Monday, May 31, 2010

Multitasking Is a Myth

Your average American middle schooler — doing homework while intermittently texting friends while listening to music — believes she is efficiently attending to many things at once. She is not, of course. She is actually switching among tasks, and the frequent switching prevents any sustained focus on a single task.

Writing about how humans pay attention to stimuli, John Medina (Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School) summarizes all the recent research that proves we are unable to multitask. Practice can help us switch more rapidly among separate tasks, and aging can reduce our speed at making such switches in attention, but our brains are not actually doing several things simultaneously.

Today’s young people are used to lots of stimuli. Many parents and teachers would note that they also seem less able to concentrate on anything for very long. The question is: which is cause and which effect? Has their habit of trying to attend to several things at once made them, over time, more easily distractible?

Every brain is unique, as neural connections or synapses are being made and pruned all the time. What we habitually do affects the physical structure of our brains. Practice wears neural "pathways" through repetition, allowing us to drive or to play an instrument or to make a jump shot without the complete attention required by someone just learning these things. Similarly, we lose, with disuse, the ability to hear (and therefore to say) sounds that are not part of our native language. The structure and, therefore, the functioning of our brains is affected by our environment, whether through exposure to toxins or to the subtle hormonal differences between men and women.

But the sum of our experiences inevitably determines how we learn and perform complex tasks most efficiently and effectively. And that sweet spot will differ for each person — and for a single person over time, as accumulated experience continues to change our brains.

As a child in a chaotic household (a four-bedroom house with parents, a grandparent, and nine children), I learned to tune out distractions. I recall even having difficulty doing my homework on an occasion when I found myself alone in a quiet house. Years later, while editing densely written scientific manuscripts, I found I could more easily get into and stay in “the zone” if I played certain kinds of music (with the right tempo and no lyrics). It was as if the music kept the unneeded right half of my brain occupied, freeing the left side to deal with barely understood physics and arcane editing standards. I had learned what I needed to do to sustain focus.

I worry that our children are not learning these things about themselves. And I worry about whether many of them are even capable of giving anything the sustained attention required to learn or to do something complex.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

This is good news?

The Michigan Senate and House Fiscal Agencies revised revenue estimates this past week, as they do several times each fiscal year. The state’s general fund revenue projections are down another one-quarter to one-half million dollars since the January 2010 estimates.

The “good news,” we are told, is that higher-than-expected sales tax receipts feeding into the state school aid fund mean that K–12 schools will not have their funding cut again this year.

Uh ... the schools let out for the year in 2–3 weeks. How could they possibly cut their budgets in any meaningful way this late in the year? School districts are required by law to adopt budgets for the coming school year by July 1. The fact that, 10-1/2 months later, they still don’t know how much revenue they have to work with, illustrates just how impossible it is for them to be responsible stewards of public funds.

This was one of the unexpected side effects of 1994’s Proposal A, which tried to bring greater equity to K–12 funding by funneling much of the revenue through the state. I don’t think anyone (except the most cynical among us, perhaps) expected the state to begin receiving statewide school property taxes in August but then not relay all of them to local districts until the following August—long after the school year has ended. One consequence of this is that more districts every year must borrow in the spring to meet cash flow needs (that is, to pay their employees) until they receive these held-back funds. The local districts pay interest on these “tax anticipation notes,” further cutting into funds available for use in classrooms.

This is no way to run a railroad—or a school system. Changing the state’s fiscal year to a July-to-June model (as was suggested both in Senate Bill 1281 and as part of a constitutional revision), could alleviate the problems caused by the mismatch in fiscal years.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Terrific Teachers

We’ve all had at least one — the life-altering guide who helped make us who we became. I’ll bet you can see a face or recall a pivotal conversation even decades later. A really great teacher is as much a life-saver as a firefighter, a police officer, a trauma surgeon, or a helicopter rescue pilot.

But what makes for a great teacher? And, more importantly, how can we make more? For, although I believe the research over-simplifies things, economists and statisticians, wading through the mass of testing data now available on student achievement, have fixed on teachers as a major variable in student outcomes.

My quibble is that the outcome measures in such analyses are solely these test scores, and that such differences in outcome often do not hold up as years go by. Doing well on a test may well not be a valid measurement of understanding and skill. That said, however, we all know that terrific teachers have made a difference in our own lives and those of our children. How can we help more teachers to become exceptional?

I admit to succumbing, at one time, to the notion that great teachers are born and not made — ignoring the fact that it took years of experience to make them as good as they eventually became. But we had better figure out — fast — how to accelerate that process of on-the-job training, because we need more of them now.

The ingredients of greatness

Expert teachers require at least three separate kinds of expertise: in subject matter, in how a novice misunderstands the subject, and in the mechanics of teaching.

The first should be self-evident: you can’t teach what you don’t know. Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. If it were enough, there would not be so many college professors who can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. Understanding is not enough, if you can’t impart it to others.

Part of the ability to actually teach something is really an understanding of how students get it wrong. You have to get inside their heads to appreciate and correct their mistakes. The successful teaching of reading, for example, rests on knowledge of how students learn, what is difficult for them, and the mistakes they commonly make.

The famous video “A Private Universe” revealed that even Harvard graduates commonly have misconceptions about scientific basics such as the cause of seasons (relating them to Earth’s distance from the sun, rather than to the tilt of its axis). One interesting aspect of the video was its revelation that such misunderstandings could be traced back to such simple antecedents as a drawing in an elementary science textbook — one they had misinterpreted as children but which formed the (subconscious) foundation of their (mis)understanding of orbital mechanics. Such learning mistakes can be invisible to both teacher and learner.

Figuring out exactly what students are thinking is an art form. One of the experts in analyzing it is Deborah Ball, now Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her work has demonstrated that specialized knowledge of how to teach specific mathematical concepts translates into increased and lasting student comprehension. Her Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching work emphasizes the importance of teachers understanding mathematical reasoning, and of asking the right questions to understand what students are thinking and why, in order to ensure they can not only get the right answers but do so for the right reasons.

Equally important, if less often taught in Schools of Education, is skill in the mechanics of teaching, sometimes dismissed as “classroom management.” A great teacher commands the classroom, gets and holds the attention of students. Some do this through sheer charisma or force of personality, but there are simple techniques that anyone can master. Doug Lemov has spent years finding, categorizing, and videotaping these techniques. His recently published book, Teach Like a Champion, summarizes all that research. [Ugh, hate the title! It evokes a bleeding, sweaty boxer, gloved hand raised after the knockout punch. But maybe that’s just me....]

Here’s an example of Lemov’s thinking (not the specific techniques): “Much of student behavior is opportunistic ... ‘I can get away with it, so I will.’ A far smaller number of students will persist in a behavior once you’ve made it unambiguous what you expect. Fewer still will do so when you’ve shown you’re persistent.” He repeatedly reminds us that children may not know exactly what we want them to do or may not know how to do it. Explicit directions can make all the difference.

Implicit in the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top reform efforts is the assumption that carrots (merit pay) and sticks (firing teachers and principals in “failing” schools) applied to teachers will improve student learning. Not only have those techniques never been proven to work (remember how Edison Schools were going to show the profit motive could improve education?), but they can never reach and help all students. Helping all teachers to refine their craftsmanship can.

Note: These ideas were explored in much greater detail in “Building a Better Teacher” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on March 2, 2010.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Get the lead out!

Oh, boy. There has been so much in the news of late regarding education that I hardly know where to start, so today I will just add a short post while I am digesting all the rest.

The Sunday Detroit Free Press reported on the first extensive study of serum lead levels of the city’s children and how that correlates with academic achievement. The contamination is more widespread and the connection stronger than even pessimists had thought.

“A landmark study by the city health department and Detroit Public Schools of lead data and test scores shows that the higher the lead level, the worse a student’s scores on the MEAP.

“Overall, 58% of roughly 39,000 DPS students tested — 22,755 children — had a history of lead poisoning. Perhaps more startling: Of the 39,199 students tested as young children, only 23 had no lead in their bodies.” [emphasis added]

That’s not 23 percent — only 23 individual children of more than 39,000 tested were lead-free. That's less than 0.059%. I know that dust from lead-based paint is part of the problem, but so is contaminated soil in a city that was until recently filled with heavy industry (including such notorious offenders as smelters). Just breathing the air and playing in the dirt can be hazardous to their health.

The younger a child is, the more susceptible s/he is to neurological damage from toxins, and the damage can permanently affect learning, memory, attention, and behavior. Other studies from Duke and Wayne State Universities have documented a correlation between lead levels and both IQs and reading levels.

Of course, there are other factors at play, but why would we let this unnecessary one continue to hobble our children?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What’s wrong with “accountability” in education

How could anyone credibly fight the tide on this subject? Well, I'm not the only one worried about what the accountability movement has done and is doing to K–12 education.

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’” said Dr. Diane Ravitch in the New York Times education section in March 2010. She is not a typical critic, having served in the first Bush administration’s Department of Education and having been a true believer in the power of standardized testing to improve education. Over the years, however, she gradually became convinced that “Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools.”

How can this be? We expected tests both to measure accurately what our children were learning and to improve their learning, through some mystical combination of shame, pressure, and market forces. But we have neither measured accurately nor improved outcomes; in fact, the attempt has apparently only made things worse.

What have we measured?

The problem with standardized testing is that we want quick results (so that they can be useful in improving instruction) without spending too much. Both criteria push us toward multiple-choice testing, which can be machine graded. Multiple-choice tests, though, have real limitations. They tend to test only for easy-to-measure, low-level skills, and their results may not accurately reflect what children know and can do, due to poor design.

It is possible to design better tests, which will more accurately measure complex skills, but never assume that’s what we’ve got! Instead, narrowly focused, high-stakes testing has produced a laser-like focus on narrowly focused, high-stakes tests. We don’t simply “teach to the test”; now we also spend time and effort on teaching test-taking skills. The tool intended to improve schooling has now become its point.

How’s that working?

Given the punitive consequences of not making “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB rules (which require that, as in the fictional Lake Wobegon, all of our children will be above average by 2014), “progress” has been pursued at nearly any cost. We teach only what is assessed by the tests, states have gradually watered down standards so as to inflate achievement, and outright cheating has become more common.

While average student achievement has shown remarkable gains over the years of NCLB-required testing, U.S. students continue to fall behind in international comparison tests such as NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA. Clearly, both sets of results cannot be valid. In recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing of 15-year-olds, U.S. students ranked 15th out of 29 in reading literacy, 24th out of 29 in problem solving, 25th out of 30 in mathematics literacy, and 21st out of 30 in scientific literacy. And the really bad news is that the PISA tests are good tests! In order to do well on them, students cannot simply recall factual knowledge; they must extend what they know into unfamiliar settings to solve problems. Students who do well on them have also done well in life — the ultimate test of the success of schooling. In addition, analysis of data shows that, unlike here, many nations (Canada, some Asian and European countries) achieve not only high average scores but also scores that do not vary by socio-economic status: they have realized the ideal of uniformly high student achievement that NCLB set for us.

Where did we go wrong?

We might start with where other nations went right. (See “Short Sighted: How America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Impedes Improvement.”) When Germany did poorly on the 2000 PISA, with large achievement gaps for poor and immigrant children, it launched a nationwide study of proven educational policy and practice, followed by a detailed plan for reform that was implemented with support from all sectors of society. By the 2006 PISA, their students’ performance had improved dramatically. This appropriate, communal response, rather than blaming and punishing, is what we need as a nation.

Year after year, we have scrubbed from our classrooms anything that is not explicitly assessed by our achievement tests. You get what you measure — and we are measuring mostly low-level recall rather than application of complex skills in novel situations. Our children are drilled relentlessly on test fodder, but not encouraged or allowed to follow their interests into the side lanes that excite their curiosity, motivate their hard work, and lead them to satisfying and productive careers. Is it any wonder that they are disengaged, unmotivated, and mentally (if not actually) dropping out? Is it any wonder that half of teachers, demoralized by their demonization, leave the profession within five years?

Dr. Ravitch (as noted in the NYT article) outlines a better way: “Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect. They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We’re on the wrong track.”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Should schools be run more like a business?

You cannot answer that until you define your terms. Before the recent near-collapse of our economy, business did have some sort of cachet that implied efficiency and productivity, likely wrought due to competition. Now, of course, we see the seamy underbelly of what competition and loose oversight can produce: fraud, greed, immoral exploitation, no adherence whatsoever to any kind of social contract.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we are talking about business ideals being applied to public education. Would that work?

My answer would be: only to a point. There are things educators can (and have) learned from business gurus. For example, that there is no perfect model for any operation; rather, efforts should be made to foster continuous improvement. Or, that true leadership helps us face complicated and difficult problems, rather than imposing a simple and/or painless “solution.” Or that real change requires us to internalize our commitment to it so that we don’t slide back into old ways. Or that resistance to change is normal and natural, but it should be dealt with through collaboration and teamwork rather than by bulldozing through or over it. So, yes, “acting like a business” can be good for schools.

But I also believe that the unstated premise behind much mandated “school reform” is that schools should be run like factories. The factory model assumes that all we have to do is fix upon the perfect content (curriculum) and process (teaching) in order to produce perfect, identical products every time. So, if we aren’t getting the right outcomes, it must be because those doltish teachers are messing up the content and process. The answer is ever more detailed prescriptions with, ideally, every teacher teaching the same material the same way on the same day in each grade.

But, folks, any successful manufacturer prizes quality control that begins with accepting only standardized raw materials. In public schools, our suppliers are not sending us uniform raw materials! The children who enter our doors start from different places, they learn differently, they have different advantages and handicaps — so how can this system work? The answer is more individualization, not more regimentation.

A major component of reform efforts like No Child Left Behind is to mandate “highly qualified teachers.” But qualification tends to mean “credential,” because it is so hard to quantify what makes a great teacher. I’d prefer to spend a lot more effort on the process itself. We align and articulate and define and refine our curriculum, but we don’t spend enough time on ways to impart it. Many teachers never see that, just because they give the perfect lecture, that doesn’t mean every- or even anybody “got it.”

The process includes learning as well as teaching — and we all do that differently. In order to get the teaching-learning job done, we have to realize that people often learn better by doing than from lectures; that some people can demonstrate what they know in essays but not on multiple-choice exams; that if we truly prize synthesis of ideas, then maybe we ought to reward that in our assessment systems. Speaking from personal experience (I was a great memorizer!), many of us who did get it long enough to spit something back on a test never really understood or retained it. Valid assessment should indicate whether the student has gained true understanding and the ability to apply knowledge in various contexts.

So, the standardized processes of efficient manufacturing have no place in schooling. Instead of moving raw materials inexorably down a single production line, education should work more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book — branching off in many ways according to individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

Nor, if you value the success of every student, can cost-benefit ratios be your standard for how much to spend on each child. Some need more help than others, even if they will never be rocket scientists or particle physicists. Do we value their potential contribution to society or not?

<>And then there is the whole issue of whether or not competition and market discipline will bring out the best in schools and teachers, as it purports to do in the business world. That is the impetus behind the charter school movement — the notion that, if parents can vote with their feet, all schools will improve. In fact, public schools in Michigan are scrambling to market themselves as neighboring districts and charters lure away their students and funding. I’m not sure whether the results are what people were hoping for and, certainly, the playing field is never level.

Competition, and the greed that it motivates, can also inspire fraud and abuse, just as it did on Wall Street. Last week, for example, a U.S. Attorney subpoenaed officials from 13 Philadelphia charter schools in an investigation of various kinds of questionable financial dealings. At minimum, charters should be required to have annual public audits, just as public schools do. Oversight of public funds is important to our collective faith in government.

It is also, dismayingly, true that charter schools appear to be resegregating America — by race, religion, gender, and socioeconomic status. A February 2010 report issued by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, “Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards,” examined and analyzed federal data and charter schools in 40 states and Washington, DC, finding that “charter schools continue to stratify students by race, class, and possibly language, and are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the country.” Is that kind of resegregation good for society — or for individual children?

We must pay attention to side effects and collateral damage when we radically change an institution (public education) that is so vital to our democracy.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Will Facebook and texting be the death of democracy?

It is obvious from the empty streets in our neighborhoods on summer evenings that childhood has changed drastically since mine in the 1950s. We played spud, and kick the can, and capture the flag until dark — but I bet few children today know those games, or all the hopscotch and jump-rope rhymes, either. The game lore of childhood, once passed down from child to child, has disappeared, as noted recently by David Elkind in a New York Times Op-Ed called “Playtime Is Over.”

The kids are inside — watching TV, playing computer games, generally not interacting with other children face to face. My mother used to say, with some exasperation, that my siblings and I spent more time arguing over rules than actually playing games. She was probably right, but think what we learned from that! That’s how we were socialized: we learned to share, to get along, to follow rules, to solve problems, to deal with difficult people. Many children arrive in schools today without those skills.

And where once they might have picked the skills up there, that is less likely today. Tweens and teens are showing a preference for interacting virtually over doing so in person. They’d rather text than even talk on the phone. All their “socializing” is interfering with their socialization.

What are the implications of this enormous shift?

In the last post, I was writing about how much of our decision-making is subconscious, done in the blink of an eye without our conscious awareness. All our lives, we should be developing and further honing those skills. But, like the ability to reliably make a jump shot, the ability to quickly and accurately size up a person or a situation requires endless practice. It starts with the preverbal baby’s wide-eyed attention as she tries to decode language, and the physical laws of the universe, and how to make others serve her better. It should continue through a childhood of encountering other people and situations and learning to master the survival skills required to thrive. That includes a subconscious ability to “read” people.

What if we were to lose the ability/facility to assess things so quickly?

The book iBRAIN by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan has me worried about a loss of skill in gut-level assessments. If our young are losing face-to-face cognitive skills due to immersion in technology, that portends poorer decisions by future voters. If they don’t look people in the face anymore, they either never make or gradually abandon the neural pathways allowing them to assess expressions with any validity. Does that mean that our subconscious judgments about whom we can trust not to betray us are becoming less reliable? Does it offer some explanation of the popularity of good-looking, affable “empty suits”? Certainly, my discomfort with body language has made me nervous about potential leaders (think of John Edwards’ bland and unconvincing “sincere” look). Would younger voters, less attuned to facial expressions, take it at face value?