Teaching and Learning

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…)

More than just numbers

By Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

Perhaps because I am a former math teacher I cannot help myself. Maybe my extensive coaching background is what makes it even more compelling. Regardless of the precise motivator the fundamental conclusion seems so obvious.

Education needs to utilize data analysis more effectively.

Stats are bursting out all over

Data analysis can be a powerful tool for innovation in a multitude of endeavors. It can illuminate the path to better outcomes and accurately affirm success and failure. It is not, however, a static process. In order to maximize its effectiveness constant reevaluation is required. Otherwise conclusions made based on statistics can quickly become inaccurate and irrelevant.

One powerful example of such numerical evolution was evident in the aftermath of the gubernatorial election in Virginia. When the final results had been tabulated several newscasts explained the victory in these terms—the Democrat won the women’s vote by a larger margin than the Republican won the men’s. From there the speculation became focused on what specific issues had caused this “gender gap”.

But a day later another set of numbers presented a significantly different perspective. When one statistician divided the same voters into the category of either “married” or “unmarried” new conclusions emerged. A majority of married men and married women favored the GOP; unmarried men and women did not. Suddenly, because of these numbers the conversation and potential suppositions veered in a very different direction.

Similar numerical adjustments are occurring in the world of sports. A recent article in the Washington Post explained that the Nationals new baseball manager Matt Williams based a large portion of his improvement plan on the introduction of something new to the organization—data analysis. The plan is basic. An individual will be hired who will filter through the statistics provided (more…)

Attendance is a Two Sided Affair

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

This is the second of three posts on student attendance and classroom disruptions from the perspective of the classroom teacher. Part three will address the issue of field trips and attendance.

Sometimes teacher training must take a backseat.

In an excellent three-part series Mel Riddile created a substantial argument for the direct correlation between good attendance and academic success. No teacher would disagree with this premise. 

In one blog Dr. Riddile referenced the various responsibilities required of the states, courts, districts and schools in ensuring that students attend on a regular basis. Another outlined the strategies he employed as a principal which resulted in significant improvements at the school.

An offer that can be refused

Educating requires life-long learning. When speaking to new teachers I would always share one comment. “Every year whether it was my second, twenty-second, thirty-second or fortieth, I was making adjustments to my teaching. It is never a finished product and anyone who thinks they know it all is wrong.” I began my career with ditto machines, trig charts, pointing sticks and a typewriter. Along the way I acquired Xerox machines that would print (more…)

The Hidden Attendance Problems

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

This is the first of three posts on student attendance and classroom disruptions from the perspective of the classroom teacher. Part two will address the issue out-of-school teacher training and the third will discuss field trips.

Some attendance problems are self-inflicted.

In an excellent three-part series Mel Riddile created a substantial argument for the direct correlation between good attendance and academic success. No teacher would disagree with this premise. To this point he began his second article with a quote from my book:

“Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.”

In one blog Dr. Riddile referenced the various responsibilities required of the states, courts, districts and schools in ensuring that students attend on a regular basis. Another outlined the strategies he employed as a principal which resulted in significant improvements at the school.

While every item mentioned was critical to achieving the goal of improved attendance there is another area of major concern that needs to be addressed in much greater detail.

Absenteeism can take many forms

Before continuing a few realities concerning the sanctity of the school day need to be addressed. A stream of distractions, interruptions and diversions to the traditional day are both inevitable and in many cases (more…)

Not the Best Administrative Fix

By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

Creating arbitrary rules is rarely the best solution in education.

Two days into the new school year a former colleague told me of a sad revelation. “Apparently the new thing this year from the administrative staff is a directive that every teacher is to be assigned three preparations.”  She explained that the second-year principal had instructed all department chairs that whenever possible teaching schedules should contain three different subjects. The goal of this exercise was to ensure that the distribution of courses within the faculty would be more equitable.

This is not a totally new approach for achieving this somewhat mysterious objective in the school. Four years earlier the previous principal announced a doctrine to address the same issue. This one stated that every educator should teach “at least one high-level and one low-level course”.

The rationale given in both cases was similar. These requirements were designed to stop inappropriately “rewarding” teachers with more seniority by assigning them the “easy” classes while giving less experienced faculty members the most challenging courses which usually contain the largest number of at-risk students. The most common explanation given is that such “balance” will improve staff morale and instruction especially for the most basic courses.

Unfortunately, such plans are far more likely to increase the problems they are supposed to diminish.

A false sense of equality

When actually enforced such mandates often result in diminished classroom success for both students and teachers.  From the teacher’s perspective, the problems are obvious. While there are a few individuals who prefer multiple preps as an antidote to boredom, they are in the minority. The reality is readily apparent. Creating lesson plans, assessment tools and grading for three different classes is far more time consuming than for two or one. Rare is the teacher who complains of having copious spare time to spend (more…)

Faculty Meetings: Do they add value?

By Mel Riddile

In a recent post, Principal, Peter DeWitt asked, Do I do that enough in our faculty meetings?  He went on to state emphatically that “faculty meetings should mean something!

I started to write a comment, but the comment turned into an article.

Faculty meetings should be teacher-led, and, like student homework assignments, should add value and help to improve and enhance classroom instruction.

Professional learning is a process not an event. Experience taught me that continuing to shift topics with no follow-through only served to frustrate and confuse teachers. Instead, we collectively chose a theme and followed-through on that theme throughout the school year. We built a foundation of quality instruction one brick at a time.

The operative word here is implementation. If a topic is worth taking the time to address in a faculty meeting, it should be worth the time and effort needed to adequately follow-up. In the follow-up process, we learned what was working and which teachers needed additional help. We made use of our “bright spots” to share what worked in their classrooms.

Because we sought to create a culture of shared professional learning and build the capacity of our teachers, our follow-up was not an inspection, but more about reflection. Did we add value? Do we need to address this topic again? To us, it did not matter how long it took to put the learning into practice because, instead of ‘majoring in the minors,’ we only focused on that which we “must” do to raise student achievement.

We asked our teachers for evidence that their students learned and mastered the concepts contained in the day’s lesson. The closure of a lesson called for the teacher to conduct a “practice retrieval” or formative assessment to assess mastery. Teachers used the formative assessment to inform instruction, focus review, and target remediation. If the formative assessment indicated the students did not master the content, the teacher would re-teach the lesson.

Likewise, we looked for evidence that our faculty meeting met the stated outcomes? As principals, we have the advantage of daily contact with our staff and the ability to follow-up.

The decision as to the topic of the next faculty meeting was based on how well our teachers learned, mastered, and applied the concepts from the previous meeting.

In this way, our teachers saw true meaning and value in faculty meetings. Rather than viewing faculty meetings as a disconnected series of  ‘dog-and-pony shows’, our teachers took the teacher-led sessions to heart and understood that there was an expectation that the learning would be applied in the classroom. Because we modeled what we expected from teachers in the faculty meetings, they came to consider the content of these meetings as serious professional learning opportunities.

Yes, we covered fewer topics, but we learned more and we certainly implemented whatever we learned with fidelity.

An Homage to Today’s Educators

By Stuart L. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

I look at my retirement with a blend of joy and sorrow.

I love that the pension provided by my forty years of service allows me to pursue many of my passions. I can now commit hours creating meals, write a book about my experiences as a teacher, spend quality time with family all while bloviating about education on a regular basis in this space. But what saddens me is the knowledge that after leaving the classroom a mere five years ago, in all honesty I would not want to return to the profession that defined and enriched my life.

So many problems; so few solutions

I am in awe of the individuals who occupy the classrooms and administrative wings of schools in 2013. The obstacles that are constantly being placed into their paths are beyond daunting. And yet as another academic year begins, the heroic efforts commence anew. The challenges being faced by today’s educators are diverse. Here is a list (in no particular order) of the reasons I am now content to watch from the sidelines.

A lethal mix of politics and policy

An educational leader I greatly respect told me of a meeting he attended to design educational policy. “There were twenty of us in the room and I was the only person who had ever stood in front of a classroom or led a school. It was amazing to watch an important conversation in which so little hands-on experience was available.” Such situations are neither unique nor isolated. One former national teacher-of-the-year lamented his lack of input during a similar gathering comparing his presence to a piece of the furniture in the room.

The classic example of unrealistic political goals being attached to educational policy was The No Child Left Behind provision requiring a pass rate of 100% by 2014. Only a misguided idealist with (more…)