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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

21st Century Equity

It has happened already, and it is only going to get worse.

When it comes to using digital texts and tools for meaningful, purposeful, and connected learning students born whiter and wealthier  are afforded more opportunities than their peers. This disparity will become another reaffirming gap in the quality of education between the have and have nots.

If you read the trends in the Pew Internet and The American Life project you will notice that access barriers have greatly leveled off (with broadband access still an issue). In fact minority students now spend more hours with screen time when compared to their white peers.

So what's is the problem? 

It is quality screen time not quantity of screen time that will matter most in education.

I already see this problem in full swing in the state of Connecticut. When I walk into high SES schools students are using computers to complete Voicethread projects, discussing literature on blogs or Edmodo doing multimodal compositions in music, creating wikis in social studies. In other words they are using computers to redefine what it means to be literate in today's digital society.

I wish I could say the same about students in low SES school district. It reminds my of a maxim my advisor was always fond of, "Those who need are help the most will get it the least."

In many schools in poor urban and rural districts the computers are used for assessment and remediation. Instead of focusing on new comprehension and composition skills students are tethered to a machine doing self-paced reading classes or looking up  a book they read to see if they earned a few meager points for a free pencil. Whoo-hoo.

Once again the rich are getting richer.

A Deficit of Skills is Emerging

The lack of quality of screen time is already reeling its ugly head. In fact in a recent study with conducted by my peers and I at the New Literacies Research Lab found that  even after adjusting for CMT reading scores, there was a significant difference bon the mean scores of a measure of online reading comprehension between students in a high SES schools and students in a low SES ORCA score, F(1,203) =12.763, p = .000; partial eta squared = .052). This simply means even after accounting for the known gap in reading ability the wealthier and the whiter kids are better at locating, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating information in online spaces. 

The Common Core and SB 458 Could Make this Worse

Assessment is THE major focus of recent reform efforts in Connecticut. Much of this reform will center on the use of technology to provide faster and more responsive computer adaptive questions (computers picks your next question based on how well you do). There is also the potential to rethink assessment sand embed data mining procedures in computerized activities. I applaud these efforts.

Yet I worry about screen time. Quality screen time

There simply are nowhere near enough desktops, laptops, or tablets in Connecticut's 165 school districts to provide this level of computerized assessment. Even if there were enough machines every Internet accessible device would have to be monopolized for most of the year to ensure a short enough teting time frame for the results to have any chance to mean anything.

This push to test the Common Core online will exacerbate the screen equity. So could recent changes in SB 458. The law requires two week and six week assessments to be completed in every school identified as needing improvement. Chances are the state or schools will purchase some software package. Say goodbye to your last chance of signing out the computer lab.

Fight for Quality Technology Access

It is one of the major education equity issues of our time. How will schools be able to claim students are graduating college and career ready when all they can do on a computing device is select a multiple choice answer? I fear teachers everywhere are going to need to stand their ground. We need to ensure our computers are not relegated to simply tools for analyzing data. We need to ensure digital texts and tools are used to open dreams.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Using SB 458 to Enhance Teacher Preparation and Improve the Classroom

The Role of Assessment:

There are many new requirements in the Connecticut education reform bill. Many changes I agree with, some I do not.

I do agree with the increased focus on early childhood reading and reading in the K-3 classrooms. I also believe in the power and usefulness of short term assessments and repeated measures to monitor student progress. 

Using assessment data to inform practice can be truly beneficial to students. The problem: having a teacher available to actually teach is even more (if not astronomically) more beneficial.

In the new bill any school (please correct me if my interpretation is incorrect) labeled as a category four or five school  must give students short assessments in reading and mathematics every two weeks. 

The bill reads:

Section 28 (8) Students receive regular assessments, including short assessment tests every two weeks, that evaluate short-term progress and district-wide assessment tests every six weeks that evaluate a student's progress toward long-term objectives.

I worry about this implementation. As any P-3 classroom teacher can tell you there is nothing "short" about reading assessments with emergent readers. They have to be completed one-on-one. 

While I believe, and have written, that the future of P-3 assessments is in tablet based solutions these do not exist yet. Teachers will have to rely on running records and assessments such as the DRA2.

This amount of assessment, every two weeks, may leave little instructional time. In the past year when I visit schools that will be labeled as category 4 or 5, there is often  already a steady stream of assessments. In fact I often see the classroom teacher assessing more than teaching.

While the teacher is conduction benchmark assessments the students must be provided another activity. This, in my experience, is usually independent reading. While I am a huge proponent of choice and independent reading, if the time spent with books is not connected with meaningful (accountable) classroom talk and learning activities it is wasted instructional time.

If SB 458 is to have any impact on reading something must be done.

Training Future Teachers

I find a possible solution in section 35 (j):

 On and after July 1, 2015, any program of teacher preparation leading to professional certification shall require, as part of the curriculum, clinical experience, field experience or student teaching experience in a classroom during four semesters of such program of teacher preparation.

Schools of education, and programs for alternative routes to certification, could utilize future teachers to build an assessment support system. 

How it would work

Based on the bill I would suggest every teacher preparation program needs a clinical approach to teaching reading instruction and assessment. Candidates, as part of their clinical field work could:

1. Be identified by schools of education, or alternative certification programs as  top tier students who also have a desire to reform urban education. 
2. Undergo extensive training in the assessment systems approved by the state (Department of Education must approve these by July, 2013).
3. Have to administer the bi-weekly assessments.
4. In conjunction with the classroom and university supervisor develop an instructional routine for individual ans small group instruction,
5. Use data to inform their instruction and track progress.

 Such an answer could unleash numerous benefits.

Teachers Prepared to Assess and Teach Reading

Assessing Reading 

Teacher preparation programs have, and in some cases justifiably so, come under fire for the readiness level of candidates to provide explicit instruction in the areas of phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension. 

This is evident in both anecdotal evidence from the classroom and scores on the Reading Foundations test, which for many preparation programs are abysmally low. 

Given the large emphasis on P-3 reading in SB 458 teacher preparation programs must begin to reform their programs now so a cadre of well trained teachers wil be prepared when many of the reforms come to fruition.

One of the four required field experiences should focus on literacy instruction guided by literacy assessments. SB 458 carriers major consequences and put  a lot of blind faith a in assessment. Allocating resources, developing a student's plan of study, and determining teachers career paths all hinge, partially, on student scores. 

If these scores are to have any use at all every effort should be made to ensure the administration, evaluation, and interpretation of the approved assessments is as similar as possible at the classroom level. Achieving such widespread fidelity, to give the scores any meaning, will be almost, if not, impossible.

Teacher preparation programs should try to ensure teachers stepping into classrooms  have a basic knowledge of how to administer these tests and interpret results. This knowledge will improve instruction and serve the long term interest of teachers 

Teaching Reading

Using this information, during the hypothetical field experience, the teacher candidates could then use data from the  assessments to develop lessons for the literacy blocks required in SB 458. Their field experience could  require observing whole group, small group, and individual instruction. During student teaching the teacher candidates would be responsible for developing and delivering this instruction.

Freeing Classroom Teachers to Actually Teach

I have to reiterate how taxing it will be on category 4 and 5 schools to provide bi-weekly assessments. It will be a logistical and classroom management nightmare. If schools can work in partnership with teacher preparation programs then classroom teacher will be able to use the data gleaned from the clinical experience to provide targeted whole group mini-lessons and one-on-one support. 

Challenges to Such an Approach

1. Reliability of scores- One threat to this proposal would be ensuring that undergraduate students and graduate students can reliably administer assessments. Given, however, the low inter-rater reliability (how well two people score the same person/test) of assessments currently used in the classroom it cannot get much worse. A strong training program with inter-rater reliability exit requirements, fidelity checks could help.

2. Lack of credit hours-SB 458 doubles down on subject area majores for teacher candidates. This is especially challenging for early childhood and elementary majors who teach EVERY subject. There is little time in the schedule for flexibility as students must meet their subject area requirements. 

I would have suggested a 5 year approach, similar to UCONN's IBM, but my reading of SB 458 suggests that subject area major is now required for the MA degree eliminating the Masters degree. I am not sure if this is the case, or how the State Board of Ed will define subject area major (PLEASE, PLEASE, allow reading to be a subject area major for Masters degree and interdisciplinary  or general ed at the undergraduate level).

Either way, even increasing the amount of field work, let alone creating a truly clinical experience, will take coordination with subject area majors of the fulfillment of many credits online.

3. The Unknown

I am sure there are greater challenges to this approach that I have not identified. Please if you see any please let me know.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Affirmative: Don't Fear the Robots

A firestorm broke out when a study released by Hewlett Foundation suggested that automated scoring systems can produce scores similar (have a high correlation) with those scored by us human folk.

Based on the reactions posted on the #ncte and the #engchat feeds you would have thought armageddon was upon us and Pearson merged with the  Cyberdyne Systems Corporation.

It is affirmative. We do not need to fear the robots. In fact they can be our friends (I will not go into the methodology and limitations of automated scoring systems...mainly because I cannot do a better job that Justin Reich did in his three part treatsie).

Basically the cries over the rise of robots was misguided. It seemed to fall in two strands. The first was they cannot recognize good literature. No one is asking the robots to do this. Basically they are being asked to identify textual elements n patterns that replicate what their human trainers would do.

The second big fear was that the scoring systems could be gamed. Students could  use long sentences and big words but write gibberish. This does not concern me in the least. If you show me a student who is creative enough, and has the ability to say nothing while stringing together a massive vocabulary and complex sentences--well you are showing me a very talented writer.

Overall, automated systems will improve HST testings as it can include the assessment of more complex and open ended questions. However you feel about HST moving away from bubbles has to be a good thing? Right?

High stakes tests and accountability do not get at the practices used by good writers nor does it enage stduents in connected learning. I think the robots, however, can also help on this front.

Assessing the Stream

I recently had the pleasure of setting on in on  #ConnectedLearning Google+hangout panel with Paul Oh, of the National Writing Project, Ellen Middaugh,  Associate Director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College, and Howard Reinghold. We were commenting on the work of Anetero Garcia is doing wonderful things around agency and active involvement.

A question from the audience came up asking how do we bring in principles of connected and participatory learning in classrooms so focused on student achievement . While these two outcome do seem dichotomously opposed they do not have to be. And the robots can help.

The digitization of literacy creates a lot of data. Achievement folks love data. They salivate for it. Teachers can use this as a hook to demonstrate that participatory learning can lead to gains when you assess what Dan Hickey calls the residue of learning.

Basically, as Justing Reich pointed out in his third post, automated scoring systems can provide wonderful formative assessment data. This also involves assessing the growth over time and looking for gains more in the process and social practices of writing rather than a final product.

Imagine if an automated scoring system could look at drafts of an essay and analyze the amount of sourced material (already possible). You could take this further and what if blogs could be analyzed for their use of having a clear main idea, media, and supporting evidence. The analyzing the stream would allow you to look at discurse patterns in online discussion.

All of this can be used to inform your practice-the essence of formative assessment. The robots just make it quicker-the challenge of most formative assessments.

Replacing the Teacher

Does this mean the teacher isn't necessary? Of course not. No one said this. All the humans are not gone. You will still conference with writers and set individual goals. That is the heart of what it means to work with young writers. The robots, not even a T-800, would could possibly complete such a feat.

The robots, when trained, can just find elements in a text that we want students to use. I do not think this is a bad thing.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Connecticut Achievement Gap

On Friday Southern recognized two very influential educational leaders who have shaped our understanding of the achievement gap. Dr. Edmund Gordon and Dr. James Comer.

(A video on Dr. Gordon discussing the achievement gap at a previous event)

(A previous  discussion of developmental science by Dr. Comer)

 It was a wonderful experience. The event was setup as a discussion between the two icons. More often than not they were in complete agreement but their nuanced differences deserve a closer examination.

The talk began with Dr. Gordon recognizing it had been fifty years since the Comer studies first examined the idea of the achievement gap. He said one of his biggest regrets is that we are still discussing the issue a half a century later.

On the Roots of the Gap

Both of the educators agreed that the achievement gap was more about opportunity than a deficit of skills. Gordon opened the discussion by reviewing the corollary studies that connect performance to skin color. Basically a series of studies have shown the darker the skin the lower the performance. Although he argued that the gap has more to do with access rather than skin color. Gordon also noted, however, that his friend W. EB. Du Bois would have challenged this notion and say we could never forget about skin color.

Gordon argued that the only way to overcome the gap is to give access to both economic access and power. He stated even knowing you have access to economic advantages gives a child power and that sense of agency in turn gives her access to economic advantages.  Gordon concluded that it will take revitalization of the community and economy in black neighborhoods to truly address the Connecticut achievement gap.

Dr. Comer began his discussion of the achievement gap by defining it as a development gap. Comer agreed the achievement gap does have something to do with color. He argued, however, it had more to do with history. Comer noted that we have a country built on the value of inequity and inequality. He noted that things happen in the past that are transmitted from generation to generation that impacted development in the future. He makes no bones about being a supporter of reparations. Not in the fortty acres and a mule sense but in society investing heavily in black neighborhoods.

Dr. Comer felt that it isn't about achievement but the opportunity to develop. Comer stated that students can overcome if they know who they are and can process out the noise. Socio-economic status isn't the only cause but we need to process out the noise and believe we can achieve. It is this, belief, Comer argued that privileged children enter school with  and minority students do not.

It is for this reason Comer stated he hated the term "integration"  Comer stated it should have been about opportunity. He defined opportunity as all the factors that influence achievement and integration as putting people together.

On the Role of Schools

The two speakers differed on their beliefs on the role of schools. Comer argued that it was the only central place where the needs of students could be met. Gordon was suspicious of the idea that schools could be the central focus of ending the achievement gap.

Dr. Comer believed that the gap had to be closed at school. It could not be done solely around the dinner table. He argued for staring early by focusing in on executive functioning in  preschool. Since Comer believed that the achievement gap was rooted in basic decision making at the earliest stages of development he believed schools had to create opportunities for students to make decisions and express agency and power. Gordon said, "Black youth need to be taught how to deal with a society not organized for blacks."

Dr. Gordon posited that there were severe limits on what the schools can do to overcome the achievement gap. Gordon stated there were three main reasons for his suspicion. First off he argued that so much of what happens in schools is predicated b what happens in the family before schooling begins. Second reform efforts in school are misguided. Finally, and most importantly, Gordon felt that disadvantaged youth need access to supplemental education beyond schools.

The two speakers also disagreed on the role of teachers in fighting the inherent bias in the world. Comber believed we had to reach teachers and recruit them in tackling bias. Gordon did not believe it was possible.

In what was the most memorable line of the talk Dr. Gordon exclaimed, "I gave up preaching because I realized preaching could not keep people from sinning." He went on and stated that we cannot overcome the bias that teachers bring to the classroom. Instead Dr. Gordon felt the youth of the classroom must be empowered to challenge their teachers and injustice in the classroom.

Finally the two scholars disagreed on the role of unions. Comer felt that unions had done some wonderful things in the past. Gordon, while recognizing a storied past felt unions had devolved into self serving and self preservationist institutions.

On the Role of Testing

Both speakers not only argued against our current accountability driven education reform frenzy but were both highly suspicious of the overall motives.

Dr. Gordon, an assessment expert, stated he was penning a letter to President Obama attacking the current focus on testing. He said the focus on using tests to reform schools is simply wrong. Dr. Gordon was more forthright in his disdain for testing. He felt that the goal was to simply show that schools are failing. This in turn would garner public disgust. At that point the test scores could be used to dismantle the public education system.

Dr. Comer felt the tests were just telling us something we already know. There is an achievement gap. We are spending hundreds f millions of dollars to come to a forgone conclusion. He worried about this emphasis trickling down into early childhood education. Dr. Comer felt that the tests actually contribute to the achievement gap by stripping away all the joy in education for minority students. Well off students do not need the focus on raising scores so they can concentrate on joy of learning. Comer felt that the tests rob poor students of this opportunity.

On the Role of Schools of Education

There was slight disagreement on how schools of education should be organized. Dr. Comer felt that the schools should focus on the science of learning. Naturally he felt a strong affinity for teaching developmental science. Dr. Comer felt there was a lot schools of education could gain from the medical model.

Dr. Gordon retorted it wasn't really the advances in medicine as a science that lead to improved health care but more public health policy. It was sanitization and immunization efforts that transformed society. He felt schools were the same way. It had to be a community effort and not simply science. Dr. Gordon said it wasn't the pedagogical science that mattered for pre-service teachers but their ability to think. He said their content majors were more important as teachers needed to "know something." Dr. Gordon argued for harder admissions criteria and more or a liberal education focus for teachers.

Overall the day was quite an experience. It ended with a panel of teachers, principals, and students reflecting on how best Connecticut and New Haven could overcome the achievement gap.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Using neu.Annotate to Model, Teach, and Assess Text Dependent Questions

Text Dependent Questions

One of the major shifts ( or really one of the better pedagogical practices) highlighted by the Common Core revolves around asking text dependent questions.

Text dependent questions do not rely on background knowledge or making connections to the world or other texts.

As P. David Pearson noted, in a recent discussion about the Common Core. Comprehension includes the text but also what a reader brings to the text. In recent years, Pearson argues, many teachers have tipped the scales to favor the reader and have all but ignored the text. Pearson is quoted saying:

In too many classrooms, the actual text never enters the discussion," he said. "It's all about kids' feelings about it, or their experiences related to it. The teacher spends 45 minutes wallowing in that space, but never gets into the information in the text.

The goal is to focus students on the meaning of the texts. In simplest terms a text dependent question can not be answered without referring back to the text.

Let us look at an example. The article  Hobbits: our tine cousins from from Science News for Kids provides a text that meets the quantitative and qualitative definition of a complex text for upper elementary and middle school.
Now pick the text dependent question:
  • How are the hobbits, or smaller humans, just like us? Cite examples from the text in your answer.
  • Examine the possible evolutionary paths outlined by the author. Given the evidence in the text which seems most plausible?
Notice that the second question relies more heavily and requires students to dig deeper in the text. Simple adding the phrase "Cite examples from the text in your answer"does not make a question text dependent.

Neu. Annotate, the iPad, and Text Dependent Questions

How can teachers model, teach, and assess how to address text dependent questions? I once again turn to tablet computing as a means to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of instruction that can be driven by student performance. Specifically, I find the neu.Annotate app to be one of the most powerful tools teachers can utilize.

Basically neu.Annotate allows you to mark up and annotate pdf documents. Teachers can use this app to track students close reads as they attend to text dependent questions.

Steps to using neu.Annotate

This post isn't a tutorial on the app but focuses more on the pedagogical affordances of using neu.Annotate to assess and teach analytic reading and the asking of text dependent questions.

1. Cold Read

 I like to begin any close reading activity by first collecting students thoughts after a cold read. That is I begin the lesson before discussing any of the texts, providing background, or explaining the central thesis (this of course does not apply to ELL students or others who require pre-teaching based on an IEP).

To do this I make one version of the article and add a question and a text box at the end of the article for the students.

2. Analyze individual paragraphs.

The next activity I like to do is to look at the text at a local, before a global level. Use neu.Annotate to examine paragraphs at a sentence or word level.

3. Investigate word choice.

Another activity I like to do with students is to then have them look at individual word choice by the author.

5. Examine each idea in the informational text.

My next step is to probe the the organizational strategy the author used. I do this in neu.Annotate by having students highlight the main idea in one color (yellow) and then have them highlight details in another color (blue). Finally students have to rewrite the gist of each paragraph at the end of the document.

6. Final activity

To finish a close read, using text dependent question. I return to the orginal question or task I posed to students followed by some expansion:

  • Outline the author's main thesis. 
  • Examine the possible evolutionary paths outlined by the author. Given the evidence in the text which seems most plausible?

Using neu.Annotate in the classroom

I would begin by first modeling the series of activities with another article. I would follow this by a a group think-aloud as you attack a text. This may take a few classroom sessions as you analyze the different elements of the text from the local to the global. 

Then you can have students complete a similar activity on their own. This can result in some assessment data. Hopefully you will recognize some growth and areas the student needs to focus on by comparing the initial close read with the final activity.

As neu.Annotate creates a digital record of the students data you can easily track how well students respond to text dependent questions. Teachers could have students either email their responses as a pdf or simply share the files by connecting neu.Annotate to dropbox.