Teaching and Learning

Teacher Attendance and School Culture – Revisited

Note: This is an update of an article originally posted on June 3, 2014

“Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”–Peter Drucker

Great schools can be average in some areas, but great schools cannot have a glaring weakness and be considered great. Great schools find a way to solve the problems that stifle or debilitate good schools.

Increased accountability coupled with new, more rigorous standards and more challenging assessments place increased pressure on principals to improve classroom instruction. Maximizing instructional time is a key way to raise student achievement. Teacher absenteeism and the use of substitute teachers, which reduce instructional time, have long been problems faced by every school. Faced with budget shortfalls, many districts have resorted to removing teachers from classrooms during the school day in order to attend professional development sessions. Labor agreements have been structured in a way that encourages teacher absence. States have reduced the number of school days in a school year.

While principals often face district and state policies that actually encourage teacher absenteeism, principals can impact teacher attendance. Like every school problem, the long-term solution lies in the culture—attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, expectations, and relationships—of the school.

In Teacher Absence, Leading Indicators, and Trust, Raegen Miller made some important points regarding teacher attendance pointing to the need to look more closely at school culture:

  • If teachers’ presence in the classroom matters so much, shouldn’t we pay more attention to teachers’ absences?
  • Professional culture in a school can exert a strong influence over the leave-taking behavior of its teachers
  • Forty-five percent of the variation in teacher absence is between schools working under the same district and state parameters.
  • Paying attention to teacher absence gets at the professional culture in schools through the notion of trust, a universal human tension if ever there was one. In particular, theory and evidence point to trust between teachers and management as a moderator of teacher absences.

Teacher Attendance and Student Achievement

Here is the reality. When teachers are absent, students lose valuable instructional time. No matter how qualified they are, substitute teachers do not improve student achievement. “When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned.” – Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

A recent study indicates that teacher attendance is an overlooked factor in improving student achievement. “Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality,” the report’s authors wrote, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

The study goes on to point out the following:

  • One in six teachers in some of the country’s largest public school districts are out of the classroom at least 18 days, or more than 10 percent of the time, for illness, personal reasons and professional development.
  • Overall teacher attendance rate is 94 percent.
  • Districts spend an average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences each year.
  • No measurable relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of a school’s students
  • No difference in absentee rates among districts with policies meant to encourage attendance, such as paying teachers for unused sick time, and districts without those incentives.

A study by the Columbia University School of Business offers some interesting findings:

  • Substitutes are worse than the regular teacher. “In teaching, the person with whom an absent teacher is replaced is clearly worse in a substantial way. Substitute teachers are less likely to be highly skilled, since otherwise the chances are she would already have found a full-time teaching job. Even if a substitute is highly skilled, there is a start-up cost: just because someone has a degree in math doesn’t mean she can hop in and be a great sixth-grade math teacher.”
  • Students do worse in years when their teacher takes more time off.
  • “When a teacher takes an extended medical leave, it causes a drop in math and English test scores on par with putting a rookie teacher in the place of a teacher with four years of experience for an entire year.”
  • Shorter absences are more detrimental than longer ones. Ten one-day absences over the course of a year were found to lower student scores more than when a teacher missed two consecutive weeks.
  • Incentives for teachers to not be absent don’t work.

A Short Success Story

I received a call from the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. He was calling to arrange a time for his staff to visit our high school. Unbeknownst to me, our school had the highest rate of substitute coverage for absent teachers in a district of approximately 270 schools.

In our school, when a teacher was absent, we had substitute coverage approximately 96% of the time. I was shocked to learn that other high schools averaged 65% coverage. In addition, our school had the highest teacher attendance among the almost 30 high schools in the district.

This came as a shock to the district staff because (more…)

Be Careful How You Imitate

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle and a forty-year veteran math teacher.

We are a culture of copycats. If a new offensive scheme works in the National Football League, one year later ten other teams are using it with wildly varying degrees of success. When ridiculously low-slung pants became fashionable, too many folks with the entirely wrong physical silhouette grabbed a pair. Madonna gave us Lady Gaga who lead to Molly Cyrus. No further explanation is necessary.

A tale of two double-blocks

Such blind imitation in math education can be equally perilous.

Mel Riddile recently sent me two articles discussing the success and failure of double-block math programs. The first told of research which demonstrated the profoundly positive effects of having ninth graders utilize two periods for the study of Algebra 1. This is, of course, no surprise to me since I have written a book documenting a decade of improved student academic performance based on the utilization of that course.

The second post was considerably more disturbing. It chronicled a school district’s implementation of a double-block sixth grade math program. The thrust of the article was that such a plan was a waste of a student’s valuable class time.

“Doubling up on math classes for a year may help middle school students in the short term, but the benefits of doing so depreciate over time—and are likely not worth the price of missing out on instruction in other subjects, according to a new study published by Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.

“At the end of the year, students with double math scored substantially higher than their peers who took just one math class. However, a year after returning to the traditional schedule with one math class, those gains were about half as large. Two years into a regular schedule, that difference was down to about one-third of the original gain.

“And when those students reached high school, the gains all but diminished completely.”

The problem with this program (and the Stanford analysis) is that it is predicated on the notion that a single inoculation of a double-block course can fix all of a student’s difficulties in mathematics. If only it were that simple.

Some problems require long-term fixes

The mistake inherent in this sixth-grade approach is not in the formulation of the double-block class. As demonstrated by the Stanford research, the problem was in the subsequent classes. These previously low performing students were demonstrating significant gains for one year and moderately good improvement for two. But after three years back in the regular program these gains had been lost. Such a regression should not have been surprising. And sadly, it was avoidable.

A one-year double-block “Band-Aid” can be highly effective for some students but definitely not for all. Successful math achievement for at-risk students requires constant monitoring and adjustments.

Our program consisted of far more than a single ninth-grade course. It was based on careful study of statistics and teacher input. As a result of those factors a portion of the double-block Algebra 1 students did move comfortably into regular Geometry and Algebra 2 classes. However, many did not. For those individuals more time was required and a double-block Algebra 2 class was created. Several years of data collection clearly indicated the wisdom of this adjustment. In an interesting twist, a two-year Geometry program was determined to be of little value and was quickly eliminated.

The bottom line in such a discussion is this: the development of a math program requires careful consideration of adjustments at all levels. An isolated year of remediation is often inadequate for many students.

School leaders, math anxiety is negatively impacting the math achievement of your students!

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” – Henry Ford

With the adoption of new, more rigorous college and career ready math standards principals and math teachers across the country are putting in a lot of time and effort to not only understand the new standards, but to change the way we teach mathematics.

The primary implication of these new standards is that the current predominant practice of didactic-only instruction, with some guided practice of rote procedures, must give way to more well-rounded approaches to instruction that give students the opportunity to make deep sense of the content they are to learn and the practices in which they are expected to engage.

In other words, instead of simply working problems, students are expected to apply math concepts to unique situations and to explain their thinking—in writing—using higher-order thinking skills. According to veteran math teachers, the emphasis on application to real-world problem solving “will completely change the way math is taught.”

However, new evidence suggests that the monumental effort required to change math instruction may pale in comparison to what will be needed to change another invisible yet formidable barrier to improved student math achievement—an irrational, culturally induced fear of mathematics that is further complicated by our “number naming system” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 229) and the widespread overreliance on the use of calculators for simple mathematical computations that students should know how to do mentally.

Notice to school leaders: Math anxiety among students has been found to be widespread and tied to poor math skills. “Math anxiety means, unsurprisingly, that one feels tension and apprehension in situations involving math.”

While we have always known that some students had doubts about their ability to do math, I had no idea to what extent those attitudes permeated our schools. Here is what researcher and author Dan Willingham has discovered:

  • “Half of all first and second graders feel moderate to severe math anxiety.”
  • “Many children do not outgrow math anxiety.” Note: In other words, math anxiety does not go away, and, from my experience as a principal, may actually get worse and infect more students as they advance through the grades.
  • “25 percent of students attending a four-year college suffer from math anxiety.”
  • “Among community college students, the figure is 80 percent.”

After thinking about this research from the perspective of a high school principal, I would assume that at least half of my students were experiencing at least some level of math anxiety that was significantly diminishing their math performance. Most if not all of these students have the ability to do much better, but their mental and emotional state is detracting from their capacity to learn.

Distressingly, we could successfully change math instruction over the next five years and still not see significant improvements in student achievement. Overlooking student math anxiety may guarantee that all our hard work would go for naught.

stuObviously, this is a huge obstacle for students, teachers and schools. However, I know from experience that this can be changed. As Math Department Chair and author, Stu Singer, describes in The Algebra Miracle, our school completely turned around our math achievement. However, we did it the hard way—through trial and error learning. But if you are willing to learn from other peoples’ experience, our arduous, decade-long trial-and-error learning experience can pave the way for a much less strenuous pathway to success for your students.

Stu and I did not have benefits of researchers like Dan Willingham, Alan Schoenfeld, or Carol Dweck. We had to use logic, trust our intuition, and sometime rely on good old-fashioned blind faith. We made mistakes.

Today, I can confidently say that if I were starting all over again knowing what I now know, I would do things the same way—collaboratively and collectively with one exception. I would now be much more intentional in my focus on changing the expectations of our teachers and students.

By chance, Stu and I had a similar set of beliefs when it came to students and learning. We believed that work and effort determined ability. We were also willing to take risks and try new things. We treated our school like a math laboratory, we believed that given time and support, all students could learn at high levels, and our students proved that they could.

“School leaders and teachers need to create schools and classroom environments in which error is welcome as a learning opportunity, in which discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed, and in which teachers can feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge and understanding.” (Hattie, 2012)

Raising math achievement required a lot more than believing in the benefits of hard work and effort. We had to change our attitudes and expectations. We had to change the way we approached math instruction. Finally, we had to change the expectations of our students.

We had a plan and we were willing to work that plan over the span of a decade. Every decision we made was based on whether or not what we were considering would help our students learn, and we said “no” as often as we said “yes.”

We had a comprehensive short and long-term plan to improve student math achievement. What is your plan?

Next: A plan to relieve math anxiety and raise student math achievement.

Teacher Attendance and School Culture

“Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”–Peter Drucker

Great schools can be average in some areas, but great schools cannot have a glaring weakness and be considered great. Great schools find a way to solve the problems that stifle or debilitate good schools. Teacher absenteeism and substitute teachers are problems faced by every school. Like every school, the solution is in the culture—attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, expectations, and relationships—of the entire school.

Here is the reality. When teachers are absent, students lose valuable instructional time. No matter how qualified they are, substitute teachers do not improve student achievement. “When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned.” – Stuart A. Singer

A new study indicates that teacher attendance is an overlooked factor in improving student achievement. “Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality,” the report’s authors wrote, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

The study goes on to point out the following:

  • One in six teachers in some of the country’s largest public school districts are out of the classroom at least 18 days, or more than 10 percent of the time, for illness, personal reasons and professional development.
  • Overall teacher attendance rate is 94 percent.
  • Districts spend an average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences each year.
  • No measurable relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of a school’s students
  • No difference in absentee rates among districts with policies meant to encourage attendance, such as paying teachers for unused sick time, and districts without those incentives.

A study by the Columbia University School of Business offers some interesting findings:

  • Substitutes are worse than the regular teacher. “In teaching, the person with whom (more…)

Common Core: Delaying Sanctions is not Delaying Implementation

States like Florida and Louisiana are not delaying Common Core implementation; they are delaying using test scores to rate schools and to punish teachers and principals.

We know that students thrive in a school with a focused school wide literacy initiative–purposeful reading, writing, and discussion in every classroom and across all content areas. By my count only about 1% of all high schools have or are attempting such a program, which, just so happens to be a foundation of successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards. A lack of content-based literacy instruction is not due to a lack of desire on the part of schools, but to a lack of training and practice on the part of the teachers and school leaders. It takes years to build teacher capacity to integrate literacy effectively into their content areas. Keep in mind that literacy is but one of many school wide instructional shifts that the CCSS are bringing to schools.

Let’s be clear. States are proceeding with CCSS implementation but delaying levying accountability measures while schools are building teacher capacity.

In fairness, neither consortium will have a fully operational assessment system–pre-assessments, mid-year assessments, performance assessments, summative assessments, and timely feedback to schools–for at least two more years. Schools will receive no feedback from the field tests. How can we possible hold schools and teachers accountable for assessments when they have no way of receiving any feedback and no way to predict student success until after the summative assessments administered in May 2015?

It is almost like asking schools to hit a moving target while blindfolded. A fair system would allow for at least two years of testing and feedback under a fully operational assessment system before holding teachers, principals, and schools accountable.

Bad Weather is Bad News

By Stuart A. Singer, The Teacher Leader

Her one word response said it all.

I had just returned from a district math department chair meeting and was relating the angst of the County Math Coordinator. He had told us, “I am very troubled by the decline in the Algebra 1 SOL (state barrier exams) scores last year. What was particularly troubling was the fact that it was so uniformly across the board. Everyone’s were down”. The intensity of his concern indicated that this issue was being seriously discussed at levels well above his in the school hierarchy.

That afternoon I raised that question with my best Algebra 1 teacher. Her succinct answer was “snow”. The previous winter had been brutal with snow days and delayed openings piling up at an unprecedented rate. She then elaborated. “Here’s how I can quantify that answer. I always reserved the two weeks prior to the testing for review. That review is crucial for my students especially at that level. Last year I finished the curriculum on the day before the exams. The review period was gone due to the snow days and the scores suffered as a result.”

No one messes with Mother Nature

That awful winter has been replicated in 2013-14. All across the country snow and ice has played havoc with school calendars. In my old district ten days have been cancelled and more than a half-dozen have been truncated. The damage that such disruptions cause is far more than just a finite number of missed classes. One of the most important components of a successful classroom is momentum and nothing stops that more than weather problems. As an illustration due to snow and ice students at my former school had a five-day weekend followed by two days of classes followed by a four-day weekend caused by teacher workdays. After three more days of school another five day weekend followed because of the white stuff. The official count was five snow days (one of the days was a holiday) but the reality count of the losses would be more like three weeks.

The district’s response has been as follows. The President’s Day holiday in February and a teacher workday in April are now school days. Two additional days will be added to the end of the year in June. No other classes will be rescheduled. While on paper such a plan may sound bad, in the classroom it is much worse. Two school days in June (adding to the insanity is that they are a Monday and Tuesday) will do nothing to improve test scores in May. The earlier make-up days will suffer as well. They were originally parts of three-day weekends for students and many families will have planned to use them for travel, doctor appointments, etc. Absenteeism will be disproportionally higher for both students and staff.

And it is inevitable that next year someone will be asking the question as to why scores have gone down.

There are few good options

It would be nice to be able to list some suggestions that would make this dilemma disappear. Years ago (that should probably read “decades ago”) Spring Break and even Saturdays were utilized for making up snow days. Those options do not happen much anymore. Plus local school administrators have no real-time input into make-up day decisions. But there are steps that can be taken to recognize and help mitigate the problems.

Share strategies. Have teachers meet to brainstorm ways to cover the necessary material in reduced time. Often half of the solution is the mere recognition that there is a problem and the other half is to find creative ways to deal with them.

Eliminate disruptions. Any activity that will take students out of classrooms needs to be cancelled. Pep rallies, most field trips, senior pictures, etc. are now a luxury that cannot be sustained. Consider delaying the start of after-school activities to allow more time for extra help sessions. If the student body is given an explanation of why this is being done, they may be more likely to take advantage of it.

Be proactive. While this winter may be an anomaly, weather disruptions will occur in the future. School administrators need to share with district policy makers that the current system is hurting student academic performance. Do not wait until the scores are in to answer the questions as to why they dropped. Let the public know while the memory of all of those missed days is still fresh that end-of-course, AP and IB exams will all suffer when huge expanses of class time is lost and not recovered.

Less than great solutions are better than none.

Carol Dweck on Struggle and Deeper Learning

Students who embrace struggle while learning and solving problems develop skills that others may not. Learn how Expeditionary Learning has incorporated struggle and the growth mindset into their school.

Key Points from the Video:

Growth Mindsets:

  1. relate directly to ‘Deeper Learning’ and Expeditionary Learning
  2. orient the student to a focus on learning not knowing
  3. teach students that taking on challenging tasks helps the brain make new connection and, thus, they get smarter
  4. students embrace challenges because “work hard and get smart”
  5. learn that “easy is a waste of time”
  6. students are proud of tackling and resolving challenging problems
  7. instead of avoiding and covering up mistakes, students embrace them
  8. mistakes motivate and increase student interest
  9. students gain self-confidence by taking on challenges
  10. students develop a sense of purpose and a belief that they can make a difference

See on www.teachingchannel.org

Stop Patching Education!

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle and a forty-year veteran math teacher.

This is the first in a series of rants from a frustrated educational writer.

At the intersection of politics and education the refrain is always the same.

In a recent flurry of solutions for the plight of education in America the potential answers are basically a summary of the usual suspects. The proposals include increasing school choice, incorporating more charter schools, allowing students to “backpack” their federal funding and, of course, more accountability through testing.

The problem with these cures and others of a similar ilk is that they do not address the fundamental problem—creating an educational environment which will produce more appropriate learning and graduates prepared for succeeding in the world of 2020.

The numbers tell the story

The biggest problem in education is waste. This form of mismanagement is not, however, related to the poor utilization of funding. Rather it is the incredible mismanagement of educational time. Foremost among these misguided actions is the totally outdated agrarian calendar that is at the center of virtually every school system in the country.

When looked at from a mathematical viewpoint the manner in which children in the United States attend school is appalling. The vast majority of academic calendars include 180 or so days of instruction spread over a 43-week period. Even a relatively small adjustment to that approach could create significant changes in potential learning. If that number were increased by a very modest 20 days (11%), the additional learning time would be remarkable. Twenty days over eleven years translates into (more…)

Is there a place for boredom in education?

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

In 2014 does all learning have to be entertaining?

In a recent Slate article Konstantin Kakaes, a Schwartz Scholar at the New America Foundation, argues that is not necessarily the case. In response to an editorial in the New York Times Mr. Kakaes, strikes a blow for an occasional dose of tedium in math education:

“This weekend, after American students failed to impress on the international PISA exams, the New York Times editorial board ran a piece asking ‘Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?’ By ‘boring,’ the Times apparently means any math that is substantive in a traditional sense: ‘arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry.’ So let me answer the question: Anyone with an understanding of what math actually is believes it must sometimes be boring.”

Mr. Kakaes does agree with the Times on one point—there is a severe crisis in math education in this country. Unfortunately, he includes that newspaper’s editorial board among the mathematically challenged.

“(The NYT editorial writers) do not appear to understand what mathematics is, how it is used in the sciences, or why it is important. The Times’ solution, ‘a more flexible curriculum,’ is euphemism for (more…)

Do Schools Need a ‘Support Report?’

In a recent article “If Schools Issue Report Cards, Should Students Issue Support Cards?” Kent Pekel of the Search Institute reminds school leaders that “by June, our nation’s elementary and secondary schools will have cumulatively issued more than 100 million of those report cards, each of which will describe and evaluate how well students are meeting the expectations that teachers and schools have set for them.”

Pekel goes on to point out:

“Very few of those students, in contrast, will have the opportunity to describe and evaluate the kind and caliber of support they receive to help them meet those expectations. That imbalance should concern us because studies suggest that young people are most likely to achieve difficult objectives if they experience a mix of both challenge and support. If educators don’t ask how supported young people feel in an organized and ongoing way, they have nothing against which to calibrate the levels of challenge they expect young people to embrace and overcome.”

Here are some key points for school leaders to ponder:

Teacher Effectiveness – The MET Project revealed that (more…)