Archive for November, 2007

The School: Part 5 Human Makeup

Within the walls of a school, there are kids, teachers, aids, secretaries, administrators, lunchroom staff, and maintenance staff. On occasion, or in certain school, there are student teachers, classroom observers, parent volunteers and security staff. Delivery people are in and out with their packages and bundles. There is an atmosphere created by human activity. In the case of a school, the activity is directed toward learning. As a result, there are different types of activity and the associated sensory stimulations. If we were to take a tour of a typical school, we might sense the following.

We arrive at the front door and ring the bell or wave at a camera. There was a time when we could just walk into a school and go where we wanted. A series of school intrusions resulted in increased school security. As you are buzzed in, we notice bright, eye catching motivational posters. We are met by a security person who asks who we are and what’s the purpose of our visit. Most schools issue a pass that we will be expected to display until we leave. Not too many schools allow visitors free access to the whole school. For the sake of our tale, we will have such open access.

We pass through the cafeteria at lunch. The noise level is almost deafening. Everyone is talking. Could anyone be listening? One girl in the far corner has such a loud piercing voice that she could be used as a tornado siren. The babble assaults the human ear. The smell of melted cheese, baked chocolate chip cookies and that odor that you not quite sure of battles the noise for sensory stimulation. Mixed together it’s a smell that hasn’t changed in fifty years. Somewhere in the deep recesses of the brain memories of school lunch stirs in our mind. We notice the trash barrels filled to overflowing. The hair styles and clothes are different from our generation as is their music. A sense of relief overcomes us as we step by the teacher “doing her duty.” Teachers have assigned supervisory roles in most schools. It part of the job. The corridor outside the cafeteria is welcome quiet.

The hallway is colorful and decorated with student work. We pause as we pass through the hall amazed at the talent of some students. Occasional we see a graffiti identifying the artist as the “gay” so-and-sot for the most part little damage is evident. The quiet begins to fade as we approach the gymnasium. Many schools now have two or more gyms. The sound of bouncing balls and shouting teens grow louder as we approach an open gym door. We look in to see groups of teens running back and forth yelling at each other. Off in the corner two casual dressed teachers sit on folding chairs speaking in animated gestures about something or other. We notice a motley team of teens flopped on the bleachers and Books strewn next to them. They either stare into space or hastily write notes. The smell of stall sweat signals the time to move on.

Silence again. Only briefly as the drums draw us into the arts wing. Trophies fill glass cases that line a back wall. As we step closer we can’t help but notice the film of dust that has been collecting for some time. The choir room’s door is pulled closed. We decide to move along. The clay sculptures fill colorful cabinets and racks. Oils and water color paintings hang from the walls. The strangest designs and colors create the design of each wall. The soft chatter from each classroom does not extend into the hall. Each member of the class seems preoccupied with their creations speaking only to their closest neighbor asking for this tool or color.

We find the photography suddenly demarking the next departmental area. Only one wall holds photos. Next to that wall we can see groups of students arranging objects and taking pictures. Beyond the class we can see a small courtyard where some individuals are attempting to photograph nature. The teacher is at first not even noticed. As we span the room, we discover the teacher huddled with a group attempting to explain the working of a camera. Come to think of it, we never noticed the art or music teacher. We wonder if they were there.

We move around a corner and into another way. There is no hum of conversation or shuffle of activity. There is only the drone of crickets. A large sign printed by a computer introduced us to the “Tech Territory.” Each room was filled with students pecking away at computer keyboards. The teacher sat at a raised area looking at the monitor in front of him. From his dais he could not only watch every student in the class but could monitor the monitors. He looked bore and give us a smile. He was the first teacher to actually take notice of us.

Up a few steps, and we entered a carpeted area plush with sofas and tables and chairs. The wall on the far side was a line of computer desks. Computer screens blazed blue awaiting a client. The library was a vast area. In the center a librarian peered at us as we approached her redoubt. She was the first to challenge our presences. When we explained, she soften into a sweet person who provided a history of the school and a list of the qualities of her library. She pointed out that the word “library” was an antiquated term and no longer in use. This area is “My LRC!” This room contains all the recourses for learning. The Learning Resource Center is the hub of learning in the school. As she spoke, a gaggle of pupils hurdled into the LRC. The librarian, or LRCian, turned and stomped to the new arrivals. “Stop!” We could hear the authority. The impact was immediate. They stopped in their tracks and fear gagged them. The silence had returned. We could hear the orders being issued as pupils sat in assigned places. We better felt the need to move along.

We left the LRC and found ourselves faced with a beehive of activity. Pupils roamed in and out of a suite of offices. A rather pretty young lady sat at a desk. She had a pleasant smile and seemed to know each pupil that came in. She sent some out into the corridor of offices and others took a seat to wait. The phone rang constantly. She retained smile as if it was permanently attached. She had a soothing voice when she answered the phone. The sign on her desk told all: “Ms Penny, Guidance Secretary.” We smiled and moved on.

Finally, a corridor with classrooms. It wasn’t perfectly quiet but it was not noisy. As we ambled down the hallway, we peeked into classroom. Many had teachers who dominated the room with their presence. Lecture or monologue? Students stared into space or were busy preparing a note or trying to hold their eyes opened. In the next classroom, students had desks pulled into circles and were heatedly discussing some issue. They were not screaming. Each seemed to take a turn with little interruption by fellow team members. There was no one asleep here. Everyone seemed engaged in their discussion. It took sometime for us to locate the teacher. He was sitting in a student desk. He listened and spoke in his turn just the students seemed to be doing everywhere. The activity was inviting and we had to struggle away to avoid joining the fray.

The other classes seemed to have competent teachers as we passed along the corridor. We were nearing the end of our tour. Just one more stop. Where’s the maintenance area we asked. The directions carried back near the entrance. We had missed the large doors marked “Building and Grounds” in large bold letters. We stepped into the room. It was filled with clutter. One old man stepped out of a closet and stared defiantly at us. He shrugged his shoulders and ambled away. As we turned to leave the deserted area, we caught site of three or four gathered around a tree on the side of the building.

We looked at each other and waved good bye to the guardian of the door. We had spent an hour roaming the building. The school is a honeycomb of hives with a myriad of activities. Learning seems to be at stake in each corner of this building. It seemed to be the concerted effort of each person to guide the pupils on the path of life. Although, no school is exactly like this, these represent the activities that occur. If we tour another school, these the aspects of the school.

November 28, 2007 at 4:30 am Leave a comment

Part 4: The Standardized Test

This is a normal standard bell curve. All the test grades are added together and the mean point is determined. The mean point is the top of the curve. This is the test taker who is tagged in the following ways: 50%, 50 percentile, 0 Z-score and 5 stanine. This test taker is average or meets the standard. The test taker is a number. The name happens to be associated with that number. Now that number has a bunch of numbers associated with it.

500px-Normal distribution and scales

Standardized testing has become so attached to NCLB (No Child Left Behind) that the positive benefits are lost. Standardized testing got its big boost in the late 1950’s when the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit around the earth. Four years later Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargin became the first man into space. Panic spread through school systems! What’s wrong with our schools? Why weren’t the US first into space. The first phase of emphasis on science and math struck the education world. The arts and social studies were diminished in favor of more science and math. Testing was introduced into schools by The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), California Achievement Test (CAT), and American College Tests (ACT). There a mountain of other companies who prepare and publish these tests. Most colleges use the ACT or SAT as an entrance exam. The ACT is not an achievement test. It is a reading test that requires a broad base of general knowledge. Standardized testing is a great tool when it is used as it was designed to be used.

When I began teaching, the IOWA test were the regular used test by schools. It was administrated every other year. The results of the test were poured over by teachers to see if there was a trend in the results. The results of the ITBS showed a drop in math ability from third to fifth grade. It had not been like this before. What happen that caused this drop? Teachers had changed in the fifth grade. They certainly seemed qualified and their pupils did well on all other topics. We looked deeper into the results. Each specific topic that was tested was identified on the data sheets. When we looked, we noted that “long division” was where the problem laid. When we removed that section, the results were more to our liking. What happened? The fourth grade teachers pointed at the fifth grade teachers as the fifth pointed back at the fourth. “Long Division” was not being taught. The teachers thought the other group was doing that part of the math. The curriculum was the problem. It had been ignored completely. (A math teacher before his time no doubt). We were able to identify kids who seemed to working below what the tests seem to indicate or the other way as well. Standardized tests were necessary diagnostic tools.

Somewhere in our journey to improve learning we got lost. Standardized tests are now accountability tools. Pupils and schools must meet certain criteria to be considered passing. Failure to meet these standards can result in pupils not graduating or being promoted; schools can be closed and its staff fired. Instead of using standardized tests to improve the quality, we are using it to show how educators and pupils are not doing their tasks. There is something seriously wrong here.

A very brief word on how tests are standardized. When test results are returned, a statistical sample is chosen to establish a standard. The scores are arranged in a bell curve (see above). This becomes the standard that assigns pupils into stanines. That means that as pupils improve the bell curve slides to the right. Therefore, schools and pupils will always be looked at in a bad light. I taught many pupils who would do poorly on standardized tests but showed a genus in class. I would love to see how Einstein or Edison would do on the ACT. There is something seriously wrong here, too.

In Illinois, as is true in many other states, a state achievement test is administered. The ISAT (Illinois State Achievement Test) is given over a two day period which includes the ACT. Day one has all students taking the ACT and on day two the ISAT is administered. College bound pupils see the value of the ACT but do see the use of the ISAT. The ISAT measures the vast array of state standards and each year the emphasis shifts thus making it a guessing game on the part of educators. The ISAT are very specific test questions much that you might expect on a teachers test given at the end of a unit of study. These unit tests are bit size assessment of material studied. The ISAT is a gluttonous size that chokes the pupil. There is something seriously wrong here, too.

Having taught too long, I know that this will also pass by. Education is constantly reinventing the wheel. But I have noticed that each time the new wheel rolls around something worthwhile sticks around and, as a result, teaching or learning improves. It always amazes me that each generation I have taught manages to do so well and become good and successful people. There is something seriously right here.

November 19, 2007 at 8:18 am Leave a comment

Accountability: A side issue

November 6, 2007 <!–fm44–>Edit

busb-accountability-report-card-nclb.jpg     Accountability is the term used to express the fact that people must be accounted for their actions. The term arose in recent years when the hoi polloi began to grumble about the pols and their affairs. There were those in the public who wanted the politicians to be accountable to their constituency. The next election the pols began the banter that the major concern in the precinct, ward, municipality, county and state was the decline in the quality of education. “Look at these kids today!” The pols ranted. “They are failing and falling far behind the pupils of the world.” The clamor grew and the mob was turned toward what the mob leaders told them. “Schools are failing! Our kinds are in danger!” Noted educators and prominent citizens picked up the battle cry. “Save our schools!” The pols smiled and continued on.

Soon accountability became the buzzword of political races and school reform issues. NCLB legislation forces schools into an accountability crisis. Since the beginning of the formal school, accountability has always been the overseer of teachers. In the 1800’s , teachers had to abide by certain rules regarding morality, dress and work conditions. Teachers were expected to bring their own coal to heat their classroom. After the children left teachers had to clean up and do what ever chores were needed to maintain the school or its environ. Those were the days! As the 20th Century unfolded, expectations of teachers  increased. A college education was expected. Then Teachers had to become certified in what state they taught in. Teachers are evaluated by other professionals. Teachers have always been accountable for the grades they give children and what they teach children in and out of the classroom.

Each year the number of pupils required to attain acceptable levels increase with the idea that all pupils should eventually achieve the level of minimum standard. Well of course!! Any dope knows that. All kids should achieve a certain minimum level in order to graduate. This not the argument. The problem comes when we hold the same standard for all kids. Not all children are the same! A parent with more than one child knows that! Billy is so good at keeping his room neat and clean while Sally uses her floor like a dresser. Sally is a whiz at math and Billy can draw like Rembrandt. No two people (kids or not) are the same. Standardized testing is great when used wisely and judiciously.

Each and every one of us are accountable to someone or in some way. Accountability is a way of life. Pupils are accountability to teachers and that is reflected on a report card. The grades on the report card opens the door for teachers to be accountable to parents. Teachers are also evaluated once a year or, perhaps, every other year by superintendents or principals. School administrators are help accountable to school boards who are in turn help responsible to the citizens of the school district. Accountability is a way of life in education and has been for a long time.

There is nothing wrong with accountability. The problem is when everyone is held accountable to some standard that does not fit everyone. There are no two people on this planet that are identical. Even twins bare differences. Our children in school should be able to read, write, do arithmetic and have a few other skills. But are all the children going to read at the same rate or to the same degree? Some pupils are great readers while other s are plausible readers.  Does this mean that the mediocre readers “does not meet the standard” and faces the consequences as does his school?

Shouldn’t every pupil work to their fullest potential. The problem is that standardized testing does not provide for the varying potentials.

November 6, 2007 at 5:21 am Leave a comment

November 2007
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