Monday, April 28, 2014

How is it "too easy"?

On April 25th, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, announced a new focus on improving teacher-preparation. This announcement coincided with the release of the U.S. Department of Education's (USDOE) infographic shown on the right. Problem is, this infographic is surprisingly short on information.

For example, as I pointed out in the first post of this series, the claim that "62% of NEW TEACHERS say they graduated from education school UNPREPARED for the classroom" is missing a lot of detail. Had the infographic included references for the statistics behind this claim, then interested readers could find out more about the data and draw their own conclusions. Instead, we only have the USDOE's damning interpretation, which conveniently supports its narrative.

Then there is this statement:
The lack of source leaves me with several questions. Which exams are we talking about? In Michigan, a teacher-candidate might take three different certification exams. Also, does the 96% represent first-time exam-takers or all exam-takers? Again, in Michigan, all teacher-candidates are expected to pass a basic-skills exam before beginning professional education coursework. The goal for my department is that 100% of our teacher-candidates will pass the test. In fact, our program is evaluated based on our success rate.

However, this can result in a Catch-22 because a high success rate seems to suggest to the USDOE that the test must be "too easy." Where does this interpretation come from? A similar argument was made for "beefing up" Michigan's Test for Teacher Certification:
the basic exam and various other tests for teaching specialties screen out almost no one, with four out of five passing on the first try.
That 79 percent initial pass rate for the various tests – 88 percent pass after retaking the tests – is a similar pass rate to license exams for cosmetology.
It is interesting to me that the author of the article decided to compare the results to cosmetology (a profession, like teaching, that has a high population of females), and does so with such derision. What if we compare "That 79 percent initial pass rate" to the first-time taker pass rates from the American Board of Internal Medicine?
No one seems to be saying that the Internal Medicine exams are "too easy." Could it be some tacit assumption about teachers' academic ability that leads to this double standard? If so, then making the test "harder" is a no-win situation for teachers and the programs that prepare them. Should teachers continue to pass at such alarmingly high rates, then the tests remain "too easy." Lower pass rates, on the other hand, reinforce the belief that teachers are less academically able than other professionals and that Schools of Education are not doing their job to adequately prepare candidates for the test.

Maybe the USDOE is right and the current test do not accurately represent the foundational skills teachers need to be effective in the K-12 classroom. If that is the case, then show the actual evidence that supports this claim. Otherwise, what is being provided is not information; it is propaganda.

(4/30/14) The US DOE has provided this document as the source for the 96% pas rate. It also includes the following:
shortcomings with the use and calculation of passage rates make them a misleading and untrustworthy indicator and should not be used to make cross-state comparisons or assumptions of program rigor, student success, or other similar measures of quality.

Friday, April 25, 2014

What was missing?

Taking Action to Improve Teacher Preparation
"Virtually every school I go to, I ask teachers whether they were prepared when they first entered the school or the profession," Duncan said. "There's often a good deal of nervous laughter," he said, before teachers confess that they were nowhere near ready for the job. [Politico, 4/25/14]
"Often the vast majority of schools, "  [Duncan] said, "when I talk to teachers, and have very candid conversations, they feel they weren't well prepared." [New York Times, 4/25/14]
Something is missing from this assessment of teacher preparation. A good educator might follow up with, "So what was missing?" Either Secretary Duncan did not ask that question, or he did not believe the teachers' answers were worth sharing.

I am just imagining here, but based on my experience with new teachers, I might predict that they would respond to, "what's missing?" with:

  • I wasn't prepared to have to turn my back on all the promising practices I learned in my teacher preparation program just because my district's instructional approaches are stuck in the 19th Century.
  • I wasn't prepared to focus so much on test-prep. Don't those who clamor for accountability understand that test are only one measure of learning?
  • I wasn't prepared for the poverty some of my kids deal with. Why are we ignoring this issue?
  • I wasn't prepared for how much of my own money I would need to spend on school supplies.
  • I wasn't prepared to be attacked from all sides. Why do some many people hate teachers?
However, I might be wrong, so let's ask these new teachers what was missing from their teacher preparation program (if anything) before we go about trying to fix it. It is a poor teacher who tries to educate without adequate assessment. I learned that from the College of Education that I attended.

(4/30/14): The 62% number comes from 2006's Educating School Teachers.
(4/26/14): My wife did some research and found out why teachers leave. Spoiler: it's not because they were underprepared by their teacher preparation program.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Do you have a boring worksheet that you want to make more interesting?

Yesterday, I shared a worksheet I was using in my math course for preservice elementary teachers on Twitter. It got enough of a positive response that I thought I would share it here with a bit more context. Here is the Tweet:

I made the point that this combined two worksheets. The original worksheet came from This one reminded a lot of the future teachers of worksheets they did in elementary school. Some of the teachers had bad memories about those times. I told them they were not alone. A lot of students become disenchanted with mathematics once they encounter the way we teach fractions - rules without reasons. 

We also talked about how pointless it seemed to do all the problems. How much practice did they really need? How much proof did the teacher need in order to know whether the kids could follow the procedure? I shared (confessions of a bad math teacher) that sometimes I might only assign the odds or evens. Still, the only choice I was offering students was the choice to do it or not do it. And many chose the latter.

Fortunately, I learned from Brian Cambourne the importance of providing learners with choice.
Learners need to make their own decisions about when, how, and what "bits" to learn in any learning task. Learners who lose the ability to make decisions are disempowered. p. 187
This lead me to begin altering my approach to assigning work, which is evident in the second worksheet. I began adding a line or two asking the learners to pick the problems they did or did not want to do and why.

There was nothing special about the first worksheet. It could be on just about any topic. But the extra instructions, the two sentences asking learners to make choices and explain those choice, seemed to make the task much more engaging. And not just for the learners. I found reading their rationale behind their selections much more interesting than simply checking their answers.

Finally, teachers could have fun with the extra instructions. A group of student teachers came up with the idea of asking their high school students, "What items would you assign your best friend? Your worst enemy? Why?" So what questions might you add and why?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

When should we intervene?

More on the session
During our session at NCTMNOLA, participants explored several games that offer opportunities to encounter mathematical content and processes associated with the Common Core State Standards for grades K-2.

As the teachers played the games, or observed as others played, we asked them to keep an eye out for meaningful mathematical moments that might be shared with the entire group.

One of the games introduced many of the teachers to a new manipulative - a rekenrek
A teacher in this group anticipated that students might have a hard time following the directions for this game and treat each row as a separate roll. She wondered when to intervene if a student did this. 

Get the app
I am sure I gave her a very unsatisfying answer, "It depends."

It depends on my goal for the lesson. If the lesson is about using the structure of the rekenrek to help students visualize groups of tens and fives in regards to place value understanding, then I might intervene. However, if I want the lesson to focus on decomposing numbers in order to make groups of ten, then I might wait until the whole class discussion (reflecting on the learning); this choice allows us to talk about it as a group.

It also depends on whether or not everyone is exhibiting the same issue. I hate putting out a lot of little fires. If I saw everyone doing this, then I might intervene with the entire group since there would be a lack of diversity in what students could share during the reflection. However, if it was a single student, then I could decide whether or not to select this approach for the reflection and where in the sequence (see Orchestrating Discussions).

So let's assume that my goal was about making tens and only Patsy played the game in this way. After having a few students who followed the directions as written share, I would move our attention to her "game board."
I want to share Patsy's work because she played a slightly different game. She answered a different question. If I wanted to know what Patsy rolled during each turn, I could find out from her rekenrek: 10 the first roll; 7 on the second; on the third a 3 (coincidence there, eh?); 9 on the fourth; 1 on the fifth; and 4 on the sixth roll. But the game wants us to say how many beads we have total and how many we need to get to 100. So with an elbow partner, I want you to devise a plan for finding these two numbers, the total and what's left to get to 100, but don't find them - yet. Ready? Go.
Although it is not what I expected (probably because it is not what I expected), I really like what Patsy's new game does for the lesson. In fact, I might tuck this example away for another time when we play the game. Then, if no one else plays it this way, I can still use it in our discussion because the game provides a shared context. This context, at least once, created an interesting problem for students to solve. And that was the main point of the session:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Do you need some ideas for a sub plan?

The 2014 Annual Meeting & Exposition of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) is being held in New Orleans this year. I am taking a group of preservice math educators to the conference, as well as co-leading a workshop on Playing with the Common Core with my wife. This means that I (like many other teachers attending a conference that meets during the school-week) will be away for several classes and in need of sub plans. Fortunately, for me, I teach teachers and they have several projects they can work on for the two class periods that I will miss - no sub needed, just plans. But I remember being a middle school math teacher in need of plans that could be "sub-proof" while I was away facilitating professional development at other districts. My favorite activity to assign was "Rewrite the Text."

Now it might be called "Math Book Makeover" in homage to Dan Meyer's TEDxNYED (see below). In fact, there are a lot of things I would change, given what I know now. If you are looking for some sub plans, here is a workshop I might use.

Math Book Makeover Workshop
My thoughts are in blue.

Schema Activation: (Done before I leave) Chair-Pair-Share
  • What would you expect to see in a math book?
  • Which of these things helps you learn math?
  • Are there any things you think are missing?
  • Are there any things you would get rid of and why?
Focus: (Watch before I leave) Math Class Needs a Makeover

We are going to watch a former math teacher talk about some ways we might change math class. I want you to pay particular attention to ideas associated with changing math books and how we might apply these ideas to our textbooks. Please keep a record of these ideas so we can talk about it later.

I know that much of this might go beyond a middle school learner's current level of understanding, but I believe he or she can get a sense of some ideas of things to do to change the text. The goal is to immerse the learner while focusing on what is important.

Whole class discussion: What were some of the ideas you might consider applying to a makeover of our math book?

I hope they will notice that we need to change the text so it:

  • Supports reasoning;
  • Promotes problem solving;
  • Matters; and
  • Incorporates dynamic resources (video, technology, ...)

Activity: (While I am gone) The Makeover

Depending on the number of days I was going to miss, I might assign a section for each day. I know this would probably not be enough time for my learners, but I am in the habit of giving learners too much to do because it forces them to make choices about what is really important to accomplish. For each section, they would need to identify what part of the lesson would go, what would stay, and what they would add. I could require particular features (practice problems, assignments, technology, assessments, rubrics, teacher notes, ...) if it made sense given where my learners were in their understanding of math books.

The level of polish would depend on my audience and purpose. If I am the audience and the purpose is to simply to see how they thought about revising the text, then sticky notes might be all I needed to see. But if the purpose is to really revise the sections and perhaps use some of the ideas with future learners (leaving a legacy - another good TEDxNYED Talk), then I might want something more substantial. This might require giving them more time and feedback. And, if I want to avoid checking their Google Docs at the hotel after attending a day full of sessions, some time in class after I get back.

Reflection: (At the end of each period when I am gone) Glows and Grows
  • Glows: What are the two parts of the revision that you are most proud of and would want to share with others? What makes them so good?
  • Grows: What are the two parts of the revision that you believe still need some work before they are ready to share with others? What work do they need?
These questions put the learners' work into perspective. I can spend more time evaluating the Glows, because they are presumably the best work, and allow for some approximation in the Grows. The learners can also use this reflection to make a plan for what comes next.


If you are looking for sub plan ideas, I hope this helps. As a middle school teacher, one of the reasons I liked this plan was because it was so adaptable to whatever content we were currently exploring. I did not need a special project that addressed some specific content. I could also avoid using a plan that was disconnected from our current work. It seemed like an approach that could be used with any section in any middle or high school text.

So what do you think? Would a workshop like this work as a sub plan for you? Why or why not? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

P.S. If this doesn't work for you, then check out these sub plan ideas from Julie Reulbach.