Friday, October 30, 2009

Propaganda or Education?

I received the following message on Facebook from Friends of the Mountains, which I support for their work against Mountaintop Removal (see my blog Sustainable Rays, for more on this.) But the message here was about a company sponsored field trip and "educational" materials, which are basically propaganda, purporting to demonstrate local history. Now if the Friends of the Mountains come back with educational materials, will Big Coal call that propaganda?  
[Added Nov 1: Here are a lot of teacher resources that tell the other side of the story, from I Love Mountains.]
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- The Friends of Coal Ladies Auxiliary wrapped up its first Coal in the Classroom program in the Raleigh County public schools with a field trip this week.

Its pro-coal curriculum was piloted at a private elementary school last year.

On Tuesday, Stratton Elementary School's fourth-grade class traveled to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine for a firsthand look at an underground mine.

It's the first class in the West Virginia public school system to host the program. With the help of local retired teachers, the curriculum was developed by the Friends of Coal Ladies Auxiliary. Regina Fairchild is the chairwoman.

"We just make it as lighthearted as possible but informative,'' she said. "We just want to educate them about our vital resource in our area and in the United States.''

The program consists of a coloring book that illustrates how coal is mined underground and at surface mines. It also shows how coal is burned for energy we use in electricity. And you can find phrases like "The advantages of coal'' and "Why coal is important,'' as well.

Some environmental groups say the Friends of Coal program doesn't belong in public schools.

Assistant Superintendent of Raleigh County Schools Janet Lilly says they are willing to look at any curriculum from the environmental community.

"We really looked at the curriculum and what they planned to do,'' she said. "We're open to any group that's willing to do the match and present the curriculum, and if there's someone that objects to the curriculum that's out there with the auxiliary, we'd be glad to look at their curriculum, too.''

Raleigh County School Board member Larry Ford says the board also evaluated the fairness of the material.

"We didn't want it to be lopsided,'' he said. "We wanted it to be a generic form of presentations to the kids showing them the history of coal.

"We're not trying to tell them one thing is better than the other. The content standards had to be met as far as their learning is concerned. We're not picking sides, we are here for the education of the students, period.''

Lorelei Scarbro with Coal River Mountain Watch says her organization is working on an elementary school curriculum about alternative energy. She's not sure when it will be finished.

Meanwhile, Coal River Mountain Watch is working with another environmental group called Aurora Lights to produce curriculum for high school and college students across West Virginia, with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council.

"Journey up Coal River'' includes lesson plans such as "What is mountaintop removal?'' and "Public health impacts of coal mining,'' and includes links to pro-environmental Web sites such as, according to Jennifer Osha, founder and president of Aurora Lights.

"What I really wanted to do is for college students to engage in the complexity of this issue and really use their own ideas and what they're interested in to feel to what parts they most want to engage in,'' Osha said. "We also provide them with resources both academic and activist that they can come and learn about what's happening.''

Osha also questioned the fairness of the Friends of Coal curriculum, but Fairchild says it's appropriate for elementary school students.

"Our curriculum is balanced. For heaven sake we're talking to third- and fourth-graders,'' she said. "You're not going to get technical and you're not going to talk numbers.''
(I added the links to the text.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Value-added evaluations

I've been following along on the discussions of how to evaluate teachers, and how using kids test scores doesn't show appropriately how well a teacher teaches. After all, disadvantaged students just have so much against them to be able to get good grades, goes the argument, so teachers can't be held responsible for students not doing the work.

But an article in yesterday's LA Times Superintendent spreads the gospel of 'value-added' teacher evaluations proves to me that standardized test scores can be a legitimate way to evaluate teachers. In this case, it isn't the actual scores that are used, but a ratio of individual student's scores over time, which will show students' progress in relationship to themselves. Studies have shown that teachers really do affect students' progress, and that their effect can be measured. If a whole class gets much better Value-added ratios, then the teacher must have had something to do with it. If some improve and some don't, it is probably the students' own effort and not the teacher that makes the difference.

Maybe not surprisingly, the students from underachieving school actually show the most progress (since a tiny improvement is huge related to very little) while good students from privileged schools have a hard time showing much improvement at all, since it is related to a much larger base number.

Personally, I would like to be able to see how my teaching affects my students' improvement. I could use it as a formative assessment that tells me to try harder.

I could see how various students perform to understand in which ways I am successful, and where I need to try different methods.

The concept is vaguely like a grading system I developed years ago for a class in Denmark which could vaguely be compared to a continuation high school here. They only received final test scores for their record, so I was free to give them formative assessments any way I wanted. I invented a system with arrows: up if students did better than usual, down if they had slacked off. Initially, of course, the better students didn't like getting a down arrow while someone who did far less got an up. But gradually they figured it out, and used it to motivate themselves to do even better. At the same time the students at the lower end were not getting F's, but were getting encouraging up arrows. The dyslexic student I started the system for had been given up by previous teachers. But she went from what would have been F's to a final test grade of about C!

Knowing where I'm doing well and where I need improvement would be great. And if it turns out I'm not a good teacher anyway, I don't want to inflict poor teaching on students who deserve better.

However, another article on the same page Judging teachers: Much of what you thought you knew is wrong reviews a few misconceptions about teachers' effectiveness, for example:
Teacher experience matters. Although teachers are generally paid more for years of experience, research suggests that instructors show dramatic improvement in their first few years and then level off. Teachers with 20 years of experience are often no more effective than peers with five years.

Teacher education matters. Schools routinely pay teachers higher salaries for obtaining master's degrees. But several studies have found that educators with advanced degrees do no better than those without (with the possible exception of high school math teachers) - my emphasis.
So maybe if I teach 5-10 years I will be able to encourage, motivate and stimulate my students, and then leave before I get too set in my ways and lose my enthusiasm! Another misconception from the list needs to be taken with a grain of salt - and good sense:
Class size is key. Research suggests that modest changes in class size, such as decreasing it by four or five students, has been shown to have little to no effect on student learning.
Adding a single student or two to 25 might not make a difference, but adding gradually until you get 35 or 40 students will most likely show a great difference over time (which would also be reflected in Value-added scores.) Don't use that as an excuse to push more students into classrooms designed for far fewer students. Teachers need to be able to move about the room, get close to students (proximity is a major element in classroom management!) and there has to be room to move desks into different configurations, for collaborative learning groups, areas for special purposes, etc. A classroom is not a lecture hall!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Observing special ed classes

As part of my training to become a secondary math teacher, I have a requirement to visit many different kinds of classes, including special education. Yesterday, I visited a middle school in a neighboring town that had a program with several "self-contained" classes that are attempting to teach the 10 students "functional skills" in reading, writing and math.

The two classes I observed each had 2 very severely handicapped students, 3 of whom could walk, but none could speak or even control looking at us very well. The teachers said that the one who could not walk was actually quite intelligent, so he was outfitted with "yes" and "no" buttons that he could operate my moving his head to the left or right. He did appear to enjoy being part of the class, however. In his class there was some effort to have these students participate in class, including holding their hand to trace letters. But this seemed quite hopeless to me, because they were looking away. One student was mostly confined to a sort of playpen in the classroom, because he was too disruptive in the classroom. Unfortunately his little pen took away valuable space that might have been used as a cozy reading corner like the other class enjoyed. The teacher was frustrated that the time she had to spend with this student, i.e. feeding him, could have been used to work with the more functioning students. I was surprised that he did not have a one-on-one aide, as did several students in the other class.

Otherwise the children were learning to read or at least recognize important signs (like Exit, Men and Women - for restrooms, etc.) They practiced the months and days of the week again and again, and learned to tell time and count. The practiced copying letters and some even got to write cursive.

We participated in a special PE class for them, where they could run, kick, throw and catch a ball and even try to hit with a bat. The students were also expected to do some chores, like wiping off tables and collecting toys and trash at the end of the day, all part of their functional learning.

The one class displayed clearly the daily schedule as well as the state requirements for these children's education.

One student was advanced enough that he started school chorus yesterday, and will be able to go to cooking later on. I understand that when they reach high school age, they will also have special classes, but move from one subject to another, just like their peers. I hope to visit such a class as well.

A couple of these students were autistic, and at least one has considerable intelligence, but barely talks. I expect that I will be seeing some students like him in my high school classroom, which is why we are expected to observe these classrooms.

I asked about how these students are assessed. For one thing, the each have an Independent Educational Plan, which requires annual reevaluation. Otherwise there are standardized tests, the CAPA and the Brigance screens, where the teacher observes and interviews the students to determine their level (not a grade!)

I admire these teachers for their dedication and hard work helping these children become functional adults. One teacher told me how delighted she was with one student who had learned to read during the past year, and the heartbreak with another, who had been kept at home until this year, missing some of the training that might have been able to move him further than he is now.