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.

Monday, December 24, 2007

My Favorite Christmas Movies

Students are often curious about me and my life, and every December the students eventually ask me about my favorite Christmas movies when I show a film while we work during the final week of classes before the holiday break. The conversation goes something like this:

Student: Dr Pezz, what's your favorite Christmas movie?

Me: See if you can guess.

Students (one after the other): A Christmas Story, Scrooged, A Christmas Carol, A Muppet Christmas Carol, It's A Wonderful Life, The Santa Clause, The Santa Clause 2, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Christmas Vacation, Elf, Home Alone, Prancer, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street

Me (after each response): Nope

30 seconds of silence

Student (with a sigh): Ok, tell us.

Me: Die Hard

Student: That's not a Christmas movie!

Me: Sure, it is. It takes place at Christmas. Ok, then tell me my second favorite.

Wise Student in the Back: Die Hard 2

Me: Excellent! And my third favorite?

Student: Die Hard 3

Me: Nope. That didn't take place during Christmas time.

Student: What is it?

Me: Gremlins

Sighs all around

Me: But...I brought my fourth favorite for you to watch.

P.S. The students all seem to know the Die Hard movies, but I feel old mentioning Gremlins since rarely has one of the students seen it.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Break Time

I'm taking a week's break from the blog. Enjoy your holidays and, as I like to tell my students, do something fun just for you.

Here's a Merry Christmas from a favorite family of mine:

Up Next

I get to start some great units to begin the new year:

Am. Lit.: Ray Bradbury stories and science fiction
Soph. Honors: The Princess Bride
College in the H.S.: The Red Badge of Courage
Mythology: Norse mythology

It's going to be a fun finish to the semester! Plus, I only have six students (out of over 150) who I worry won't pass. All can, but they need to buckle down and improve in a couple areas. I'm hopeful.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mad Dogging Me

In my high school the kids have a term called "mad dogging." This is when someone stares across at another student with the intent to harass or bully, which often leads to a shouting match, bad blood, or even a fight.

I got mad dogged in a more figurative sense by an administrator (I will call this person Mad Dog).

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?

Mad Dog told me I was "focusing on the negative" and am being "negative" while M.D. was presenting. I had to calm myself as Mad Dog had just labeled me and my speech in front of my 80 colleagues while M.D. uses the microphone. Mad Dog made it quite clear mine was the final comment with a stern look at me and then ended the presentation. I got mad-dogged!

I see what M.D. is showing with his presentation, but "how are we doing?" is really what I want to know. Are absences and tardies decreasing across the building?

Well, I was upset and attempted to speak with Mad Dog during my prep (busy), and I didn't want to speak about it at the staff party that afternoon, so I e-mailed M.D. my feelings and concerns about the attendance policy. M.D. called me unprofessional for sending my thoughts in an e-mail and said it's "easy to complain" and not be "part of the solution."

Again, I was offended since I have been on every committee in the school for the last four years and have even tried to help Mad Dog create an attendance policy which is not completely punitive. In fact, I warned M.D. four things would occur, and three have with the fourth debatable:
1. Students whose parents are late calling in would be punished for their parents' failure, which would create animosity between students and staff.
2. The community would become confrontational and upset with a completely unyielding policy.
3. Absences and tardies will increase because they are only symptoms of the true problem: attitudes about attendance and tardies, which is where we should focus our efforts. I tested this theory by looking at my absences in my classes, which have increased from about 9 per student to 12 per student.
4. Any system with no reward and only punitive measures will fail.

I tried to get a hold of M.D. before school, who was again unavailable. I sent M.D. another note saying I'd like to resolve the issue and asked M.D. to come see me Thursday or Friday. Again, no response and no visit.

I have resolved myself to seeing that Mad Dog does not wish to resolve the issue and that M.D. does not value the power of relationship building with staff members (even though that very idea is written on the back of M.D.'s school shirt). This might sound like a bit of a stretch to assign these thoughts to M.D., but I have had five other staff members with similar complaints about Mad Dog, and now a group of teachers have approached me to set up some sort of meeting to help M.D. improve on people skills.

I'm not sure what I will do, but I do know that the adversarial air is thickening and teachers are feeling less willing to work with Mad Dog.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My Favorite Thirteen

Check this out at History Is Elementary: 13 facts about a Rudolph Christmas special I loved as a kid.

I Got Tagged!

Thanks for the tag, Clix.

The rules are as follows:

- Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
- Share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself.
- Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
- Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

1. A student once tested my Star Trek trivia knowledge with the question "What is the name of Jean-Luc Picard's fish?" I actually knew the answer: Livingston.
2. When flipping through channels I have to watch The Shawshank Redemption every time it's on the TV.
3. I have a miniature Globe Theatre sitting on my entertainment center.
4. My favorite advice to students is to "embrace your geekiness."
5. All of my pets are named after literary characters.
6. I go to Las Vegas with my wife 2-3 times a year and really do go for the shows.
7. I could eat burritos or Chinese food every day if given the opportunity. I love both!

Well, that's my eccentricity in a small synopsis. Here are the people I have tagged:
1. Jeff
2. Betty
3. Ryan
4. Hobo Teacher
5. Nancy
6. NYC Educator
7. Repairman

Sunday, December 9, 2007


Ok, it's halftime of the football game I'm watching and time to share a cartoon I found on the net here:

Walk the Line?

I almost forgot to mention an interesting tidbit.

My department head spoke with the local theatre company who is performing Romeo and Juliet and received an opportunity to have a special performance for all of our 600 freshmen students who read the play during the Spring. We have the funding for the tickets but not for substitute teachers and transportation.

When the Boss Lady was approached about helping get funding for the needed buses, she replied "Why not walk them to the show?"

Let me see...600 freshmen, over two miles, on snowy and icy sidewalks, and then a return trek all uphill. Hmm...I wonder why that might be a bad idea?

Needless to say, instead of trying to help us find a means of creating this awesome event, especially for students who may never have this opportunity again, we're told to "work it out."


Enforcing the Contract

The union president and the Boss Lady approached me (since I'm on the union Exec. Board) this week about meeting to help ensure that teachers fulfill their supervision duties and work their contracted hours. I will admit that I usually feel somewhat negative when I hear the Boss Lady state her desire to make sure teachers work their hours because I know the vast majority of the teachers work many more hours than is contractually required. However, I feel she has a legitimate point in this case.

Five teachers left the building without permission after the last class of the day and before the pep assembly, which they are required to supervise (by contract). Each was seen by the administrator supervising the parking lot for students trying to leave early.

Also, four teachers who were sitting in front of the students rather than among the students refused an administrator's request to sit in a position better suited for supervision.

Apparently, this issue follows the misuse of prep time by some teachers as well. We are supposed to use prep time to prepare for classes, not to make doctor appointments or to take a long lunch and so on.

What bothers me is this:
a) These teachers make our requests for more collaboration and prep time seem unjustified since we are all painted with the same broad brush.
b) These types of duty avoidances make my job (and the jobs of others) more difficult.
c) Insubordination is never acceptable. We can disagree or discuss the issue later, but to refuse--especially in front of students--can't be tolerated.

I hope the Boss Lady and I can determine a positive means of approaching the staff to review our professional responsibilities and behaviors. I'd like the review to be a positive one while still ensuring these types of actions don't reoccur. We, as teachers, would do the same in our classes, so I hope this is well-received.

Teacher Created Failures

I went to the high school state football championships this last weekend and watched a coach lose the title game for his team. His inability to adapt and poor play calling at critical moments (really, it was greed leading to opponent points) took the victory from the kids; the leader decided the outcome rather than allowing the kids the opportunity to succeed.

The winning team's coach did not put his team into positions likely to cause failure. He set his athletes up to succeed, and they did.

I see some of this same problem in my high school. While we have quite a number of wonderfully dedicated and industrious teachers, we also have a small few who refuse to collaborate and adapt.

One department in my school has been labeled the cause of our status as a failing school. While I don't believe the teachers in the department are solely responsible, I do see a couple of them as part of the problem. And of course, this reflects on the entire school and impacts everyone.

Two teachers refused to attend the training for their department's new approaches to teaching their content. This comes on the heels of their department being provided development opportunities from the state and district and on the heels of the department's agreement to alter some older methods of teaching in favor of some new approaches. At a minimum some best practices would be shared, and the potential is present to revolutionize and revitalize the department.

The lack of collaboration, unwillingness to change, and outright lack of professionalism appalls me. For a group who is the focus of reform, I would expect that the teachers would at least listen to the suggestions even if they do not embrace them. This type of cancerous attitude needs to be cured and cured quickly.

I hope to see these staff members won over by the rest of the department in their efforts to improve and ultimately help kids succeed.

Additionally, I expect to see the administration step in and enforce the mandates of professionalism. Too often I hear complaints about the lack of professionalism with little done to rectify the behaviors. This is a definite opportunity to effect positive change.

Monday, December 3, 2007