for a new mean of success.

And it works for some.

Over 1800 students are enrolled in this online school with high levels of success in reading, scores comparable to public schools in math and reading, and special needs students with passing rates near their fully-abled peers. Sounds wonderful.

Except there's a catch: "Connections Academy is off-limits for any student who can't arrange for a learning coach to be home with them for five or six hours, five days a week."

I would contend that any student who is getting assistance online and who has a full-time tutor is going to perform quite well. This signals to me children of middle to upper-middle class parents who normally outperform their peers in public schools anyway.

While I like the opportunities afforded (pun intended--sorry) these students, I do believe the comparisons are a bit disingenuous.

My high school uses online learning to allow credit retrieval, but we encounter a few major difficulties with normal hours online credit retrieval:
1. The curriculum is not aligned with ours.
2. The rigor falls far short.
3. The course requirements (of the course being made up) are not required of the online students.
4. The students regularly finish the retrieved credit in less than six weeks (with no real plan for the other 12 weeks).
5. The students have a high failure rate in the next teacher-led course in the sequence.

However, we are seeing some successes with Moodle. This Blackboard styled online system allows teachers to require the same knowledge as our normal classroom setting courses, but also allows the work to be submitted and worked on online. It's not a cure-all, but it does greatly improve the online systems and programs we have used in the past, especially the current credit retrieval programs.

I would love to see online learning take hold in my community, but I also believe the rigor and content requirements must be included. In addition, I think teachers from our school (preferred) or teachers with the skills and and background in the content area (who understand our aligned curricula and become part of our departments) must instruct the online courses.

This requires support from the district in dollars, time, resources, and people, so we'll see how serious it is to provide online classes with the rigor and high standards of the regular classroom.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The "Duh" Study

While flipping from channel to channel last night, I came across a report on Fox News about education. The researchers found that students who crammed all night for a test, the so-called "all-nighter," earned lower grades than the students who studied a bit at a time throughout the semester.

Essentially, the study explains that good students outperform bad students.

You don't say?!

This study and the feature itself seem emblematic of the new data movement: data must be provided for everything, even for common sense conclusions. Unless a formal assessment or study is used, the results are often discounted, not accepted, or ignored altogether.

While I believe formal studies and assessments are important, I do hope that informal assessments and qualitative data--the messy stuff that may not fit into a pretty chart--are not dismissed too quickly; they are weighted with authority as well.

(60 minutes after the above post) Update: I found a link briefly explaining the study in the Seattle Times. The way this article is worded, the study seems more like it focused on sleep deprivation, but the Fox News report seemed more like a good student vs. bad student study. Regardless, it still reads as common sense proved with data.