29 July 2012

Affirmative Action in Education: Game Changers

A few years ago at a Disability Studies in Education Conference at Michigan State University we got into a fascinating discussion over dinner: Should schools/colleges of education use "Affirmative Action" ("Reverse Discrimination") to ensure that at every level - Bachelors/Undergraduate teacher training, Masters, PhD - there was far better representation of students with disabilities?

The argument for? Since most students do not actually do well in school, since most students with disabilities do not do well in school, we need more teachers, administrators, and teacher educators who understand - on a fundamental level - that education must change.

There was little argument against, this was not a group which would think that an effort like this would really be doing anything more than reversing all the existing discrimination against those who have struggled in school, but people were concerned that few, if any, schools/colleges of education - at least in North America - would do anything but terrible things to those incoming "disabled" students.

But despite all the obstacles, I have begun to detect something - a small but significant cohort of young, mostly male, teachers who are changing practice in schools in important ways. They typically had bad experiences as students themselves, often right through university. They struggled with attention issues, reading issues, math issues, writing issues. They were typically born from the late 1970s through the late 1980s and benefited as the first students with disabilities to have real human rights protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (as amended). And they went through the bulk of their education before the No Child Left Behind legislation began to destroy opportunity in American public education.

Today they range from, say, 35 down to their early twenties, and I have been watching them.

Middle School Jazz Camp, Albemarle County, Virginia
Watching them as they change - in dramatic ways - classrooms, schools, and the culture of education. Now, I'm not saying - obviously - that these are the only teachers doing these things. Often, these "boys" are adapting what they saw from the best of their teachers who "came of age" long before NCLB or even the "Reagan-Bush-1 Conservatism," but they are forming a powerful new cohort often in opposition to the "mainstream" teaching staff trained for an era of testing and classroom management.

I see these guys in elementary schools, in middle schools, in high schools, in every content area - a new band of teachers who demonstrate...

1. Instructional Tolerance and a belief that childhood and adolescence are good things.
These guys don't "sweat the small stuff." They know, from years of struggling in school, that no one in any classroom was always paying attention, or was always on task, or was always behaving. So stuff like taking breaks by staring at the window, or looking at Facebook, or walking around, or just spacing out, are fine. So is the use of different tools by different students. So are different time frames for different students. So are flexible deadlines and flexible assignments. Learning matters, the rest really does not.
2. A very different kind of classroom observation skill, perhaps the result of watching from back corners, these teachers are unusually good at spotting who is getting uncomfortable, and who is struggling.
This group of teachers understands how to watch for students becoming uncomfortable. They know it well because - that was them. Uncomfortable students stop learning, surely can't process at higher levels, so solving that is essential. These teachers also seem "much better than average" at recognizing when things aren't working for a student, and are most willing to try different paths.
3. A multi-level practice of teaching with large group, small group, and individual interactions occurring almost simultaneously.
Multitasking is basic to these men. They tend, most of them, toward the ADHD spectrum, and they see all the things in a room, thus they are able to observe and intervene, watch interactions at many different levels, and understand the borderline between the chaos of a great learning space and the chaos of dysfunction. As "Borderliners" themselves, this boundary line is far clearer than it is to those who sat near the front and attended to the teachers' directions.
4. A focus on student comfort and psychological safety is perhaps the most important thing in how this cohort teaches.
Once you've been uncomfortable, this become crucial. So these teachers have the classrooms where kids are "safe," where they go when they need to escape. You'll find kids there even when they don't have class. You'll find kids sitting on the floor, on windowsills, gathered together or being alone. Wearing hats, wearing hoods, playing games, doing nothing. There is an understanding - a native, pure understanding - that no one can do higher level learning - being intellectually uncomfortable - without being physically and psychologically comfortable. The concept is from Maslow, but these guys know it from their own experience.
Choices, opportunities, passions which engage instead of force conformity
are the hallmark of these teachers' spaces.
5. An understanding of the need for the passion which connects students to school is basic to these guys.
Why would a student come to school each day? Don't say, "we made it a law." Why would each student come to school each day? If football, or the play, or music, or the chance to talk about poetry with a certain teacher, or the social scene at lunch or recess is the top emotional reason which gets a child out of bed in the morning and two your door, you cannot let that ever become secondary to anything else, because if that disappears, the reason to attend - or at least in our compulsory system, engage - vanishes. These new teachers know that. You will see them bringing games, music production, new sports, new clubs, and new conversations to the schools as they seek to meet kids at their passions.

I have worked with many great teachers, from all kinds of backgrounds, and I have worked with many great new teachers, from many backgrounds - and yet, what I see in schools suggests that there is incredible value in recruiting - at every level of education - a group of people with diverse school experiences.

As long as schools are primarily taught and run by, and future teachers are prepared by, those for whom school has been "easy," or who have succeeded in school-as-we-know-it, schools will be, primarily, for that one-third of the population. To allow all to succeed, our faculties - all of our faculties - must begin to feel a lot more like our students.

- Ira Socol

15 July 2012

Culture, Compliance, Community (Penn State part six)

Previous posts on Penn State: Cultures of ComplianceThe Teaching of Tribalism, Darkness at Noon (Saturday), The Realities of the Victims (Omelas), and The Silent Stadium. Please see Voices4Victims at Penn State for more information.

"They [the janitors] witnessed what I think in the report is probably the most horrific rape that's described. And what do they do? They panic. The janitor who observed this said it's the worst thing he ever saw. This is a Korean War veteran who said, 'I've never seen anything like that. It makes me sick.' He spoke to the other janitors. They were alarmed and shocked by it. But what did they do? They said, 'We can't report this because we’ll get fired.' They knew who Sandusky was. … They were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. If that's the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top." - former FBI Director Louis Freeh, 12 July 2012

a culture of fear and compliance
Last Wednesday I sat with Hamilton, Michigan schools superintendent Dave Tebo and liistened to him describe his efforts to get secondary school teachers to separate compliance from academic achievement in the grading process. And last Thursday I listened to former Clinton Administration FBI Director Louis Freeh describe the road to ruin which cultures of compliance create. On Friday I heard the Pennsylvania State University administrators respond to the Freeh report by announcing renovations to their football building. On Saturday I heard those same administrators insist that, regarding the campus statue of child rape enabler Joe Paterno, "[We] are hoping more time pass and people will forget about it and then it won't come down," one trustee said. "They don't get to tell us," the source said about members of the public clamoring for its removal. "This is a Penn State community decision."

We should not be surprised that the supposed "leaders" of a supposed "great research university" are betting on everyone in State College, Pennsylvania forgetting the rape of children - they worked so hard at forgetting it for 14 years. Nor should we be surprised if they - at least locally - succeed. "Happy Valley" has proven - again and again - to be the Omelas of Ursula LeGuin's fiction, a place where the comfort and glory of the majority are happily constructed out of the pain and misery of the forgotten few.

That happens not just because the Pennsylvania State University put football above all else (and women's basketball too), but because, clearly, Pennsylvania State University relishes unquestioning compliance in its community. It is the gruesome compliance of fake, forced smiles and pretend agreement which denies inquiry, investigation, and emotional and intellectual discomfort.

The football building must be rebuilt so that week-kneed Nittany Lion football players won't be "creeped out" by the thought of child rape. The Paterno statue must remain because "people would be unhappy" to see it removed. There remains - as Judge Freeh pointed out - not one thought about the victims. The voice of victims - whether whispered from the shower room tiles or shouted in the destruction of a monument to a monster - would force the Penn State community to think, to debate, to recall, perhaps even to disagree. And quite clearly, that is completely unacceptable to the leaders of "Happy Valley."

Which should force all of us to ask: what is education about anyway?

There are, in my mind, two forms of "education" we can choose from, or, as I might say, we can choose between "education" and "training." Now, I am not saying that there is anything necessarily wrong with "training" - the teaching of a specific form, a specific skill, through instruction and, usually, repetition - but I would argue that "training" is not something which moves us - as a society, as a community - forward. It simply reproduces what "we" already do.

What I would call "education" is something different. "Education" enables doubt, and doubt enables change, progress, and the future. If we simply "train" - for example, the mathematics educational efforts suggested here (or here) or the "go ask your elders" view which prevented Michael McQueary from acting when he saw a child being raped and prevented Graham Spanier from acting morally at any point - we remain locked in one place. I can recall being "trained" in a sport, but if I watch that sport today, there is not one technique which has not changed dramatically, and that change is the result of "education," of continuous investigation, challenge, learning.
Not, "how do I swim like that guy?" but, "how do I swim faster?"
1976 (above) 2012 (below)
When we "teach compliance" - whether by grading homework completion, or on-time appearances, or by insisting that a leading "educator" cannot be challenged, we are training. When we "educate" we force students to doubt their world, and to imagine all things greater.

This is not always easy in education. Many of the education professors I know speak of the trouble they have getting the future teachers in their classes to dissent, to doubt, to think beyond the linear. Many secondary school teachers, those who try to move away from "training," say the same things about their students. "I tried giving them choices," I've been told, "but the students want me to tell them what do do."

Faced with that, we can choose be "Penn State," and raise a generation which will challenge neither a Sanduskey nor a Paterno, nor a belief, nor formula, or we can choose to be something much better, and raise a generation which will lead us to new places.

Eight months ago I asked:
"What creates such a powerful interest in loyalty and stability that it completely over-rides the commitment to the best interests of children? And understand, I would not ask this question here if I did not think it had implications far beyond the ethically-challenged land grant university of Pennsylvania.

"This was not one of those, "uh, not sure it matters" kind of thing McQueary watched that afternoon in 2002 [turns out it was 2001 according to Freeh]. It wasn't a friend driving five miles an hour over the speed limit, or someone having a few too many drinks, this was - first - one of the "big crimes." In New York City's Police Academy we were told that there were only five crimes for which you could use deadly physical force to "prevent or terminate." The acronym was "Mr.Mrs." - Murder, Robbery, Manslaughter, Rape, (forcible) Sodomy. McQueary observed one of those, and - second - he knew the victim of this crime to be a child.

"What, one wonders, would McQueary have to see which might get him to call 9-1-1?

"Or, the real question, why did Mike McQueary not call police within this "educational environment" when - and I'm guessing here - he would probably have intervened if he had observed the same scene in another place, say, in a park or library rest room?"
In other words, the question becomes, how does the teaching of compliance and unquestioning respect for anything, deconstruct both our humanity and our communities? The Pennsylvania State University stands today as a monument to all that is wrong with the teaching of compliance in education, all that is wrong with traditional forms of institutional loyalty and "team spirit," and all that is wrong with reverence for leadership. All that is wrong with the community cultures of so many of our schools. And so, again, we must ask, how do we consciously, quickly, effectively, undo this.

What the Penn State story shows is that, at the "bottom" (to use Freeh's word), be it the custodial staff or a graduate student, the culture at Penn State was/is a culture of fear and blind compliance. No one, apparently, at that "bottom" felt allowed to trust their own judgments or to act on their own moral beliefs. All were sure that any challenge to the system would have devastating consequences for them. I suspect they were right, as was the reverse. Perhaps for his silence, certainly not because he had challenged Sanduskey or Paterno, Mike McQueary was the only graduate assistant coach of that time rewarded with a full-time job.

And this not only enabled child rape, it disabled thinking.
"Despite being children within easy reach of many supposedly great local figures, they were offered no outstretched hand. They were left to save themselves. This campus is plagued by desperate, insistent shrieks of `We are Penn State.' It's time for Penn State to realize that adhering to this mantra is distancing and self-defeating. It is time to follow a path of humility, not one of hubris." – Matt Bodenschatz, a Penn State student and spokesman for Voices for Victims.
And, I would argue, it is time to stop "training," and start "educating," because if Penn State had valued doubt, questioning, and individual decision-making, Jerry Sanduskey would have been jailed 14 years ago.

It may seem a huge leap to go from insisting on homework completion to Mike McQueary running away from the scene of a crime in progress and handing off moral responsibility to someone he had been told to respect ("You did what you had to do. It is my job now to figure out what we want to do," ... Freeh quotes Paterno as telling McQueary), but it is not a "slippery slope," rather, it is a direct path.

Do not challenge anything! Citizenship grading
Every time we tell a student what to do, we move decision-making from them to ourselves. Every time we decide how a student will learn something, we remove the learning of responsibility from that student. Every time we substitute our judgment ("You cannot skip class") for a student's own micro-economic decisions ("I have better things to do"), we block the learning of the connection between decisions and consequences. Every time we choose stock, pre-cooked rules for community developed moral and ethical expectations, we risk creating the next Mike McQueary, the next Graham Spanier, the next "Penn State."

A quick Google search found this "gem" of a definition of citizenship from a "California Distinguished School," Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, California:
"Citizenship grades are based upon the following criteria, each of which is observable during the grading period. Citizenship grades are also cumulative throughout the semester. Students are expected to be:
Responsible - Bring supplies regularly, submit completed assignments when due, have textbook covered at all times, request work missed during absences, put full name on all assignments, utilize class time wisely, be organized and neat (notebook, backpack, etc.).
Respectful - Behave in a manner conducive to the learning environment, follow all the rules within the class, be polite and courteous to the teacher and classmates, be friendly and helpful.
Reliable - Be on time and attend regularly (especially on testing days), make up work missed during absences, complete all individual and group work.
Honest - Some work is collaborative (group work) but most and especially quizzes / exams are not.  There is no tolerance for cheating, copying others, plagiarizing sources, etc. and severe penalties may result, including receiving an F grade in citizenship."
when your school reopens: don't be Penn State
This may seem like the "rules" in many schools, and it is probably close to the rules in Penn State's football building (We've been told many times this week that new coach Bill O'Brien's rules are "be on time and never lie to me."). It suggests that doubt, questioning, challenging, and making one's own decisions are not part of citizenship. It equates neatness with honesty, compliance with responsibility. It is a recipe for both school and community disaster.

Communities, societies, and nations succeed when people are not compliant, either in politics (think Thomas Jefferson), science (think Albert Einstein), arts (think anyone from Monet to Christo), or ethics (think about those French leaders in the late 1940s who began to forge a shared destiny with Germany). Communities, societies, and nations fail when they adhere to the past out of loyalty (think Czarist Russia, Imperial Germany, or Egypt's Mubarak Regime).

School begins (in the northern hemisphere) in five or six weeks. Will you be "Penn State"? Or will you be something better?

- Ira Socol

14 July 2012

The Silent Stadium (Penn State part five)

Previous posts on Penn State: Cultures of ComplianceThe Teaching of Tribalism, Darkness at Noon (Saturday), The Realities of the Victims (Omelas). Please see Voices4Victims at Penn State for more information.

The Freeh Report on the child rape scandal and cover up at the Pennsylvania State University is a frightening glimpse into what can occur when an educational institution, from top to bottom, forgets what its purpose is.

Though the institution in question is one horrifically malignant example, that singularity should not make anyone, in any school, feel comfortable. One of the key things former FBI chief Louis Freeh's report does so well is to point out the very common mis-steps, many going back decades or even more than half a century, which led the Pennsylvania State University into this criminal place, and it is vital reading, because at so many levels of education - especially in the United States where being an educational institution conflates with so many other tangentially connected roles - the seeds of "the next Penn State" lie in fertile ground.

Case Hall at MSU houses both jocks and top students,
but that does not suggest that Michigan State students and programs
are treated equally.
As I read the report, I thought about my "own" Michigan State University. When I was an undergraduate student there in the 1970s a large field sat across the street from the "jock dorm" in which I lived. Actually, to MSU's credit, it was (and is) "half jock dorm" and half residential college for top achieving social science students, a fascinating mix. But then, that mix met every night in "the grill" on the third floor which connected the dorm's two wings, and flag football teams representing floors in all of the South Complex dorms (all of which housed varsity athletes) played each other on the broad green grass across the street in the fall, and floor basketball teams played each other in Jenison Fieldhouse (often on the same court used by Magic Johnson) in the winter.

Magic Johnson and the "Cannabis University [Fourth Floor of South Case Hall] Jointrollers"
both played on this court in the 1970s
Today, that broad green field is occupied by the "football building" - the Spartan equivalent of the infamous Lasch Building in State College, Pennsylvania - and vast, private-for-varsity-football, practice fields. The basketball teams play in the Breslin Center, where no intramural team would ever find welcome. And the third floor grill in Case Hall is now a private dining room for revenue sport athletes.

Splendid isolation from the campus and the norms of society:
The Lasch Building at Penn State (above)
The Skandalaris Football Building at Michigan State (below)

And I thought about a tiny Michigan high school I once coached soccer at. Tiny, the whole pre-K through grade 12 school district had fewer than 800 kids in one building, but football mattered in a huge way to the tiny city in which it sat. I had worked with kids who fought for boys and girls varsity soccer teams for years against, primarily, the football coach and his staff who thought that soccer would dilute his football pool of talent. (I continually pointed out that the football coach cut many potential players, and usually had a 14 boy team though only 12 would ever play most seasons.) When we finally got the teams, I reported to an Athletic Director who was the son of the football coach. Now, he was a really nice guy and a great physical education teacher, but... "Ira," he once told me, "you have no idea of what I go through at family dinners. We talk about you and your "fag" soccer players more than we talk about anything else."

And when the football team's star running back assaulted a teacher at a school-sponsored camp one summer, he was suspended for one game - that easy, non-conference opponent game which began the season.

Penn State Women's
Basketball Coach
Rene Portland sexually
harassed players for decades

without consequence
So, it isn't just Penn State, it isn't just NCAA Division 1, it isn't just big. The University of Montana football program tried to cover up gang rapes. The Baylor University basketball team tried to cover up murder. Penn State was just better at criminal behavior, or more successful, or both. They spent years covering up sexual harassment in their women's basketball program, and apparently much of this century covering up crimes committed by football players. The worst scandals, yes, but as I've said, the seeds of this lie everywhere.

What do we do now?

The only good thing I see which has come out of the Penn State crimes right now is the sudden commitment of Pennsylvania educators and politicians to the idea that "punishment doesn't work." I've seen that all over blogs in the past couple of days, and this is huge progress for a state last seen trying to charge an 11-year-old as an adult for murder. Pennsylvania has almost 500 people serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children, so it is fabulous to see that the Commonwealth will, apparently, revisit all of this, along with those in prison for drugs, and those currently on public sex offender lists.

I agree, punishment doesn't work, but required changes in behavior can work, and the Pennsylvania State University, the institution and community which together built the toxic culture Freeh's report speaks of, needs required changes in behavior. We know this not because a few morons gathered at the statue of child-rape-collaborator, but because, on the day after the Freeh Report's release, Penn State's one action was to announce that it would be spending money to renovate - yes - the Lasch Football Building. If anything says, "we don't get it," that bizarre news moment does.

Thankfully, European Football - the football with feet and no helmets - offers the answer. And we reach across the sea for new solutions when our issues overwhelm our old solutions.

Chilling: The Paterno statue right after Sanduskey's arrest.
Punishment doesn't work (please keep repeating that all you educators and politicians), and shutting down the Penn State football program for a year or two would punish current players and coaches, I am told, who were "uninvolved" (except for the few staff holdovers rarely mentioned). It might also punish other Big Ten football programs. OK, don't shut the program down. Yes, deprive it of post-season play opportunities. That's basic. Force it to contribute 100% of its Big Ten football revenues to non-Penn State related charities and research groups, that's vital. Do both for four years, enough to help break the cycle of football worship and profit across one "collegiate generation"... but then...

Do one more thing. End the football culture for four years. End it. When it returns, make sure it is part of the university, and that is is not the university.

UEFA, the European Football Association - and other global football associations worldwide - has the solution. When culture is the problem, culture is eliminated, and teams are required to play their home games in empty stadiums. This solution is used against clubs big and small, and it is effective. It targets - directly - the culture which lies at the heart of the problem.

in Kenya, a team endures the empty stadium
A Turkish team deals with the silence of fan misbehavior
Penn State should play its home games in an empty Beaver Stadium for the next four years. The games should not be on local television or on local cable systems or on the radio. ESPN3 and similar internet providers should block games from IP addresses in Pennsylvania. Those who "live and die" with Penn State football would have to find other things to do with their lives. The university would have to find other heroes. And, I suspect, all would gain dramatically from the experience.

Let the games go on, but let the culture die.

- Ira Socol

13 July 2012

Math Education?

yesterday, Scientific American published an article - really a book excerpt - challenging math instruction both "around Charlottesville (Virginia)" and across the United States. The article is here (on the Scientific American site) though it also appears here (in a Yahoo! mirror) which supposedly accepts comments, except mine. I think the article requires a response, so I've reprinted the whole (very long) piece here, with my response at the bottom. I have also commented directly on the Scientific American article. Your thoughts are welcome - of course - either place.

Math Teachers Feel They're Poorly Prepared

When William Schmidt, an expert on math education at Michigan State University, moved his family from East Lansing to Charlottesville, Virginia for a year's research leave, his work took a personal turn. He noticed that the public school his daughters would be attending outside Charlottesville was academically behind the one they had attended in Michigan. Back home, his second grade daughter would be learning multiplication tables up through the number 5, yet in Charlottesville, multiplication was not even part of his local school's second grade curriculum. 
His daughter's experience, he explains in a new book excerpted below, is not unique. The [American] system of schooling represents a game of chance that few are even aware is being played, he writes in Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools, co- written with Curtis C. McKnight. The inequalities pose a risk to every child, they write, regardless of socioeconomic background or race. They stem from differences in state education standards, in school funding, in curricula that districts choose to adopt and in the content that individual classroom teachers choose to teach. In this excerpt, Schmidt and McKnight focus on variations in how math teachers are trained and how that, in turn, affects student achievement. 
The following is excerpted from Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools, by William H. Schmidt and Curtis C. McKnight. (Teachers College Press, 2012). 
One thing that most of us remember best about school is our teachers. Thus, when solutions are proposed for reforming American schools in response to critical reports or disappointing test results, teachers are always among the first to be singled out. Proposals often turn first to improving the teaching force by focusing on higher quality. For example, in the NCLB [No Child Left Behind] era, considerable emphasis has been placed on a highly qualified teaching force.
Districts must certify what percentage of their teachers is highly qualified. However, the states and school districts define what they consider highly qualified, resulting in a great deal of ambiguity.
What does it mean to be a highly qualified teacher? The definition of a high-quality mathematics teacher has never been standardized. Therefore, although improving the quality of teachers and teaching is a common cry when we seek to improve schools, there is little agreement and scant empirical evidence that indicates what characteristics define a high-quality mathematics teacher. Even an obvious definition, such as a knowledge of mathematics, is problematic, since there is generally no agreement as to what specific mathematics knowledge is needed.
The literature identifies two types of knowledge that are clearly related to providing opportunities to learn: mathematics content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. For mathematics, recent empirical work has advanced our understanding of what mathematics knowledge is necessary for teaching mathematics. The rest of this chapter lays out how this knowledge in particular, mathematics content knowledge is related to inequalities in content coverage, and provides data related to teacher content knowledge for a sample of teachers.
What Teachers Tell Us About Their Knowledge of Mathematics
We approached the question of teacher knowledge of specific mathematics content indirectly, by asking a sample of more than 4,000 teachers from the PROM/SE project [Promoting Rigorous Outcomes in Math and Science Education] to respond to the question, How well prepared academically do you feel you are that is, you feel you have the necessary disciplinary coursework and understanding to teach each of the following? We asked this question for multiple mathematics topics. The list of topics varied for teachers in primary and teachers in middle and secondary school combined.
By relying on teachers reports of their own feelings of adequate preparation, we only get at their knowledge indirectly. Fortunately, this approach is sufficient to demonstrate how much variation there is in teachers content-specific knowledge, or at least in their feelings of adequate preparation. Furthermore, the candor of the results suggests a degree of face validity and, hence, integrity in the responses. The overall tenor of the responses is very consistent with other data on the issue, some of which suggest that the pattern reported here might be a best-case scenario. All results reported in this chapter are based on the PROM/SE data.
Primary Teachers (1st Through 3rd Grades)
Primary teachers felt academically prepared to teach only the topics they taught to their students. Even for those topics, about one-fourth to one-half of the teachers surveyed reported that they did not feel well prepared. The teachers we surveyed were from 60 PROM/SE districts located in Michigan and Ohio.
Is it reasonable for teachers to focus only on the topics that they will teach? However reasonable such a position may appear, many of the more advanced topics for which teachers did not feel well prepared provide the mathematics background necessary to be truly well prepared to teach the more elementary topics at their grade level. To define a qualified teaching force, we adopted a criterion of 75% of teachers feeling well prepared to teach a given topic. We found that, over all sampled teachers, only two mathematics topics met this criterion: the meaning of whole numbers, including place value and operations with whole numbers.
Virtually all of the geometry topics (aside from the basics) are excluded by the 75% criterion. So are all of the proportionality topics and all of the algebra topics. These results imply that the quality of learning opportunities surrounding many of the mathematics topics taught in 1st through 3rd grades was not likely to be high. They also suggest that there is large variability in self-reported content-specific knowledge. For many of these topics, only a bare majority of 50% to 60% of teachers felt well prepared.
The other striking feature of the results was the large variability across districts. For example, for fractions, in some districts all of the primary teachers felt very well prepared, while in other districts only about half of the teachers felt very well prepared. For geometry basics (lines, angles, and so on), the results ranged from one district with only about one-fourth of its teachers feeling well prepared to another district in which about 90% of the teachers felt well prepared.
Upper Elementary Teachers (4th Through 5th Grades)
The results for districts for 4th- and 5th-grade teachers were quite different. For example, for eight different topics, all of the teachers in at least one district felt very well prepared academically for each of those topics.
At the district level, the results for whole number meaning and operations were similar to those for 1st- through 3rd-grade teachers. Further, fractions also had a median value around 75%.
However, the variability across districts remains a striking feature for 4th- and 5th-grade teachers, particularly for decimals, percentages, and geometry basics. These are all topics that were supposed to be introduced in these grades in Michigan and Ohio. For example, for decimals, in one district only one-fourth of the teachers felt well prepared, while in another district virtually all teachers indicated that they felt well prepared to teach decimals.
Middle School Teachers (6th Through 8th Grades)
We examined the pool of teachers from all of the districts taken together. From this perspective, there were no topics that at least 75% of the teachers felt very well prepared to teach. Only two topics came close. Among the whole pool of teachers, 73% indicated that they felt well prepared to teach the topic of coordinates and lines. Sixty-nine percent of the teachers indicated that they felt well prepared to teach the topic of data.
Eleven topics qualify if we relax the criterion to topics in which at least 50% of the teachers felt well prepared. This included the two topics just mentioned as well as nine others negative, rational, and real numbers; exponents, roots, and radicals; number theory; polygons and circles; congruence and similarity; proportionality problems; patterns and relations; expressions and simple equations; and linear equalities and inequalities. The Michigan and Ohio standards call for including many of these topics at the middle grades. The fact that only about 50% to 60% of the teachers felt very well prepared to teach these topics suggested something of the magnitude of the problem that school districts face.
For example, there has been a strong national movement to include elementary algebra topics in the middle school, particularly in 8th grade. The Michigan and Ohio standards reflect this, as do the Common Core State Standards, which are in the process of becoming the new Michigan and Ohio state standards. Adoption of the Common Core State Standards brings states more into alignment with international benchmarks of what is expected in the equivalent of middle school.
The severity of the problems faced by these districts and, by inference, by the United States as a whole, was indicated by the fact that only about half of the teachers felt academically very well prepared to teach expressions and simple equations, as well as linear equalities and inequalities. Even fewer teachers (only around 25% to 40%) felt they had adequate content knowledge to teach other important algebraic concepts, including proportionality (41% of teachers), slope (38%), and functions (39%).
High School Teachers
The story for high school teachers is rather different, which is not unexpected given their typically greater preparation in mathematics. Almost 60% of the topics met the criterion of having at least 75% of the pool of PROM/SE teachers from the 60 districts indicating that they were well prepared academically. The areas in which high school teachers indicated that they felt less well prepared were number bases, three-dimensional geometry, geometric transformations, logarithmic and trigonometric functions, probability, and calculus. These findings are, however, still cause for concern. For example, there is an increasingly strong push for the inclusion of probability and statistics in high school, as is found in the Common Core State Standards, yet less than half of the surveyed mathematics teachers felt well prepared to teach it. Teachers self-perceptions of their preparedness seem likely, if anything, to overestimate what they know and how well prepared they are rather than to underestimate it.
Moving from the pool of all 60 districts to the district-by-district results for a large number of topics (16), at least 25% of the districts had all of their high school teachers indicating that they felt well prepared to teach those topics. However, there was still great variation across the districts, especially for geometry topics including transformations, three-dimensional geometry, polygons, and circles. There was similarly great variability in the percentage of teachers who felt that they had the coursework to make them well prepared to deal with calculus, probability, number theory, and logarithmic and trigonometric functions.
Why Teachers Feel So Poorly Prepared
We have surveyed how well prepared in terms of disciplinary course work teachers at various levels felt for teaching various mathematics topics in what is a fairly representative sample of 60 districts. In general, we would summarize the findings by stating that many teachers felt ill prepared to teach mathematics topics that are in state standards and in the new Common Core State Standards for mathematics. Why did these teachers feel so ill prepared?
There is perhaps a simple answer for the elementary and middle school teachers: They felt ill prepared because if we examine the coursework they studied during their teacher preparation, they were ill prepared. The new TEDS study results suggested this to be the case more generally, which clearly does not bode well for equality of learning experiences for students in these districts.
College-Level Preparation
In this section, we summarize what teachers have told us about their preparation in mathematics at the college level and as graduate students.
In 1st through 4th grades, less than 10% have either a major or a minor in mathematics. Teachers at this level are typically generalists they must be prepared to teach many different subject-matter areas. They do not have adequate time in their preparation to get a major or a minor in each of those subject matters.
At 4th grade, the international data paint a different picture. Unfortunately, the definitions are not precisely the same, but the data do provide us with a benchmark of sorts. Including those primary teachers with either a mathematics major or a minor in mathematics or science, around one-third of 4th-grade students on average had such a teacher in the countries that took part in TIMSS, [the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study].
Taking this estimate from the TIMSS data as an indicator of the percentage of teachers who had majored or minored in mathematics or science, this proportion was considerably higher than for the PROM/SE 4th-grade teachers, where the comparable percentage was 5%. The percentage was over 50% in Singapore and Russia. This suggests that, from an international perspective, other countries typically have around six times as many primary teachers who have a specialization in mathematics or in a related field of science.
The result is even more disturbing when we turn to the middle school mathematics curriculum and the higher level of mathematics offered there.
Three out of four middle school teachers in the PROM/SE sample did not have a specialization in mathematics. At 6th grade, the percentage was much like that for primary teachers only around 10% had a major or minor in mathematics. In 7th and 8th grade, this percentage increased to around 35% to 40%.
These numbers indicate that a very large percentage of middle school students were being taught increasingly more complex mathematics, as called for in the Michigan and Ohio state standards, by teachers who lacked a strong background in mathematics. These results offer one explanation for why so many middle school teachers did not feel very well prepared to teach many of the middle school topics discussed in the previous section. This also foreshadows problems of implementation, at least as the newly adopted Common Core State Standards are put in place, in Michigan and Ohio.
What about high school mathematics teachers? We would expect that all high school mathematics teachers would have at least a minor in mathematics, if not a major. But the actual results for high school are quite surprising. Less than half of all high school mathematics teachers surveyed had a major in mathematics. Almost one-third did not have either a major or a minor in mathematics.
These numbers varied across the four grades of high school taught by the surveyed teachers. Almost one-half of the teachers whose major teaching responsibilities were at 9th or 10th grade did not have any specialization in mathematics. In 11th and 12th grades, over 71% of the teachers who taught primarily at those grades had some kind of specialization in mathematics.
Lest it seem too heartening that those teaching the most advanced courses (usually taken in the 11th and 12th grades) are better prepared in mathematics, we need to consider several caveats. It may be even more important to have well prepared teachers in entry-level courses usually taught in 9th and 10th grades. These courses serve as the foundation for more-advanced courses, may be even more difficult to teach, and are just as important in terms of preparing students for further study. But for these foundational courses, teacher content knowledge was not nearly as strong. It is worth noting that on some of the more advanced mathematics topics (number theory, geometric transformations, logarithmic and trigonometric functions, and calculus) up to half of the teachers did not feel very well prepared to teach them. Perhaps these same 50% were those who did not have a major in
Mathematics Knowledge
One key part of the PROM/SE project was planning and carrying out content-based capacity building for teachers. As a part of this component, we administered a test of mathematics knowledge to a sample of teachers. [The results] strongly suggest that elementary and middle school teachers perceived their weaknesses accurately and reported them honestly. They appeared to be reporting that they were not well prepared academically to teach the mathematics content that they were being asked to teach.
Across grades, the percentage of teachers who did not have a major or minor in mathematics ranged from nearly all of the teachers at 1st grade to around one-half of them at 8th grade. These same teachers were able to answer correctly only about half of the items, as compared with teachers with mathematics majors who were teaching at the corresponding grades. The teachers with mathematics majors were able to correctly answer about 70% of the same items. This gap of almost 20% is sizable and very important. It confirms what the teachers told us when they said that they were not well prepared.
The problem at high school is more a problem of variability. The data indicated that most of the teachers had mathematics majors and that their mathematics knowledge was reasonably good. However, about one-third still did not have strong academic preparation.
The Effects of Teachers Mathematics Knowledge on Opportunities to Learn
Given these results about teachers mathematics knowledge, it is tempting to blame elementary and middle school teachers for not being prepared, but we believe blaming teachers is a mistake. Why? Because teachers prepare themselves according to the standards and guidelines established by the states that certify them and the teacher preparation programs that train them. Our point here is that such variation in academic content knowledge is likely to affect the quality of content coverage. Since the content coverage described previously varied appreciably, these data indicate one possible reason for such variation as it is very likely that this lack of knowledge influences not only the quality of the coverage of particular topics but also the bigger picture as to how the teacher makes choices about which topics to cover, for how long (to what depth), and in what sequence. Such lack of knowledge further exacerbates the variation in content coverage in mathematics across classrooms, schools, and districts, resulting in further inequalities in opportunities to learn.
Used with permission from the Publisher. From Schmidt & McKnight, Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools, New York: Teachers College Press, 2012 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

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My Response: Maths are Creative, Pacing Guides are Absurd

I hate to challenge a Michigan State colleague, but I work with schools both in Michigan and "around Charlottesville, Virginia," and I disagree with a number of the assumptions suggested here.

The first, of course, is that I'm with Conrad Wolfram on the concept that "order" is really not important in maths education (you can find Wolfram’s TED talk on YouTube or via my blog post “Changing Gears: Maths are creative, Maths are not arithmetic”) and thus I strongly disagree with those who might measure either students or schools according to some pre-determined pacing guide.

The other assumption which I find flawed is the comparative measurement structure suggested here. I see low quality maths instruction in many places, I see high quality maths instruction many places, but mostly I see that high quality maths instruction is suggested when students have a deep grasp of mathematics concepts no matter what their arithmetical skills are... and this I am quite certain we have been building in the schools around Charlottesville (see my blog post “Among Schoolchildren”).

We are doing that by embracing a different concept of professional development, one based in "teacher entrepreneurship," social engagement, and grounded theory action research combined with a view that we look at the whole student "result" not any single measure. We do this because we believe that students are humans who develop different skills at different rates.

As for TIMSS and other “international comparatives,” I wish to draw everyone’s attention to the work of Yong Zhao who demonstrates the inverse relationship between international standardized test score results and national economic creativity (see slide 8/8). The nations which score lowest on these exams lead the world in patents per capita, and new product and service introductions per capita. It is the choice between being a nation which invents iPads and a nation which builds iPads at slave labor prices.

“Around Charlottesville” our goal is to raise a generation ready to lead, to invent, to solve problems. It is not our goal to raise test takers. And it is our goal to help teachers develop into educators who can support that mission.

- Ira Socol

10 July 2012

The Freedom Stick - be ready for Universal Design next academic year

Special thanks to the Special Education Advisor web site (a fantastic resource) where this post originally appeared, and where you can download the newest version of the MITS Freedom Stick - the freely available, go anywhere, use anywhere Universal Design software suite.

It is time for Universal Design for Learning to be put in the hands of every student. It is time for every student to be given the opportunity to discover and experiment with a range of tools which can support their own individual differing communication needs – not just in school, but throughout their lives. 

Schools, traditionally, have provided students one way to do things. If the class was supposed to read something, everyone had the same technology – paper with alphabetical symbols printed on it which students needed to “decode.” If the class was supposed to write, everyone had the same technology – usually a pencil or a pen used to create alphabetical symbols on paper. If the class was supposed to get “organized,” everyone had the same technology – an “assignment book” or perhaps the infamous “middle school planner.” 

If students could not function well with that “one way” they either failed, or were diagnosed as being “disabled” and were prescribed a different “one way” to work – a way which would set them apart from their peers forever.

Though in schools around the world we still see this pattern, it is now deep into the second decade of the 21st Century and the technologies and realities of the world have changed. All around the planet people carry with them – often in their pockets – highly individualizable devices which can support all the different ways humans learn and communicate. And it is time for schools to catch up with this reality. 

The new and improved “Freedom Stick” (v.2.3.2) offers students and schools the ability to arrive at this ‘technological present’ at essentially zero cost. 

One free downloadable package of software allows students the ability to make almost any computer a fully accessible device. Students can convert text to audio, get their ideas down by speaking, They can draw, manipulate photography, create visual or audio-visual presentations, calculate mathematics a variety of ways, organize themselves, try a different keyboard, support their spelling and writing… and most importantly, learn the power of “Toolbelt Theory- the power of learning to choose and use tools well. 

The Freedom Stick is a system, it can be downloaded and installed on a 4gb Flash Drive and carried everywhere by the student, plugged into and used on school computers or public library computers, or even employer computers – anywhere any version of Microsoft Windows is installed (including on Apple Macintosh computers which can have Windows installed as a second operating system). Or it can be installed directly onto your own computer. It is safe in all computing environments, tested globally since development began in Scotland with EduApps. This version was developed with US Department of Education and Michigan Department of Education grants through Michigan’s Integrated Technology Supports (MITS) in order to bring Universal Design Technology to American schools. The Freedom Stick is a collection of free, open-source programs which provide the widest range of supports for differing student needs. It is also a system supported by a range of learning tools – including a full set of “how to use” videos and presentations. It is easy to adapt to the students own needs, and it works with the supports included in Windows to create a true Universal Solution Set. 

The Freedom Stick contains:
  • A full version of Open Office (equivalent to Microsoft Office and all documents adapt to both software programs), including Writer (Word), Impress (PowerPoint), Calc (Excel), Base (Access), plus Scribus (similar to Microsoft Publisher).
  • The Sunbird Calendar and Thunderbird Email systems.
  • Fully accessible versions of the Firefox, Opera, and Chrome web browsers including Text-To-Speech options and translations. Firefox and Chrome both include pre-set bookmark folders, offering access to free Digital and Audio Texts, online calculators (including talking calculators), and a wide range of curriculum supports.
  • A full scientific graphing calculator, a digital periodic table with physics and chemistry calculators built in, Converber – a remarkable unit converter, and X-mind – similar to Inspiration.
  • Balabolka, one of the most sophisticated Text-To-Speech systems available which can convert whole digital books to audio files, read anything with word-by-word highlighting, and which allows students to write and hear their own reading read back to them.
  • PowerTalk Portable, which will read any PowerPoint presentation, if PowerPoint is installed on your computer.
  • Audacity, a digital recorder and player.
  • Software for drawing, painting, photo-editing/manipulation, and computer screen recording.
  • Kompozer for writing html code (for building websites) and Notepad++ for coding (and testing code) in almost any computer language.
  • Screen magnifiers.
  • 7-Zip for creating and unpacking Zip Files.
  • Simulation software including Robot Programming and Home Design.
  • Games including Chess and Sudoku.
  • Complete list in text format with links to software sites.
You can begin learning about the Freedom Stick, how to use it and individualize it, with these Presentations:
How to begin... the basics
40 minutes of me talking about reading and writing... My overview, and on Maths and Sciences
or with these videos which include step-by-step instructions for all the Freedom Stick software. It is important to watch the “Getting Started” video to understand how the Freedom Stick interacts with your computers.
We all know that students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities struggle in school and in life because of what I call “Transactional Disability,” a mismatch between the information and communication technologies in use and the technology needs of these students. 

The Freedom Stick begins to solve this by offering choices of how to interact with information and communication to any student. Students not only get access, they begin to learn how to make their world accessible, building skills which will carry them through their lifespan. As they learn to choose and adapt the software on the Freedom Stick they will discover how to evaluate and choose the tools they will use on computers and phones no matter how they, their needs, or the technologies, change in the future. 

- Ira Socol

To download the Freedom Stick software suite click here

  1. The USB Image Tool is an easily downloadable way to quickly duplicate Freedom Sticks on your home or work computer.
  2. For information about Education Scotland’s evaluation of these Portable Apps in schools, see the EduApps site or Education Scotland.
  3. The Freedom Stick is a project of Michigan’s Integrated Technology Supports. In Michigan pre-K-12 educators may order Freedom Sticks already formatted at a grant supported price.